Prebiotics vs. Probiotics – What is the difference?

Whenever there’s a discussion about gut health, two words get thrown around a lot: prebiotics and probiotics. But what’s essentially the difference between the two? We dive deeper into the distinction between prebiotics and probiotics.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain large quantities of the bacteria already in your gut, offering numerous health benefits.

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are foods that contain substances that nurture the bacteria in your gut, but that humans cannot digest. The vast majority of prebiotics in the diet come from fiber-containing plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.

The fiber travels through the gastrointestinal tract unaltered before arriving in the large intestine. Once it gets there, it provides a feast for the many species of microbes that live there, promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Prebiotics vs Probiotics: Which Is Better?

As both perform vastly different functions, one can’t essentially compare the two and hence claim that one is is better than the other. For healthy gut function, it is ideal if both are taken to take both simultaneously.

Many researchers believe that both are important when it comes to treating digestive health issues such as Crohn’s disease, bloating, leaky gut, and irritable bowel syndrome.

The Most Common Forms Of Probiotic

Eating live bacteria to aid gut health is something that people have been doing for thousands of years, ever since the invention of foods like and yogurt. Historically, these foods would have formed a small part of the diet and were a kind of supplement that went alongside traditional foods.

Before the germ theory of disease arrived in the nineteenth century, people did not know precisely what it was that they were eating, but now we do.

There are two main types of probiotics:

  • Lactobacillus. Lactobacillus acidophilus and lactobacillus rhamnosus are the most common forms of probiotics found in both dairy and fermented foods. They may be beneficial for people who have trouble digesting the milk sugar, lactose. 
  • Bifidobacterium. Another type of bacteria found in many milk products, bifidobacterium, may be able to fight chronic bowel conditions, like irritable bowel, by fending off the growth of harmful bacteria.

The Benefits Of Probiotics

The goal of these products is to deliver a meaningful bacterial load to the large intestine that will adjust the overall makeup of bacteria and undo the effects of a poor diet. Researchers have found that many probiotic supplements are viable, meaning that the bacteria that they contain remain active as they reach the colon. Furthermore, the quantities of bacteria in probiotics are sufficient to facilitate overall change gut microbiota. Popping a pill or having a serving of fermented food can make a big difference to the level of friendly bacteria.

Second, there is a belief among some researchers that probiotics may be helpful to people with certain conditions, such as leaky gut. Probiotics may foster an environment that restores the delicate lining of the gastrointestinal tract, reducing systemic inflammation. While scientists work on better delivery methods, it is clear from the available evidence that probiotics are having an impact.

The Promise Of Prebiotics

Prebiotics are another route to improving both gut and overall health. Many researchers believe that the current epidemic of illnesses that affect the digestive tract have their roots in the bacterial composition of the gut, sometimes called a person’s “enterotype.” People with good enterotype usually have healthy strains living in their colons, while those with poor enterotypes do not.

But where do harmful bacteria compositions come from? The evidence suggests that the balance of the gut relates heavily to diet. Research shows that when people eat diets high in sugar and meat, their enterotype changes for the worse, but if they focus their diets around whole, fiber-containing plant foods, it gets better. Dietary fiber reaches the large intestine, provides sources of food, such as inulin to microorganisms, which then allows them to grow and multiply.

Prebiotics have profound benefits that probiotics do not. Prebiotics, for instance, help people to form large stools, something that may alleviate the bloating, pain, and diarrhea associated with irritable bowel diseases. When dietary fiber arrives in the colon, microorganisms begin feasting on it, bulking up stools and making them softer and more comfortable to pass. Bulkier stools then lead to less straining on the toilet, which, in turn, reduces the chances that a person will develop hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and diverticular along the length of the colon.

Prebiotics may also have another beneficial impact on the body: increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids that reduce inflammation. Friendly bacteria feed on fiber and produce these beneficial compounds that improve digestion, insulin sensitivity, and other metabolic processes. This effect may allow prebiotic sources to encourage nutrient absorption through the intestinal lining.

Finally, prebiotics may help people to create healthy microbiomes that allow them to absorb fewer calories from the food that they eat. Research indicates that fostering a healthy gut environment allows bacteria to gobble up some calories before they lead to weight gain.

Prebiotic Supplements

While probiotic supplements are the most common, there is now a market for prebiotic supplements (Hello Gut Prep!) – capsules that provide fiber found in everyday foods such as inulin or fructooligosaccharides (FOS). Most supplements use fiber from plants like chicory because it both nourishes the beneficial bacteria and inhibits the bad kind.

Importantly, prebiotic supplements are different from probiotics. Unlike the latter, they do not contain any live bacteria. When you take a prebiotic, you are consuming substances designed to foster the growth of healthy bacteria.

Natural Sources Of Prebiotics

You can also find sources of prebiotics in foods high in fiber. People who move to a gut-friendly diet usually emphasize the following food sources:

  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Legumes (peas, chickpeas, beans, and lentils)
  • Whole grains (particularly wheat berries, spelt berries, and pearl barley)
  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Prunes
  • Onions 
  • Leeks
  • Dates
  • Garlic
  • Dandelion
  • Yacon root

These foods are shown to increase the production of the short-chain fatty acid, butyrate, which has numerous anti-inflammatory effects in the colon. They may alter the gene expression of bacteria in the gut, providing additional benefits to the body.

Why Do People Need More Prebiotics?

While probiotics are often a helpful supplement for many people, prebiotics maybe even more potent. Probiotics deliver good bacteria to the right location in the large or small intestine, but if there is nothing for them to eat when they get there, they will die out. Prebiotics, on the other hand, provide food that allows for the creation of a sustainable colony of healthy bacteria that won’t revert to an unhealthy type over time. Jetson’s prebiotic Gut Prep is a great addition to your first month of taking probiotics to provide a source of ‘food’ for the healthy bacteria you’re adding to your diet.

The need for prebiotics today is higher than ever. Researchers believe that antibiotic use early in life could permanently adjust the composition of the gut microbiome, putting people at higher risk of certain diseases. Conditions include urinary tract infections and inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s. The best probiotics after antibiotics can help to prevent these conditions.

For many people, the modern high-fat diet is problematic too. Overgrowth of bad bacteria leads some people to develop chronic cramping, gas, and diarrhea. The best solution is to change the diet and supplement with products that provide more nutrition for the good bacteria in the gut.

Let’s wrap it up

So the next time you’re wondering what’s better, prebiotics or probiotics, remember this: prebiotics and probiotics are two fundamentally different things. The former is food for the bacteria in your gut, usually fiber, while the latter is the bacteria itself, delivered in live form.

Probiotics manufacturers use a fermentation process to create large numbers of viable bacteria that people then consume in an attempt to change their gut microbiota for the better.

While the benefits of probiotics are well documented, those of prebiotics maybe even better. Providing fiber-containing foods and supplements to good bacteria that live in the gut may improve skin, metabolic, gut, and overall health.

You may also like...