Probiotics Vs Prebiotics: What’s The Difference?

A Brief History of Probiotics vs Prebiotics

The concept of today’s well-known probiotic is one that began to circulate in the early 1900s, after Nobel laureate and “father of probiotics”, Elie Metchnikoff, started researching whether or not the consumption of microorganisms could promote general health and well-being in the population.

This proposal, which was totally unique at the time, ended up spurring decades of research. In fact, scientists and doctors today are still looking into the ways in which probiotics may be helpful for the overall health and well-being of the human body.

Prebiotics first started on the scientific and health scene as a term for those non-digestible compounds that work to stimulate the growth or activity of bacteria. They were identified in 1995 by Marcel Roberfroid, and like probiotics, help stimulate good bacteria growth. The definition of prebiotics has grown and changed throughout the years; it started as a reference to:

“non-digestible food ingredients that were beneficial to the host through their selective stimulation of specific bacteria within the colon”.

Today, however, the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics has produced a new working definition:

“A substrate that is selectively used by a host microorganism to produce a health benefit”.

The Importance Of Gut Health 

When working towards a healthy diet and for overall well-being, it’s important that the gut and digestive system as a whole isn’t overlooked. As noted by Dr. Ruairi Robertson, the gut is home to what is collectively known as the microbiome (some scientists call this the microbiota).

This microbiome (or microbiota) includes both the good and bad bacteria and other microorganisms that can be found in the human body – and of course, is generally positively affected by the use of probiotics and prebiotics.

These kinds of microorganisms are incredibly important to maintain, given that they support good digestive function. However, there are more than just a few reasons why you may want to ensure gut health, including immune system support, heart health, weight, and more.

Can Probiotics Benefit Me?

It’s thought that without the many intricacies of the gut microbiome, it’d be hard for human life to survive. In fact, babies are exposed to microbes as early as within the womb – we are never without microbes in our daily lives.

Throughout life, as you come into contact with more and more of the outside world, this tiny microbiome starts to grow, getting more and more complex as years go by. This means that the microbiome itself starts gaining different types of bacteria, which is thought to be an overall positive when it comes to gut health.

The microbiome is useful for several functions starting in early life, including but not limited to digesting fiber, helping control immune function, support of the brain, and digesting breast milk.

Clearly, it’s important to keep the gut healthy as you move through life. Without a healthy digestive system, it may be easier for bad bacteria to grow and spread illnesses throughout your system, simply because you don’t have the microbiome support for each of your most important bodily functions.

What Is A Probiotic? 

probiotics for weight loss

In examining the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, it’s important to take a look at today’s definition of the more common of the two: the probiotic.

Probiotics according to the World Health Organization, are:

“live strains of strictly selected microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host”.

These specific bacteria are quite good for you; in fact, though people often associate the word ‘bacteria’ with bad things that cause different diseases, this is not always the case.

In fact, according to WebMD, the human body is actually full of bacteria, both harmful and helpful. Probiotics land in the latter category because of their unique ability to help maintain the function of the digestive system, as well as other bodily systems.

It should be noted that the digestive tract is already the center for a very complex array of bacteria. In fact, it’s thought that there are more bacteria in your intestine right now than there are cells in your entire body.

They are typically bacteria, but there does exist a type of yeast that works similarly to help promote gut health.

These helpful bacteria can be found in certain types of foods such as yogurt, cheeses, and kimchi. The bacteria is often recommended for those who are both looking to promote overall health and looking to support gut health.

How Do Probiotics Work?

Though there has been much in the way of research into the world of probiotics, there is still consistent research required into all of the facets of probiotic usefulness when it comes to the human body.

In fact, as noted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), researchers have been studying the bacteria to evaluate its usefulness in treating several diseases and health problems. These diseases include those such as:

  • The common cold
  • Digestive disorders such as IBS
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis in low birth weight infants
  • Colic in infants
  • Liver disease
  • Tooth decay and periodontal disease
  • Allergies such as eczema or hay fever

Researchers continue to make headway into the world of probiotics as science and technology progress. However, it’s thought that different strains of the bacteria work to support bodily functions in different ways.

As of now, it’s thought that probiotics might help to maintain a complex, healthy community of microorganisms within the body. With the importance of the microbiome in every day life, this is necessary when facing diseases and working against bad bacteria.

Probiotics also work to stabilize the digestive tract against those aforementioned bad bacteria. They may provide a safer environment in which good bacteria can flourish.

Benefits of Probiotics

Probiotic supplements don’t just help maintain levels of good bacteria in the gut. In fact, as noted by MayoClinic, there are several reasons why one may want to consider adding a probiotic to their diet.

Though most consider probiotics to simply help with digestive health, other reasons to take probiotics include such benefits as supporting immune system health, helping with weight management, and the prevention of occasional diarrhea or constipation.

What Is A Prebiotic? 

prebiotic sources

Now that we’ve defined what a probiotic is, it’s time to take a closer look at prebiotics.

