When it comes to gut health, there are terms everyone knows – or, at least, think they know.
We’ve got our eyes on two such tricky tract culprits today: probiotics versus prebiotics. Because let’s face it. You’ve heard of them. You’ve thought of them. You’ve seen commercials for their supplements and food packages carrying their labels smack dab in the center of the health food aisle. You may have strolled curiously past, wondering which is more important, more effective, just plain ole’ better.
It can be tricky to know real health hype from health fad. Add technical, identical-sounding words on top, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for confusion.
We’re settling the probiotic versus prebiotic score once and for all, delving deep into their similarities, their differences, how they work – and what they mean for your digestive health.
So what exactly are probiotics…
Probiotics refer to beneficial bacteria and microorganisms found in foods that confer health benefits to the host (us humans) when eaten. Probiotics help support a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut. The gut is home to millions of bacteria and other microorganisms, i.e. “microbiota” that aid in digestion, nutrient absorption, gut integrity, immunity and nerve interactions that keep your gut processes regular.
Cutting-edge research even shows that having healthy gut microbiota is vital to a well functioning immune system and can influence your overall mood. (Nearly eighty percent of immune tissue is housed in your digestive tract; and there’s a growing body of studies linking prolonged mental and emotional stressors to imbalanced gut microflora and GI disorders, and vice versa.)
Two main strains of probiotics found in foods are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. (Don’t worry, you won’t be quizzed on this later!) Though hundreds of bacteria types fall under the probiotic umbrella, these two are the most common. They each operate as “good” bacteria powerhouses, maintaining an optimal gut environment and keeping out the “bad” bacterial strains. To increase your intake of these probiotics, try adding the following foods to your diet on a regular basis.
- Probiotics are plentiful and naturally occurring in the following:
- Fermented cabbage (kimchi, sauerkraut)
- Sourdough bread
- Fermented pickles
- Cottage cheese
…Now what are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are a type of non-digestible carbohydrate that actually feed bacteria. Specifically, they nourish those “good” gut microorganisms in your intestines, since they’re a fiber-like compound you yourself can’t absorb and convert into energy.
In other words, if probiotics are those friendly neighbors, prebiotics are the all-you-can-eat barbecues that feed them.
Research has long known that there are certain fiber compounds our bodies can’t fully digest for themselves. Yet studies today are keen on exploring how prebiotic fibers fully nurture an optimal gut environment, one that flourishes through a rich, diverse microbiome and leads to less inflammation, higher immune function, and improved stress responses. Prebiotic “fuel” is an exciting lead in this search.
Prebiotics are commonly found in the following:
- Dandelion greens
- Cocoa and cacao
- Bananas (the greener, the better)
- Raw honey
What about supplements?
Probiotic and prebiotic supplements have become all the rage in recent years. Due to the advancements in digestive research, as well as the growing trends in healthy living and diet-based preventative medicine, vitamins and supplements have skyrocketed to a whopping $37-billion dollar industry.
However, supplements are not regulated in the same way as most other pharmaceuticals. They do not need to undergo the same medical trials, patent rules, legal restrictions, and marketing parameters as pharmaceutical drugs. This can lead to the supplement industry seeming a bit like the Wild West, with probiotic and prebiotic pills a glistening health gold rush.
Consult with your doctor if you’re serious about adding in probiotic or prebiotic regimens. As with most vitamins and supplements, it’s best to have expert guidance to be as informed as possible (and before whipping out the credit card).
When prebiotics and probiotics combine
It’s a winning combo. The marriage of prebiotics and probiotics are a powerful way to stimulate a healthy gut environment, one that maximizes nutrient absorption and immune health.
Though science still has a long way to go in understanding the full interactions between prebiotics and probiotics (plus how to optimize them), we know this: A diet balanced in these compounds promotes gut health, and the links between a thriving gut ecosystem and a thriving you becoming stronger each day.
It’s an exciting time in the world of digestive health. With the burgeoning research in probiotics and prebiotics, we have a whole new meaning to the saying “you are what you eat.”
For comprehensive advice on probiotics and prebiotics in your diet, schedule an appointment with our Registered Dietitian by calling 301-288-1319.