Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: Trust your Gut
One of the most asked questions I get as a Registered Dietitian is what is the difference between probiotics and prebiotics and what are the best sources of each. My response is to trust your gut, listen to your gut, and feed it well. Everything starts with our gut microbiome, and I believe that when our gut is healthy, when we make good food choices that increase our physical and mental health, we can make good intuitive choices as well.
Our gut microbiome – that is the trillions of microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, and viruses that live in our gut- plays a critical role in our health. These microbes are not necessarily bad, they coexist in harmony and interact with cells to keep our bodies functioning properly. Our gut microbiome affects our digestive system and our immune system. And can increase or decrease inflammation depending on what we feed it.
A healthy gut microbiome has probiotics and prebiotics. Both are known for their potential benefits to gut health, but they are actually quite different. In this article, I will outline the differences between prebiotics and probiotics, how they work, and their potential health benefits.
Probiotics are the “good” bacteria – or live cultures – found in our gut, while prebiotics are nutritional compounds found in food that promote the growth of probiotics. In other words, prebiotics is the food that feeds the probiotics, the good bacteria. Together they work to supply us with optimal gut health.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in our digestive tract and play an important role in digestion. Research suggests that probiotics promote the health of the digestive tract lining, help support immunity, and are important in managing inflammation. Fermented foods – that is food that undergoes preservation techniques – may provide probiotics. Foods such as Kimchi, Kombucha (fermented tea), Kefir (fermented dairy beverage), Miso, Sauerkraut, and Yogurt may contain large amounts of probiotics if it specifies “live and active cultures” on the label.
Probiotics work by colonizing the gut and restoring the balance of good bacteria. They have been shown to be effective in treating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
A few suggestions how to add probiotic-rich foods to your diet:
For breakfast, try:
- Sourdough bread
For lunch, try:
- Cottage cheese.
For a snack, try:
- Fermented pickles.
For dinner, try:
- Fermented sauerkraut.
- Miso soup.
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics on the other hand is what feed the probiotics. It is natural, non-digestible food components that proliferate the growth of probiotics in the gut. Prebiotics are naturally found in fiber-rich sources such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Foods that are especially high in prebiotics include artichokes, asparagus, bananas, baked potatoes, chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic, honey, leeks, legumes, onions, as well grains from whole wheat bread and pasta that are high in fiber.
Prebiotics have been shown to Improve digestion, boost the immune system, lower the risk of certain types of cancer, and improve mental health
When working together probiotics and prebiotics help with digestion, counteract the effects of antibiotics, support immunity, and manage inflammatory diseases such as IBD and glucose intolerance.
While most people can get enough prebiotics from a healthy diet that’s high in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, probiotic supplements may help certain individuals. Choosing the right prebiotics and probiotics can be overwhelming, as there are many different types and brands available on the market. When selecting a prebiotic supplement, look for products that contain a variety of prebiotic fibers, such as inulin, Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and Galacto-Oligosaccharides (GOS). When selecting a probiotic supplement, look for products that contain a variety of strains of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Personally, I like to make homemade sauerkraut and kimchi and drink kefir and kombucha whenever I can but I do supplement with additional probiotics supplements after a bout of antibiotics.
Feed your gut well and always trust your gut intuition!