Prebiotics Vs. Probiotics – What’s the difference?

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By Paige Riley

GSU Intern

Within the past couple of years, there has been a huge increase in awareness and publicity of our gut bacteria (gut microbiome to be exact) and how it influences our health. Recent research now tells us those little microbes that live and thrive in our colons may actually be responsible for several different chronic disease states when the “balance” of good and bad bacteria is compromised. We see all sorts of side effects of this gut dysbiosis, ranging from Crohn’s disease to altered mental status. And as we all know, as soon as something becomes trendy in the eyes of the public, the world finds a way to market it and make a profit. “Want to fix your gut bacteria? Take this probiotic pill! Suffering from irregularity? We have just the right prebiotic and probiotic supplement for you!”

But what does this all mean? Does taking a probiotic actually work? What is a probiotic anyway and how does it differ from a prebiotic?
Probiotics are the live bacteria that live in yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and supplemental pills. Probiotics are often recommended to patients after a round of antibiotics to help “replenish” the good bacteria in their guts. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are specialized plant fibers that feed the good bacteria that already exists and lives in your gut. While probiotics introduce good bacteria into your gut, prebiotics acts as the “fertilizer” to help nourish and reproduce beneficial strains of bacteria that have already taken up residence.
When it comes to supplementation, there is not a lot of evidence that suggests probiotics are actually beneficial for our health. Let’s look at it this way: good and bad bacteria populate our guts at all time. For the most part, when we are in a state of health, the scale of good to bad bacteria is pretty even, maybe even tipped in favor of the good guys. However, when we take antibiotics or deprive our bodies of good nourishing foods, we kill off the good bacteria in our guts and allow more open space for bad bacteria to come in and pitch up a tent.
So in terms of probiotic supplementation, it acts as a water droplet in a bucket that is already full – we have no idea of knowing whether or not that bacteria will make it to your colon after passing the GI tract, and if it does, those bacteria will then have to compete against other bacteria to find a camping space in an already populated campsite if they want to continue to live.
But if we supplement with prebiotics, which could just simply mean eating more fruits, vegetables, and other foods high in fiber, we can feed the already existing beneficial bacteria in our guts and have them reproduce faster than we could ever consume the same amount of probiotic supplment. Also, probiotics can be affected by heat or acids in the body when consumed, whereas prebiotics remain unaltered.
Prebiotic fiber is found in several fruits and vegetables such as apples, bananas (Banatrol for the clinicians out there), onions, garlic, artichokes, chicory root, and legumes. Prebiotics have been shown to be extremely helpful in helping symptoms of chronic digestive disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease. They also provide a wide range of health benefits ranging from strengthened immune systems, better control of weight and appetite, regularity in bowel movements, and even improved mental health with less symptoms of anxiety and depression.

For more information, check out these sources:
– https://www.prebiotin.com/prebiotin-academy/what-are-prebiotics/prebiotics-vs-probiotics/
– https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3859913/
– podcast: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/foods-to-restore-your-intestinal-flora/

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