Difference Between Prebiotics & Probiotics: Predator and Prey

The gut is at the center of the human body and plays an integral role in its functions. Inside the gut is a flora of bacteria that are beneficial to digestion. Like living organisms, these microorganisms need to be fed too. Here is where the difference between prebiotics and probiotics lie.

Centuries ago, people would look at you with disgust if you tell them that they have microorganisms inside their bodies. Some questions about how to remove it and the harmful effects would rise and might cause them unrest. 

Needless to say, they would raise an eyebrow about the mere thought of eating living bacteria!

But it’s not the case now. Probiotic food is bought and sought for because of the health benefits. Simply put, these are “good” or “beneficial” bacteria and yeast. An example of this would be the famous Lactobacillus strain. But there are also the Bifidobacterium and Saccharomyces strains.

Did you know that there are around a dozen strains of lactobacillus that are used as probiotics? These live organisms are in certain food like yogurt or even as supplements.

The Gut and Beyond

Some of these bacteria aid in digestion and can synthesize short-chain fatty acids and Vitamin K. They also help in maintaining the integrity of the colon lining which protects the gut from harmful bacteria and fungi. Probiotics also appear to be helpful for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), but the intensity and effective combination of strains and species are still uncertain.

The effect of probiotics goes beyond the gut.

Other studies about probiotics include the improvement in the general health of a person such as the absence from colds, reduced gestational diabetes, and reduced needs for antibiotics. 

Prebiotics are the substances that the bacteria in the gut eat. These are usually carbohydrates and fiber which we, as humans, can’t digest on our own. 

Sounds fun! Feeding two or more with one food!

You are what you eat

What you eat affects the flora of your bacterial gut. Keep in mind that fiber is the preferred food of these probiotics. So, what if you eat fatty, sugary food all the time?

These food choices might cause a decrease in the number of probiotics inside the body. It can then increase the number of harmful bacteria living inside the gut which may displace the native bacteria living in it. After that, the person may acquire new food intolerances. Trust me, it’s not like a superpower. For example, when a person eats vegetables after a long time of fatty diet may feel more bloated or gassy than usual. That or they feel indigestion instead.

Studies about prebiotics are limited. Some suggest that prebiotics help improve calcium absorption and the processing of carbohydrates. It is also beneficial in the growth of gut bacteria.

Probiotics and Prebiotics in your life

The following are some food with probiotics that you can take for a healthy mix of gut bacteria. The first thing you might see is that these are usually fermented and so you might enjoy them if you are a fan of kimchi.

  • Yogurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha Tea
  • Some non-pasteurized pickles
  • Some non-pasteurized pickled vegetables
  • Fermented cheeses

Now if you are curious about what to take to “feed” your probiotics, here are some prebiotic foods. Note that these are mostly fibrous or contains complex carbohydrates:

  • Nuts and Legumes
  • Oats
  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Fruits

You might notice a familiar combination here.

For instance, yogurt topped with fruit bits? It’s common and tasty way to improve your gut flora.

What about pickled vegetables? Some food have both the probiotics and prebiotics mixed in. You just have to know the nature of the food which is fermented and fibrous.

Balance and Variety

Taking probiotic supplements needs a lot of consideration and consultation with your physician. Different brands have an original mix of probiotic strains formula. This means that the effect can vary depending on your microbiome and circumstances.

Having a healthy and balanced diet reduces the need for prebiotics and probiotics. It doesn’t have to be a chore to consider the need for eating these foods unless prescribed by your dietitian or physician. in addition to that, it’s not for everyone. People with Crohn’s Disease and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) should be careful when taking probiotics. The same goes for immunocompromised people. They may feel weaker and can hamper the reduction of their symptoms.

To summarize, prebiotics are complex carbohydrates such as fiber which the beneficial bacteria and yeasts called probiotics eat. These microorganisms are native to the gut, or sometimes induced by taking probiotic food. However, choosing probiotic food doesn’t have to be a conscious choice. As long as a person has a balanced and varied diet of meat, fruits and vegetables, and some occasional fermented food and cheeses, they are good to go. And that is the difference between prebiotics & probiotics.

Nicole Castaneda - RND

Nicole is a professional Nutritionist-Dietitian who advocates for food variation, moderation and the effect of food choices on the body. She loves to write light and easy to understand articles about food and gut health.

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