You might have heard a lot lately about prebiotics and probiotics. But what are they, and can they deliver health benefits to you and your family? When it comes to prebiotics vs probiotics, is one better than the other?
Let’s take a closer look at how probiotics and prebiotics work, some of the best prebiotic and probiotic foods, and ways you can incorporate more of both into your lifestyle to support your health and well-being.
Probiotics 101 – Benefits of Probiotics
Your gastrointestinal system – specifically, your gastrointestinal tract (also known as your “gut”) – is filled with trillions of microbes. A lot of these bacteria and yeasts are good for you. Others are harmful and can lead to serious health problems.
Now, it’s important good microbes outnumber the bad ones. That’s where probiotics come in.
So, what are probiotics, exactly?
Well, probiotics are viable microorganisms that “exert positive health effects.” They are good bacteria that help to reinforce those already in your gut and they help support your health and well-being.1
The two main sources of natural probiotics are fermented foods and supplements.
Factors That Affect Good Bacteria in the Digestive Tract
Again, it’s important the friendly bacteria in your digestive tract outnumber the bad bacteria. And there are several things that can jeopardize that balance. Antibiotics, for example, are powerful medications that kill bad bacteria. But beware… they kill good gut bacteria as well.
Probiotics, which you get through eating probiotic food or taking supplements, can help ensure you have enough good bacteria to balance out the bad bacteria in your GI tract, especially if you’re taking antibiotics.2
Now, there are many strains of beneficial bacteria, and they deliver many different health benefits, as you’ll learn later.
What Are Prebiotics?
Simply put, prebiotics serve as fuel for probiotics.
When considering probiotics vs prebiotics, remember — prebiotics are “fuel.”
In a nutshell, prebiotics are fibrous materials that your body can’t digest. Instead, they make it to your gut whole, and they serve as a food source for probiotics.3
Like probiotics, there are many sources of natural prebiotics. But you can also find prebiotic supplements. If you choose to use prebiotic supplements, talk to your doctor about the ones that will be best for you to take.
Natural Sources of Prebiotics
One way to get prebiotics in your diet is to include them in the food you eat. That’s surprisingly easy to do because there are a bunch of prebiotic foods you can find at the grocery store.
Artichokes are one kind of natural prebiotic foods you can find in your grocery store. This vegetable is chock full of dietary fiber, but it also contains prebiotic fiber your body can’t digest. However, the good bacteria in your gut can use it for fuel. Artichokes also contain cynarin, a substance your body needs in order to be able to produce bile.4 Bile is very important to proper digestive health because it helps your body absorb nutrients from the food you eat.5
Bananas are another great source of prebiotics. They’re packed with dietary prebiotic fiber for digestive health, and those fibers also serve as a food source for good bacteria.6
→ May help control your appetite and maintain healthy blood sugar levels7
→ Might aid in your weight loss program8
Other Prebiotic Foods
These are just a few other sources of prebiotics you might want to add to your shopping list.
- Garlic – Garlic helps to stimulate the growth of beneficial Bifidobacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.9
- Oats – Oats contain a form of fiber known as beta-glucan, which also helps to support healthy bacteria.10
- Wheat bran – Wheat bran contains arabinoxylan oligosaccharides, another type of fiber that promotes Bifidobacteria growth.11
Different Strains of Natural Probiotics
Now, there are many different strains of natural probiotics. Here are just a few of the more important or well-known strains of probiotics:
Many experts consider L. acidophilus to be the most important – and most beneficial – Lactobacillus strain. It typically colonizes, or multiplies, within your small intestine, helping to strengthen the intestinal wall and aiding in the absorption of nutrients.12
Studies have shown that L. acidophilus can help strengthen your immune system.13
L. fermentum is found naturally in foods such as kimchi and sourdough, and it is another staple in many probiotic supplements. It may also help neutralize harmful bacteria in your gut by producing antioxidants.14
This bacterium has been closely linked to improved vaginal health. Researchers conducting one study found that women who suffered from vaginal discomfort tended to have a lower supply of L. gasseri.15
L. plantarum plays a role in producing hydrogen peroxide, which your body uses to ward off the effects of bad bacteria and other harmful microbes. There is also evidence that L. plantarum may help strengthen the immune system.16
The L. rhamnosus bacterium is another important probiotic that helps protect your digestive system.17 Unlike many other probiotics, L. rhamnosus can withstand the strong stomach acids that will often kill other kinds of good bacteria.18
B. bifidum is one of the first bacterial strains you start to develop as an infant. Eventually, it becomes one of the most populous strains found in your gut. It helps inhibit the growth of harmful pathogens, and it aids the digestive process by breaking down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
B. bifidum is specifically helpful in keeping your system running smoothly while you travel, according to studies.19
The B. longum bacterial strain helps break down carbs and neutralize toxins in your gut. It performs the added function of helping to strengthen your immune system.
One study involving elderly subjects showed that B. longum continued to aid in the improvement of immune system functioning for up to 20 weeks after stopping the use of probiotic supplements.20
You’re born with a certain amount of beneficial bacteria already in your system, including B. infantis. Unfortunately, however, your supply of this important bacterium tends to decline as the years go by. B. infantis is important because this type of good bacteria may help relieve discomfort in people suffering from serious digestive issues.21
The Streptococcus Strain
Now, you probably associate another bacterial strain, the Streptococcus strain, as being bad for your health. While it is true that one member of this strain, Streptococcus pyogenes, causes strep throat, there are beneficial Streptococcus bacteria.
