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What are Prebiotics? Are They the Same as Probiotics?

The subject of probiotics has long focused on how to improve one’s overall health, particularly supporting digestion and the immune system. It’s true that probiotics can help restore balance of gut microflora and keep harmful pathogens from taking over, which is one of the main reasons people take probiotics supplements. Further, many are motivated to take probiotics during and after a course of antibiotic treatment.

One thing that many people don’t know, however, is that probiotics wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the help of prebiotics, specifically in the form of prebiotic fiber. Although prebiotic fiber is found in many foods, supplementing with it gives extra benefit.

Prebiotic Fiber: What It is and How It Works

If you’ve never heard of prebiotic fiber before, you’re not alone. The word “prebiotic” has only been in use for a little over 20 years, but what it represents has existed for centuries. You’ve probably consumed prebiotic fiber in the past 24 hours and didn’t know it. Prebiotic fiber is typically found in fruits and vegetables, as well as starches. Note that unlike typical fiber, however, the prebiotic variety is indigestible, acting instead as a source of energy for beneficial bacteria living in the gut.

What separates prebiotic fiber from normal fiber? Here are three key differences:

1. Prebiotic fiber resists digestion
2. Prebiotic fiber is fermented by microflora within the intestine
3. Prebiotic fiber stimulates the proliferation of “good” intestinal bacteria

The relationship between prebiotics and probiotics is entirely symbiotic in nature. Prebiotic fiber is the primary food source for beneficial microbes that live within the gut, and without prebiotic fiber, your beneficial bacteria cannot grow in numbers. The more prebiotics you can provide for your own natural probiotics, the faster you can bring balance to your microbiome, and enjoy the benefits, such as stronger immunity and smooth digestion.

Differences Between Prebiotics and Probiotics

While prebiotics and probiotics do work together to create a more robust microbiome, there are some significant differences between the two that are worth highlighting. Once you understand the source of each and how they interact, you can begin making effective changes to your diet and lifestyle to help support gut health for many years to come.

Type of Organism

As outlined above, prebiotics are a type of fiber that serve as fuel for the beneficial microflora that lives within the gut. Probiotics are available in the form of supplements, as well as being naturally occurring within certain dairy products and fermented foods. There are numerous different strains of probiotics available on the market, many of which target specific areas of the body to bring balance to the microbiome.

Viability

Another major difference that exists between prebiotics and probiotics is viability. Prebiotics, which are available either as powders or contained within certain foods, are typically very stable and unaffected by factors such as heat, time and extreme cold temperatures. Certain forms of probiotics are also shelf-stable — particularly those that utilize DryCap technology for packaging — but the difference is that probiotics must be kept alive throughout their journey to the gut. If stored improperly, they may be dead before even reaching the fatally acidic environment of the stomach.

Functionality

One of the biggest differentiating factors between prebiotics and probiotics is how each functions. The primary goal of any prebiotic fiber is to nourish beneficial microflora that lives within the gut. A lack of prebiotics in one’s diet, for example, can lead to an obvious disruption in balance within the microbiome. Probiotics, however, work to maintain this balance and fight against harmful and opportunistic organisms that seek to colonize and thrive, which can lead to a host of issues including inflammation and leaky gut. Prebiotic fibers and probiotics work with one another, but their specific functions aren’t at all the same.

Benefits

While prebiotics may be helpful as tools for reducing the severity of symptoms associated with chronic digestive disorders, most research conducted in this area focuses primarily on probiotics. Taking probiotic supplements, especially those that target the intestinal microbiota, can create a sturdy and health-promoting ratio between the good and bad bacteria. Without the assistance of probiotics, balance can easily get thrown off, leading to health issues that can range from leaky gut and IBS to mood swings (partially caused by the gut/brain axis). Prebiotics can play a crucial role in helping probiotics to do their jobs most effectively. Therefore, they truly do work hand-in-hand with one another.

Why Add Prebiotics to Your Diet?

Many people want to take a probiotics supplement to help improve intestinal health. This is a great idea not only for those who have GI health issues, but for anyone who wants to maintain microflora balance. Prebiotics, though, tend to go overlooked and aren’t usually a part of the overall conversation. There are plenty of reasons to consider adding prebiotics to your diet Here are five:

1. Improved Digestion and GI Health

Digestion takes place largely due to the presence of beneficial microflora, which play crucial roles in the proper absorption of essential nutrients. While it’s true that probiotics aid in digestion and promote better overall GI health, they’re stimulated to function by prebiotics. Prebiotics can be viewed as the food and nutrition probiotics need to survive and grow in numbers.

2. Reduced Inflammation

Inflammation can wreak havoc on the body and affects everyone. It not only leads to discomfort, but is also a contributing factor to many diseases. Therefore, anything that can be done to reduce inflammation in the body is advisable. By consuming additional prebiotics in the form of a high-fiber diet, you can work toward achieving and maintaining healthier cholesterol levels as well as many other health benefits.

3. Weight Maintenance

Many people find maintaining a healthy weight to be exceedingly difficult, and this doesn’t typically get any easier with age. One of the key factors in reducing fluctuations in weight is to stick with foods – specifically fiber-containing foods -- that help regulate satiety and provide energy homeostasis. Higher intakes of prebiotic fiber help to reduce production of ghrelin, a hormone that signals the brain that it’s time to eat again. Naturally, the more you can control appetite, the more likely it is that your weight will remain stable. You may even find that weight loss comes easier than in the past.

4. Stronger Bones

Calcium is often considered to be the most important factor in improving bone health and density, but it’s not the only mineral that plays a role. Magnesium and iron, for example, are both indicated in helping to build stronger bones, and if the body isn’t able to properly absorb these and other nutrients, bone health can easily be impacted. Taking prebiotics along with probiotics can help to increase the body’s uptake of calcium, magnesium and iron, making it one of the key factors in promoting stronger bones.

5. Mood Regulation

For those who experience mood swings or irritability, finding a solution can be easier said than done. These and other issues are often caused by hormonal imbalance, as well as imbalances occurring in the gut-brain axis. Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, for example, may be partially caused by microflora imbalance. A combination of prebiotics and probiotics may help alleviate and restore balance to mood state.

Types of Foods Containing Prebiotics

Prebiotics are available in supplement form, which many people like because they don’t have to put much thought into their diet. There are, however, many common foods containing sufficient amounts of prebiotics.

Looking to boost prebiotics in your diet? Start by taking control of what you eat! There are plenty of different types of foods that can help deliver prebiotic fiber to the gut (many of which are kitchen staples), including the following:
- Jerusalem Artichokes
- Legumes
- Bananas
- Asparagus
- Onions
- Leeks
- Garlic
- Dandelions
- Chicory
- Whole Grains
- Jicama
- Apples
- ...and more
        Don’t just assume your probiotics supplement is enough to restore microbiome balance on its own. Add a sufficient amount of prebiotics to your diet to ensure optimal probiotic functionality in the gut.

         

         

         

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