Your gut, or the gastrointestinal tract that runs from the mouth to the anus, is covered with bacteria and other organisms that create what is called the microbiome or microbiota.
Keeping a good balance of these bacteria – with 300 to 500 different species found in your digestive tract alone – creates a healthy microbiome.
One of the ways to keep your microbiome healthy is to have probiotics and prebiotics in your diet.
Probiotics and Prebiotics: What’s the Difference?
Probiotics are good bacteria found in certain food or supplements that get added directly to your digestive system. However, there are also some naturally occurring probiotics in your intestines, such as a type of yeast called saccharomyces boulardii and bacteria from the bifidobacterium and lactobacillus microorganism families.
The two most common types of probiotics are lactobacillus, which are found in yogurt and fermented food, and bifidobacterium, which are found in dairy products such as fermented and unfermented milk, buttermilk, some soft cheeses, and dairy and non-dairy kefir.
Probiotic foods also include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and some types of pickled vegetables that are not pasteurized, as the process kills bacteria found in them. They are also found in soy drinks and miso.
Meanwhile, prebiotics are found in many fiber-rich fruits and vegetables that serve as food for the good bacteria. These include oats, barley, rye, and wheat, legumes, bananas, apples, berries, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, and dandelion greens.
Prebiotic foods are best consumed raw instead of cooked as their fiber content may change when cooked.
Benefits of Probiotics
Having enough probiotics in your body can prevent the bad effects of an overgrowth of bad bacteria. In general, their benefits include:
Probiotics help break down indigestible fibers that can cause bloating and gas pain. Probiotics are also known to help deal with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder that causes constipation, diarrhea, cramps, bloating, and other symptoms.
Stronger immune system
About 70% of your body’s immune system can be found in your gut. Certain probiotics spur the production of natural antibodies, including T cells and Immunoglobulin A. They are also known to reduce recurrent urinary tract infection.
Replacement of “good bacteria” that is lost during antibiotic intake
According to some studies, probiotics can help prevent diarrhea resulting from taking antibiotics. But since new research found that probiotics can delay the normalcy in your gut’s microbiome, it will be best to consult a doctor if you plan to take it while or after your round of antibiotics. They are typically not recommended for people who have very low immune function, serious medical conditions, or severe infections.
Reduced risk to atopic dermatitis
Several trials conducted in 2018 showed that probiotics could reduce the risk of atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, in children if mothers take them during pregnancy until shortly after giving birth.
Lower blood pressure
Probiotics can help lower high blood pressure through certain chemicals produced by gut bacteria, based on research at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
A study showed that lactobacilli brought down low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol and total cholesterol. Probiotics do this through any of the following ways: by binding themselves with the cholesterol so they won’t be absorbed by the body, by producing bile acids that help metabolize cholesterol, or by producing short-chain fatty acids, preventing the liver from forming cholesterol.
Some probiotics prevent the intestines from absorbing fats that normally get absorbed by the body. They are known to facilitate the release of the hormone glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which helps reduce our appetite besides burning fat and calories.
Good mood and brain functioning
Your gut has a special relationship with your brain. The brain and gut communicate with each other mainly through the vagus nerve that connects the brain and your intestine. The brain is able to control food absorption, the ability to move fluids around (motility), and intestinal secretions. Meanwhile, your gut produces neurotransmitters such as serotonin and gammaAminobutyric acid, also more commonly referred to as GABA, both of which affect our mood. Alzheimer’s patients who joined a study in 2016 about the effects of probiotics on cognitive functions showed that participants who had probiotic-formulated milk got higher scores than those who consumed regular milk.
Benefits of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are like fertilizers that encourage the growth of good bacteria in your gut. Unlike most probiotics, prebiotics aren’t digested in the small intestine and stomach. When they reach your colon, that’s where they are fermented by probiotic bacteria for food. In the process, the prebiotics are turned into short-chain fatty acids, such as butyrate, propionate, and acetate.