According to Authority Health, prebiotics differ from probiotics in that they are not living – they don’t contain any bacteria at all. Rather, they help fuel bacteria. In fact, while probiotics are live bacteria that are created by the process of fermentation, prebiotics are the non-digestible parts of foods.

For example, foods like bananas, onions, garlic, and the skin of apples have certain fibers that go through the small intestine without being digested. So what happens to these fibers when they reach the colon? As they’re not digested, they actually undergo a fermentation process.

This process helps feed beneficial bacteria, such as probiotics, and helps increase the overall number of good bacteria within the system.

A few things to note about the prebiotic that differentiate it from the probiotic include that it isn’t digested by the small intestine, and that it’s used as fuel by colon bacteria.

Two of the most recognized kinds of prebiotic are inulin and oligofructose. It’s thought that inulin has existed in the planet world for several millennia; it is found in over 36,000 different plants, and has therefore been a huge food source for vegetarian animals and people.

Unfortunately, the foods that contain inulin aren’t as easy for us to get our hands on in today’s world. Those foods that do contain inulin include, but are not limited to:

  • Wild yam
  • Agave
  • Jicama
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Leeks
  • Chicory root
  • Bananas
  • Wheat
  • Onions

It’s estimated that most adults have very little soluble fiber in their diets, with 70% coming from wheat products and 30% from onions.

probiotics vs prebiotics

How Do Prebiotics Work?

This soluble fiber is typically used by good bacteria as a fuel. The good bacteria help produce substances that provide nutrients for the cells of the colon. The cycle continues from there; the colon, when healthy, provides the perfect place for these good bacteria to grow.

Benefits of Prebiotics

Prebiotics are particularly useful in helping increase the numbers of good bacteria within the gut, helping promote overall health and well-being. Unlike probiotics, which can have different effects on different users, prebiotics are not affected by such factors as time or stomach acid. Additionally, the fermentation process is more similar between individuals.

Taking Probiotics and Prebiotics Together

While it’s thought that it is not necessary for you to take prebiotics and probiotics together (something that is called microbiome therapy), taking them at the same time may make the probiotic supplements more effective.

According to Healthline, it’s thought that taking the two together can have significant, positive effects on your health. In fact, prebiotics and probiotics may be effective ways to treat diarrhea, allergies, and such digestive issues as IBS. Additionally, the two have been explored in the realm of treating the spread of certain types of cancer.

Side Effects Of Taking Pre- and Probiotics

As noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the use of both prebiotics and probiotics is typically safe for most people who do not have significant health issues. However, there may be some side effects when introducing either of the two into your diet. Some of the most common side effects include:

1. Digestive Issues

Though most people can take prebiotics and probiotics without issue, some may feel a temporary increase in gas or bloating. Others may encounter constipation; these three are generally the most common side effects.

It’s thought that these can be combatted by introducing the probiotics and prebiotics into your diet slowly, and then increasing the dosage over time.

2. Allergic Reactions

Those with specific dietary restrictions or sensitivities may want to consult their medical care provider when determining what kind of probiotics and/or prebiotics to introduce into their diet.

People who are prone to certain allergies, such as dairy, egg or soy, will want to carefully read the labels of their supplements, as they may contain ingredients the could adversely affect the user’s system. Additionally, those who have yeast-related allergies may want to stay away from yeast-based supplements.

3. Increased Risk of Infection

Though the majority of people are safe when taking both pre- and probiotics, when it comes to probiotics in particular, some people may react differently to the bacteria. In fact, in some very rare cases, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream and cause an infection in those who may be more prone to illness.

Those who have immune system-related illnesses or disorders may be presented with a greater risk of infection, as well as those who have been in the hospital for a while or have had a recent surgery. It should be noted, however, that this risk is very low.

In Summation

Both prebiotics and probiotics can be very beneficial to your digestive system, as well as to several of the other highly important functions of your body.

The cardiovascular system, immune system, and even the brain are positively affected when your body has the right conditions to host good bacteria. When this good bacteria grows, your overall health and well-being may increase right alongside it.

The major difference between probiotics and prebiotics lies in the simple fact that probiotics are living, whereas prebiotics are not.

Where probiotics are living bacteria that can benefit your digestive system, prebiotics can help create fuel for those bacteria during the fermentation process. Taking the two together, therefore, may help make your probiotic supplements even more effective, as they will have an ample source of fuel to do their jobs.

Though there are some side effects to taking prebiotics and probiotics, the overall takeaway is that adding these supplements to your diet may greatly help influence your overall health and well-being positively. With consideration to your current diet, the addition of these supplements may help provide your body with the support that it needs to thrive.

If you’d like to find a supplement that would be a good fit for your needs, have a look at our articles below. We’ve done an extensive amount of research to round up the best probiotics in the market:

Probiotics Vs Prebiotics: What’s The Difference?
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Dr Paula Cortinas

MD MgSc.

Paula graduated from medical School of the Universidad Central de Venezuela. She is a qualified gynaecologist and human reproductive biologist. She is currently a professor of gynaecology and oncology (Sociedad de Obstetricia y Ginecología) in Venezuela. You can connect with Dr Paula via Linkedin here.

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