When it comes to health and wellbeing, there are many different subjects to learn about. Overall, it can all become a little confusing!
One of the most prevalent issues in society today is gut health. Many people complain of some kind of stomach disturbance symptom on a regular basis, and some people actually experience these daily. If you are a regular sufferer of a specific digestive system issue, e.g. IBS or inflammatory bowel disease, you won’t need anyone to tell you that excess gas, bloating, stomach aches, diarrhoea and constipation, are no fun.
There are many things you can do to try and eliminate these symptoms, but one of the most common ways these days is to look towards taking a probiotic supplement.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria which live naturally in the gut and some other areas of the body, and they help to balance up the bad bacteria with the effects of the good guys. By doing this, a natural order within the digestive system is achieved, and less symptoms are experienced, if any. These supplements are wide ranging, and because there is no regulation on the health supplement world, companies can market their product to be the best. Of course, you have no idea until you start to take it for yourself whether or not it will work for you. In this case, research and reading reviews is the best way forward.
When you start to learn more about probiotics, you’ll also hear another word – prebiotics.
It’s important to note that probiotics and prebiotics are not the same thing. This guide is going to highlight the differences and tell you why prebiotics are just as vital as their counterpart.
What are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are not types of bacteria, and instead they are a type of fiber, which are non-digestible. Prebiotics are naturally occurring within the body, so by taking a supplement (if you need to and can’t get your intake from your diet), you’re not going to be adding anything false into your lifestyle.
Prebiotics are fiber compounds which are able to move through the first part of the digestive tract without breaking up, and they then move into the large intestine. In this part of the digestive system you will find the probiotics, e.g. either through a supplement or from your diet. Prebiotics therefore help probiotics to work, and when they pass into this part of the gut, they are naturally fermented by the microbes which live in this part of the body. This is what helps a probiotic to be stronger overall and therefore work better.
So, a prebiotic definition is basically that it is non-digestible fiber, required for overall health and wellbeing.
Basically, without a good amount of prebiotic content in your diet (via foods or a supplement), the probiotics will find it harder to do their job. As a result, you’ll find more gut health issues coming your way.
Of course, you will also have other types of fiber in your diet, from food, but these are broken down and digested, whereas prebiotics are not. As regular fiber is digested and it moves through your digestive system, it helps to boost the power of the microbes which live in the gut. These microbes are what eventually ferment the prebiotics, in order to feed the good bacteria.
It sounds complicated, but it’s actually quite simple when you break it down into phases. Put simply, in order to achieve optimal gut health, you need prebiotics in your diet.
What is the Difference Between a Probiotic And a Prebiotic?
This is a very common question, and it’s quite often the case that the two will be confused. It’s important to know the differences, because if you only get a good amount of one and not the other, you’re not going to get the best of the effects potentially coming your way.
Firstly, prebiotics are not alive, they are not bacteria. We’ve already defined that a prebiotic is a fiber which cannot be digested in the normal way. On the other hand, a probiotic is a strain of live bacteria, which lives in the gut and helps with overall gut health, as well as many other health and wellbeing benefits too.
Probiotics do not function well without prebiotics. This is because probiotics need prebiotics – they are the food source of probiotics! One without the other doesn’t promote the best picture of health.
Some probiotic supplements contain a prebiotic within them, but not all do. We’re going to talk in more detail shortly about how to find the ideal supplement, but if you want a joint effort, finding a probiotic with a dose of prebiotics added in is the best choice. You can also opt to get a good amount of prebiotics from your diet, and we’ll talk more about that shortly.
What Are The Benefits of Taking Prebiotics?
Aside from the fact that prebiotics help probiotics to work more effectively, what are the main benefits of actually taking a prebiotic supplement, or ensuring you get enough content from your diet?
- Better Digestion – Prebiotics have been shown to help prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria, and therefore reduce gas and bloating.
- An Immune System Boost – Did you know that around 70% of your immune system is actually found in your stomach/gut? Probiotics are known to help boost the immune system due to this fact, but prebiotics can help by providing food for the probiotics to do their job.
- Helps With Absorption of Nutrients – Probiotics and prebiotics work hand in hand, this is something we’re already aware of. Probiotics help the body to absorb nutrients in a better way, and because probiotics provide food for prebiotics, they also claim part of this benefit.
- Help Probiotics to Work Far Better – Without prebiotics, probiotics cannot do their work as effectively or at all. If you want to reap the major benefits of improving your overall gut health, you need both, otherwise you’re simply getting part of the picture.
