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More and more, people are enjoying their daily dose of probiotics – and it seems like this trend will continue in the years to come. Global Market Insights predicts that the market size for the probiotic supplement market will increase to around $1 billion by 2023.1 But while probiotics are getting a lot of attention, there hasn’t been as much paid to prebiotics, which also play a huge role in maintaining a balanced gut.

What exactly are probiotics?

Probiotics are active bacteria which live in the stomach, intestines, colon, and many other places throughout the body. Often referred to as “good” or “friendly” bacteria, prebiotics are believed to help regulate digestion and keep other bodily functions working properly.

Though there are hundreds of different species of probiotics, some of the most common are from the Lactobacillus family, including plantaris, rhamnosus, bulgaricus, and acidophilus.
These microorganisms are incubated inside the body, but probiotics can also be introduced through various foods and beverages or via a supplement tablet, capsule, or powder. Side effects associated with probiotics are rare, though it’s always a good idea to consult your physician before starting a regimen of probiotics supplements.2

Probiotics research is revealing more and more ways that these bacteria may positively affect our health. A meta-analysis of studies that was published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2014 revealed that probiotics were effective in treating irritable bowel syndrome as well as its accompanying symptoms of flatulence, bloating, and abdominal pain.3 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition documented the benefits of probiotics on the body’s immune system in 2001.4 There’s even evidence that probiotics might be helpful in preventing certain allergic diseases that occur in children.5 Finally, numerous clinical studies have shown promise in using probiotics to prevent post-surgical bacterial infections.6

How are prebiotics different?

Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are not bacteria, but are actually a type of carbohydrate plant fiber that is not digestible. That’s a good thing, because the function of prebiotics is to nourish and bolster the probiotic microorganisms that already exist inside the large bowel and colon.

Common types of prebiotics include lactulose, lafinose, inulin, and fructo-oligosaccharides. Like probiotics, prebiotics can be ingested by eating certain foods or taking over-the-counter supplements. But prebiotics are more durable than probiotics once they are introduced into the body, because unlike the probiotic bacteria, prebiotics cannot be harmed or killed by heat, cold, or stomach acid.

The purposes of probiotics and prebiotics can be illustrated by envisioning your body as a grassy lawn. If the lawn is discolored, sparse and unhealthy, there are two options for improving it: adding new grass sod into your lawn or fertilizing the existing grass that’s already in your yard. In this example, probiotics can be viewed as the new grass being added to the yard, while prebiotics are represented by the fertilizer product being combined with the existing grass to help it grow and flourish.

Though the amount of prebiotic research studies is smaller than that of probiotics, scientists are already identifying the body-strengthening properties of these hearty carbohydrates. In 2013, the journal Frontiers in Immunology highlighted a Brazilian study which outlined many of the benefits of prebiotics.7 By aiding in the boosting of the immune system, prebiotics show great promise in the treatment of serious medical conditions like Crohn’s disease, colon cancer, and colitis. More broadly, prebiotics have been associated with effective therapies for weight loss in obese patients.8 And other studies reveal a relationship between prebiotics and their use in treating a variety of conditions from constipation to exercise-induced asthma to gynecologic cancer.9 – 11

Probiotics and Prebiotics: Better together

Given all of these health benefits of probiotics and prebiotics, it’s apparent that the best course of action is to incorporate both of these organisms into your lifestyle. (After all, an unhealthy lawn would benefit from both fertilization and fresh grass, right?) The best news is that neither probiotics nor prebiotics negatively interact with medications or each other.

