Supplement manufacturers claim that both prebiotics and probiotics can bolster the immune system, help you to lose weight, and even prolong your life. But is that really the case?
And what’s the difference between a probiotic and a prebiotic anyway? While these two terms may sound similar, they’re actually quite different from one another and play separate but important roles in digestive health.
Here’s what you need to know.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that are found in many fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and others. Research shows that probiotics can help with the symptoms of Crohn’s disease and inflammatory-bowel disease, and treat certain food allergies.
Although there are a lot of different types of bacteria with the probiotic label, the majority belong to two groups: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Lactobacillus is most commonly found in yogurt and other fermented foods. It’s useful for combating diarrhea and treating lactose intolerance.
Bifidobacterium is thought to help reduce the symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and similar conditions. Bifidobacteria are found naturally in the large intestine, and help boost immunity, ward off constipation, and fight against bad bacteria in the digestive tract.
On top of that, research shows that bifidobacteria might actually help reduce certain carcinogenic enzymes in the intestines, a positive step in cancer prevention. (1)
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics (or more acurately, prebiotic fiber), is a non-digestible component of plants, including fruits and vegetables like apples, bananas, asparagus, garlic, onions, barley and oats, among others. These fibers are soluble, so they absorb water during digestion.
Prebiotic fiber passes undigested through the small intestine, and by the time it reaches the large intestine it becomes fermented, producing sugars called oligosaccharides that feed beneficial bacteria in the gut. This helps to increase the numbers of good intestinal bacteria, which is linked to a lower risk of certain diseases and improved overall health.
Prebiotic fiber also helps the beneficial bacteria in the gut to produce nutrients such as the short-chain fatty acids acetate, butyrate, and propionate. These nutrients are able to be absorbed into the bloodstream and boost metabolic function. (2)
Benefits of Probiotics Vs. Prebiotics
Numerous studies have shown a wide range of positive benefits from taking probiotics and prebiotics. While additional research is needed, the results so far are very promising.
How Probiotics Improve Health
The positive benefits associated with taking probiotics have been well demonstrated. These include:
- Preventing and treating diarrhea
- Reduces LDL cholesterol
- Lowers blood pressure
- May reduce the risk and severity of certain allergies
- Reduce symptoms of digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease
- Can increase immune function
- Can help with weight loss
- May improve mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, autism, OCD, and memory function (3)
Doctors, nutritionists, and other health professionals also frequently recommend probiotic supplements to those taking antibiotics, since these medications often kill off both harmful and beneficial bacteria alike.
Furthermore, many people can relieve gastrointestinal issues associated with certain prescription drugs by taking probiotics. They can also decrease the growth of bacteria that lead to yeast infections.
Of course, everyone’s body is unique, so it’s important to determine which probiotics might be best for your particular situation. Also, keep in mind that the bacteria found in probiotic supplements are living microorganisms. These bacteria are delicate and are easily destroyed by stomach acid, the passage of time, and exposure to heat.
How Prebiotics Improve Health
Studies have shown that prebiotics help increase the population of friendly bacteria already found in the gut that prevent the occurrence of illness and boost overall health. Upping your intake of prebiotic fiber can:
- Improve digestive health
- Boost the immune system
- Increase bone density
- Encourage regular bowel movements
- Help you lose weight
- Enhance brain function (4)
Additionally, prebiotic fiber is far more resilient than probiotic bacteria, and isn’t negatively impacted by stomach acid, time, or heat exposure. And, since the process of fermentation is pretty much the same from person to person, there’s no guess-work involved when taking it.
When to Take Pre- and Probiotics
So, when should you start taking probiotics and prebiotic supplements? It depends on your current state of health and dietary practices.
If you’re not getting the suggested daily allowance of dietary fiber, you could be opening yourself up for potential health problems. For starters, you’ll be more prone to being constipated – but even worse, it could put you at a greater risk for heart disease.
If this is you, then you should definitely consider increasing your prebiotic fiber intake. While you can easily increase your intake of fiber with prebiotic supplements, that money would be put to better use by purchasing healthy prebiotic foods instead.
You should consider taking probiotic supplements if you’re constantly constipated, have frequent diarrhea, or any other gastrointestinal issues. Be sure to get some input from your doctor or nutritionist first, since he or she may have some recommendations as to what type of probiotics you should be using for your particular issue.
For example, two types of bacteria, Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus casei, are more effective at combating diarrhea compared to other strains. (5)
It’s best to take probiotics and prebiotics on a regular basis. If you’re using both supplements, the easiest option would be to take them together at the same time every day.
Things to Look For on the Label
Stick with a blend of soluble fiber, like psyllium, and an oligosaccharide that has a minimum of 5 grams per serving. The ingredients list may include things like artichoke hearts, chicory root, inulin, or oligosaccharides — but it’s pretty much all the same.
Bottom line: if you’re an otherwise healthy guy who doesn’t have any gastrointestinal issues, you’re definitely better off sticking with healthy fiber-rich foods as opposed to taking supplements. That said, if you think a GI condition or food allergy may behind any digestive issues you may be experiencing, talk to a doctor about what type of pro- or prebiotic you should consider taking.