One example is S. salivarius K12. Found primarily in your mouth, this type of good bacteria may actually help reduce the risk of suffering a sore throat.22 There is evidence that S. salivarius K12 may also help alleviate bad breath.23
How Prebiotics and Probiotics Work Together
If you have done any research into prebiotics vs probiotics, the bulk of what you’ve seen probably focuses more on probiotics. But prebiotics and probiotics actually work together to help your overall health.
Now, prebiotics and probiotics work in partnership by helping to bring about positive changes in your gastrointestinal tract.
Together, they help to make sure you have enough good bacteria in your gut – especially the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains mentioned earlier.24
Health Benefits of Prebiotics
When considering prebiotics vs probiotics, it’s important to understand that both can deliver substantial health benefits. Let’s first take a look at the benefits of prebiotics.
1. Immune function – Evidence suggests increasing your prebiotics intake – either through food or prebiotic supplements – may help support your immune system. This is because prebiotics help your body properly absorb nutrients.25
2. Bone health – Since prebiotics help you better absorb nutrients such as iron, calcium, and magnesium, they can also help strengthen your bones. Research shows that increasing your prebiotic intake by as little as eight grams each day can increase the amount of calcium in your body.26
3. Digestive health – When good bacteria digest prebiotic fibers, this leads to the production of butyric acid.27 And butyric acid helps to strengthen the lining of your intestines, and it helps keep bad bacteria out of your gastrointestinal tract.28
Health Benefits of Probiotics
Here are just a few of the ways that probiotics can help improve certain aspects of your health.
1. Digestive discomfort – Research also indicates certain strains of good bacteria could help reduce the gas and bloating associated with some digestive conditions.29 Strains of good bacteria have also shown promise in helping relieve constipation by increasing bowel movements.30
2. Immune function – Like prebiotics, probiotics have also been shown to help support the immune system. Studies show that good bacteria may help give your immune system a boost.31
3. Oral health – Probiotics can help areas other than your gastrointestinal tract. In one study, researchers found that certain strains of good bacteria can help reduce the risk of bad breath and gum issues.32
Sources of Probiotics
So, what foods have probiotics? As it turns out, there are lots of healthy, delicious probiotic foods. Here are just a few of the fermented foods that are high in friendly bacteria.
Sauerkraut comes from the fermentation of cabbage. And it’s the fermentation that puts sauerkraut at the top of the probiotic foods list. This fantastic probiotic food contains a healthy supply of beneficial bacteria.33
You can find sauerkraut in nearly any grocery store. But you’ll want to make sure you buy the non-pasteurized version. The pasteurization process is important because it kills bad bacteria. Unfortunately, it also kills beneficial microbes.
This is a very popular breakfast food in Japan, and it comes in several different colors, including white, yellow, red, and brown. Not only is miso a great source of good bacteria, like the other probiotic foods here, it also contains several important nutrients. These include magnesium, iron, and vitamin K.34
Kimchi is Korea’s version of sauerkraut, with a smell and taste all its own. The longer kimchi ferments, the more good bacteria develop. Kimchi is also high in dietary fiber, which helps keep your digestive system healthy. Just one cup of kimchi will deliver 10 percent of your recommended daily intake of dietary fiber.35
The fiber in probiotic foods such as kimchi also helps reduce the chances that you’ll overeat, since it helps to make sure you feel full after a meal.36
Like kimchi and other probiotic foods, kombucha is also created through the process of fermentation. It’s a tea that is packed with not only good bacteria, but also several types of B vitamins.37
But kombucha delivers even more benefits. It’s an antioxidant, meaning it helps to protect your body from some of the problems associated with oxidation.38Antioxidants, for example, help stop the development of free radicals. These are molecules that can lead to tissue and cell damage.39
How Many Prebiotics and Probiotics Should You Get in Your Diet?
Unfortunately, there is no scientific consensus as to how many prebiotics and probiotics you should get through food. Generally, we recommend getting more than 20 strains and 20 billion CFUs in probiotic supplements each day.
Many people find it easier to take prebiotic supplements and probiotic supplements, rather than try to get their good bacteria through probiotic food alone. Talk to your doctor and see what kinds of prebiotics vs probiotics supplements may be best for your particular health situation. And remember, you’ll likely want to use a combination of prebiotic supplements and probiotic supplements as prebiotic supplements will nourish and nurture the probiotics.
Colony-Forming Units (CFUs)
Probiotic supplements such as tablets, capsules and powders contain a certain amount of colony forming units, or CFUs. The label of the product will list the number of CFUs in each dose. The number of CFUs tells you how much good bacteria you’re getting in each capsule.
There have been many studies conducted to try and determine how many CFUs people need to take each in order to obtain health benefits from probiotic supplements. Most of the studies looked at dosages between 1-20 billion CFUs each day.
Researchers found that children who received 5 billion CFUs each day and adults who received 10 billion CFUs daily tended to see more substantial benefits.40
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics – The Power is in Your Hands
Hopefully, you now see the importance of prebiotics vs probiotics in helping you stay as healthy as possible. There’s really no prebiotics vs probiotics debate – both of them play vital roles in keeping you at your best.
But before you alter your diet to include probiotic foods, or start to take prebiotic supplements or probiotic supplements, talk to your doctor first. They will put together the best plan to make sure you get an ample supply of both prebiotics and probiotics.
Learn More About Good Bacteria:
Increase Your Probiotics’ Healing Power (6 key tips)
Why Your Gut Says a Big Yes To Using Probiotics For Babies
Is Your Gut Bacteria Controlling Your Food Cravings?