Not surprisingly, the combined effects of probiotics and prebiotics have been shown to improve human health. For instance, research published in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 2011 shows a correlation between probiotic/prebiotic treatment and an improvement in patients suffering from minimal hepatic encephalopathy, a disturbance of the central nervous system caused by liver disease.12 And another study indicates that a diet which contains probiotics and prebiotics may help reduce the severity of celiac disease.13

prebiotics | ActivatedYou

Natural sources of probiotics

Though supplementation is an option, people can increase their intake of probiotics and prebiotics naturally by altering their diets. Here is a partial list of foods that contain probiotics:

  • dark chocolate
  • miso soup
  • yogurt
  • kefir
  • tempeh
  • pickles
  • brine-cured olives
  • sauerkraut
  • kimchi
  • raw goat’s milk cheese

Prebiotics | ActivatedYou

Natural sources of prebiotics

Some foods that contain significant amounts of prebiotics include:

  • onions
  • okra
  • garlic
  • carrots
  • asparagus
  • radishes
  • tomatoes
  • leeks
  • jicamas
  • Jerusalem artichokes

There’s still a lot that scientists don’t know about probiotics and prebiotics, such as which type of “friendly” bacteria affects which disease or condition, the ideal number of these organisms in a person’s gut, or why some probiotics work well for some people but not at all for others. Microbiologists are just now starting to understand the mechanisms utilized by probiotics and prebiotics, and it’s likely that further research in this area will yield new breakthroughs in the future. For now, probiotics and prebiotics are poised to grow in popularity among people who are dedicated to embracing a healthy lifestyle.

For more helpful information, keep reading:

10 Lifestyle Habits Destroying Good Bacteria in Your Body

Why Your Gut Says Yes To Probiotics For Your Baby

Sources:

1. “Probiotics Market Size, Share, Trends – Industry Report 2023”. Gminsights.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
2. “Are Probiotics And Prebiotics Important For Health? – Mayo Clinic”. Mayo Clinic. N.p., 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
3. Ford, Alexander C et al. “Efficacy Of Prebiotics, Probiotics, And Synbiotics In Irritable Bowel Syndrome And Chronic Idiopathic Constipation: Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis”. N.p., 2014. Print.
4. Isolauri, Ericka. “Probiotics: Effects On Immunity1,2,3”. N.p., 2001. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
5. Johannsen, H. and S. L. Prescott. “Practical Prebiotics, Probiotics And Synbiotics For Allergists: How Useful Are They?”. N.p., 2009. Print.
6. Rayes, Nada, Daniel Seehofer, and Peter Neuhaus. “Prebiotics, Probiotics, Synbiotics In Surgery—Are They Only Trendy, Truly Effective Or Even Dangerous?”. N.p., 2009. Print.
7. Vieira, Angélica T., Mauro M. Teixeira, and Flaviano S. Martins. “The Role Of Probiotics And Prebiotics In Inducing Gut Immunity”. N.p., 2013. Print.
8. da Silva ST, et al. “Intestinal Microbiota; Relevance To Obesity And Modulation By Prebiotics And Probiotics. – Pubmed – NCBI”. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
9. Andersson, Henrik. “Health Effects Of Probiotics And Prebiotics A Literature Review On Human Studies”. Tandfonline.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
10. Whiteman, Honor. “Prebiotics Could Help Treat Exercise-Induced Asthma”. Medical News Today. N.p., 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
11. Garcia-Peris, P. “Effect Of Inulin And Fructo-Oligosaccharide On The Prevention Of Acute Radiation Enteritis In Patients With Gynecological Cancer And Impact On Quality-Of-Life: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial”. N.p., 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
12.  Shukla, S. et al. “Meta-Analysis: The Effects Of Gut Flora Modulation Using Prebiotics, Probiotics And Synbiotics On Minimal Hepatic Encephalopathy”. N.p., 2011. Print.
13. “Gut Bacteria Offer New Insights — And Hope — For People With Celiac Disease”. ScienceDaily. N.p., 2010. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

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About the Author

Dr. Edison de Mello

Dr. Edison de Mello is board certified by the American Board of Integrative Medicine and the founder of the world-renowned Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine in Santa Monica, CA.At the Akasha Center, Dr. de Mello has treated thousands of patients using his signature east-meets-west approach, including hollywood celebrities, successful business people, and famous athletes. Dr. de Mello believes that physicians should “meet their patient before meeting their problem” – a belief he puts into practice every day, and a belief we’re proud to bring to every product we create.