Healthy immune system
Just like probiotics, prebiotics also strengthen the immune system because they feed or restore the good bacteria in your body. They also stimulate what is considered the largest immunity organ in our body, the gut-associated lymphoid tissue.
Prebiotics make it easier for your body to absorb vitamins and nutrients, including calcium. Fructan prebiotics promote the absorption of calcium and magnesium, both of which are healthy for your bones. Using probiotics to boost bone formation is also being studied further by researchers, who have discovered its positive effect in mice.
Colorectal cancer prevention
When combined with probiotics, prebiotics help prevent the progression of colorectal cancer, according to a recent University of Luxembourg study. Short-chain fatty acids produced by prebiotics are seen to play a role in modifying the activity or composition of colorectal microflora that stop cancer from worsening.
Results of a new study by University of Colorado scientists showed that prebiotics help improve sleep by stabilizing the body’s blood sugar and energy sources, which can fluctuate at night, disturbing sleep.
Possible Side Effects of Probiotics and Prebiotics
Although probiotics have plenty of benefits, taking supplements may temporarily increase bloating and gas. You can start with a low dose and gradually increase so your body can adjust to them.
Taking probiotics is also not advisable if you have Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease characterized by inflammation of the digestive tract.
Probiotic food like kimchi, yogurt, and sauerkraut have biogenic amines (such as histamine, phenylethylamine, tryptamine, and tyramine), which may trigger headaches if you are sensitive to such substances.
As with probiotics, you may experience stomach discomfort, gas, and bloating as your digestive system adjusts to prebiotics. They are therefore not advisable for people with gastrointestinal disorders.
Consult a Doctor Before Taking Supplements
Getting a doctor’s advice is still best when determining whether to take prebiotic or probiotic supplements and which type of supplement to choose.
Supplements come in powder and liquid forms as well as pills and capsules.
As mentioned earlier, probiotics aren’t recommended if you have a very weak immune system. They are also not advisable if you have just undergone surgery, long hospitalization, and venous catheter use.
As with taking probiotic supplements, prebiotic pills should be started slowly, about once daily. If you feel bloated or you pass gas often, reduce your dose by half.
Although the World Gastroenterology Organization has recommended doses for supplements depending on one’s purpose, it strongly advises the public to consult a medical professional for the specific bacterial strain, dosage, and length of use of such products.
The dosage of probiotics is expressed as colony-forming units or CFU, indicating the number of live and viable bacteria that a product contains.
Most products on the market range from 50-100 CFU. However, doctors say that 10-15 billion CFU daily is enough for daily digestive and immune support, adding higher doses would be more appropriate for individuals with extreme gastrointestinal dysfunction or dysbiosis. Specialists advise selecting enteric coated capsules, which can withstand stomach acid.
Take your probiotic supplements before meals, when the environment inside your stomach is the least acidic. This makes it easier for the probiotics to flow through your gut.
Meanwhile, the recommended dosage for prebiotic supplements is four to five grams daily. The best products contain real prebiotics, not just compounds with prebiotic-like effects.
Prebiotics and Probiotics: A Healthy Symbiosis
You can take prebiotic and probiotic supplements at the same time. In fact, there are some supplements that have both prebiotics and probiotics. These synbiotics, as they are called, contain plant-based prebiotic fibers plus strains of probiotic bacteria.
Synbiotic supplements usually contain 500 to 1,500 milligrams of prebiotics and 1 to 10 billion CFU of probiotics. Choose supplements with live and active cultures with a plant-based fiber and good amount of diverse probiotic strain.
Since probiotics need prebiotics to prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria, referred to as candida, your regular diet should include foods that are rich in both for “synbiotic therapy.” For instance, you can use kefir instead of regular milk for your oats or combine onions, garlic, asparagus, and tempeh with other vegetables.
To support the combined effort of your probiotics and prebiotics, also do your best to minimize drinking alcohol and products with refined sugars, which can also feed bad bacteria. Indeed, you are what you eat. Keep yourself healthy by taking care of your gut!