What’s The Difference Between “Prebiotics” and “Probiotics”?

What’s The Difference Between “Prebiotics” and “Probiotics”?

Gut health is a hot topic as of late.

Probiotics are one of the most popular health supplements on the market today. They offer people the ability to potentially increase the population of ‘friendly’ bacteria in their gut, thereby improving biological health markers.

The large intestine contains trillions of good bacteria that are integral to immune function and overall well-being [1].

Referred to as the microbiome, these beneficial microbes in your gut help to sustain regular bowel movements, utilize energy from ingested food, and regulate immune response to pathogenic bacteria.

Research also clearly demonstrates the gut’s ability to regulate weight, mood, cognition, and physiological health [2].

There is an indirect link between the central and enteric nervous system, whereby your gut bacteria or ‘microbiota’ influences neural, endocrine, and immune responses [3]. Most scientific studies paint a strong connection between dysbiosis (poor gut health) and central nervous system disorder (anxiety, depression). Of course, there is also a strong correlation between poor gut health and digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

So, how to improve gut health? In the quest to better our internal ecosystem, we turn to probiotics and prebiotics.

But what are they, and what is the difference between the two? Are all probiotics the same? How do prebiotics fuel beneficial bacteria?

What are Probiotics?

The World Health Organization defines probiotics as live “microorganisms which when administered in [sufficient] amounts, can confer a potential health benefit to the host.”

More explicitly, probiotics are considered “good” bacteria that can help improve health. 

Every probiotic strain is unique in that it has a specific purpose within the context of the gut; specific strains are now formulated in supplements for managing certain chronic conditions. These good bacteria can help us better digest food, absorb nutrients, and prevent inflammation or proliferation of harmful bacteria.

Probiotics don’t set up permanent residence in the gut, contrary to popular belief.

Instead, they often do a specific job while supplemented, and then ‘leave’ once supplementation stops. While not everyone needs a probiotic for better gut health, most strains of probiotics offer effective relief for those suffering from bloating, indigestion, IBS, IBD, intestinal ulcers, anxiety, depression, low energy, or brain fog.

Probiotic use is widespread, and probiotics can be found added to food like yogurt, naturally in fermented foods like kimchi/sauerkraut, or in pill form as a supplement. It is important to understand what specific strains might be most beneficial to you.

This means identifying your health problems, perhaps with the help of a naturopath, and then arriving at a unique or targeted treatment plan. 

Those with mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) or anxiety disorder may need to opt for probiotics that specifically prevent histamine production or help to lower it.

For example, those with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth SIBO tend to experience worse symptoms when they supplement with the following types of strains, although this won’t be true for everyone:

  •  Lactobacillus strain probiotics
  • Bifidobacterium strain probiotics

Some examples of histamine lowering (anti-inflammatory) probiotics are the following:

  • Bifidobacterium longum
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum
  • Bifidobacterium breve
  • Bifidobacterium infantis
  • Saccharomyces boulardii
  • Lactobacillus plantarum

What are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics in this sense are a little different, as they can confer lasting changes to the gut microbiota by fueling a more diverse ecosystem.

They are commonly referred to as “food for our gut bacteria.” These are the indigestible parts of food, derived from fiber content, that ferment in the gut and feed beneficial bacterial strains. This is why you might notice probiotics and prebiotics together in the same supplement. This ensures those probiotic strains actually populate the gut and replenish healthy flora. 

In response to prebiotic fibers, good bacteria in our gut then produce short-chain fatty acids, namely butyrate [4]. Butyrate plays an important role in protecting our gut barrier and immune system.

This is crucial for people who may feel as though they have a “leaky gut.”

It has been demonstrated that bacteria can deplete the critically important mucous layer in your gut when not supported with prebiotic fiber and probiotic bacteria [5]. This is your primary line of defense against potentially pathogenic compounds passing from the gut, through junctions, into systemic circulation without your whole body. This is predicted to be one (of many) potential root causes of autoimmune disease [6]. 

Prebiotic fiber can naturally be found in a number of different plant foods, like legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and some fruit. There are also supplemental prebiotics, commonly sold as things like psyllium husk (Metamucil) or hydrolyzed gum.

While most prebiotics are a type of fiber, not all fiber can be classified as a prebiotic! That being said, fiber is incredibly healthy, and everyone should be trying to consume more given that the average fiber intake in North America is so low.

Some examples of foods containing prebiotic fiber are:

  •  Apples, nectarines, peaches, pears
  • Artichoke, garlic, onion, peas, leaks, shallots
  • Oats, barley, rye, millet, quinoa
  •  Kidney beans, black beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans

Conversely, a prebiotic supplement might be labeled as:

  •  Acacia
  • Psyllium Husk
  •  Hydrolyzed Guar Gum
  •  Flaxseed
  • Oat Fiber
  • Apple Fiber
  • Instantized Inulin
  • Green Banana Flour
  • Glucomannan
  • Cellulose
  • Xylooligosaccarides
  • Pectin


So, do you need to supplement with a probiotic or prebiotic to improve your gut health?

Not necessarily.

However, there are very few people who wouldn’t benefit from some sort of digestive supplement – be it in the form of probiotic or prebiotic. Of course, this should be in addition to increasing natural dietary intake through healthy plant foods.

Probiotics and prebiotics can radically improve digestive symptoms such as bloating, indigestion, and acid reflux – along with associated conditions like IBS. They are also extremely safe and well-tolerated. The only circumstances across millions using probiotics, daily, in which negative side effects have been reported are among those with severe auto-immune conditions or HIV [7]. 

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