Can You Take Prebiotics Separately to Probiotics?
Yes, you can, but it’s probably more common to take both, either in separate supplements, or in one main supplement with both included. If you include both prebiotics and probitiocs in your diet, you will have a better overall picture and greater benefits coming your way. If you simply take prebiotics and don’t have a good probiotic content in your diet, you’re not really getting the best effect.
A situation where a person may only take a prebiotic supplement could be because they get a good amount of probiotic content in their regular diet, but they can’t really get enough prebiotic content. We’re going to talk about the specific foods which contain a high prebiotic content shortly, and you’ll see that there aren’t really that many to choose from. This is the main situation in which someone would opt for a prebiotic supplement and not a probiotic one too.
Are There Any Side Effects of Taking Prebiotics?
There isn’t a huge amount of research to tell us firmly that there are or aren’t side effects to taking prebiotics. What we can say is that it’s a personal picture. Some people report feeling stomach cramps or experiencing excess gas when taking prebiotics, but that could be because they’re taking too much, e.g. they’re getting enough from their diet and then taking a supplement on top of it. This could be because of the release of carbon dioxide which comes from the natural fermentation routine in the stomach, and the by-products which come from it.
If you are taking a prebiotic supplement and you’re noticing this, it’s either that the product isn’t the right one for you, or that you’re getting too much prebiotic content. A chat with your doctor should be enough to give you the right advice.
Because we don’t have solid evidence on whether or not there are specific side effects to taking prebiotics, it’s important to monitor the way you feel. It’s also vital that you speak to your doctor before you start taking any type of supplement, prebiotic or probiotic, to ensure tat you don’t have any contraindications.
Prebiotic Foods to Try
The following foods are known to be high in prebiotics naturally and are therefore a good choice for someone who wants to avoid supplements nd go down the natural route first.
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Artichoke – Jerusalem type is best
- Konjac root, sometimes called ‘elephant yam’
- Burdock root
- Bacon root
- Jicama root
- Wheat bran
There are many foods which have prebiotic benefits, as you can see, but many of them are also a little obscure, or difficult to fit into your regular diet! This is the reason why many people opt to take a supplement instead, or as well as.
It’s easy to incorporate onions, garlic, apples, and even flaxseeds into your diet, but some of the other foods might be more difficult. It might also be the case that you can’t find some of the listed foods in your local supermarket, and as a result you need to purchase more expensive products from health food stores. Not everyone has the money or facility to do this, but supplements are very widely available and far easier to take.
Of course, if you wanted to be completely natural you would also need to pack in the probiotic foods, and whilst yogurt and fermented pickles are easy to do, the list of other probiotic foods is also quite obscure in some ways. Again, this is why so many people opt for supplements.
How to Find The Best Prebiotic Supplement For You
We’ve discussed why people might think about taking a supplement rather than going totally natural, but how do you find the right one for you?
The problem with the health supplement world in all guises is that it isn’t regulated. This means that any company can put a supplement out there and tell you it’s amazing. You need to read reviews and do your homework, but before you even get to that point, it’s vital that you speak to your doctor about taking supplements in general.
We don’t have enough evidence to say yes or not about prebiotic side effects, as we mentioned before, and the same can be said for probiotics. Pregnant woman are advised to wait until after birth before thinking about taking these types of supplements, and the same goes for a woman who is breastfeeding. The reason isn’t because there is hard and fast evidence, it’s because we simply don’t know well enough either way.
If you are told by your doctor that it’s fine for you to take a prebiotic supplement, it’s important that you think about the following:
- Do you want a prebiotic supplement alone, or do you want to opt for a joint probiotic and prebiotic option?
- If you’re going to go for separate supplements, what is the joint cost? And will it work out more expensive overall?
- Brand name – A big brand name might be a little more expensive, but it will give you peace of mind
- How often you take the supplement – Different products have different guidelines, so always read the label and abide by the information given
- The price and pack size – Look at the pack size and the price and see if it works out to be cost effective or not
- Reviews – The single best way to decide whether a prebiotic supplement is worth it or not is to read honest and open reviews and listen to what people are saying. Because the supplement world doesn’t have regulation, this is probably the only way you’re going to find out, without trying it yourself first.
Overall, prebiotics are vital for overall health and well-being. Whether you go for the diet route or the supplement route, that is a personal choice, but either way you’re getting benefit.
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