If you’re interested in gut health you’ve probably heard the words pre and probiotics – but what exactly are they, and how can they benefit your digestive wellbeing?
To make sense of prebiotics and probiotics, we first need to take a journey into your gut.
Stretching almost 8 metres in length, your gut is home to an impressive 40 trillion (or so) bacteria. Collectively, these bacteria are known as your microbiome.
The work of your gut bacteria
You probably don’t spend much time thinking about the families of bacteria in your gut, but behind the scenes these guys are busy protecting your health.
One of the most important jobs of gut bacteria is defending against illness. Helpful bacteria lining your gut form a physical barrier, stopping harmful bacteria from invading your inner world. They also turn the fibre you eat into anti-inflammatory compounds, and manufacture B vitamins, which turn food into energy.
Taking care of your ‘biome
Although your microbiome is fairly stable, it’s not immune to change. A lack of fibre and exercise, antibiotic use and even stress levels can all affect the number and types of bacteria in your gut.
This is significant because changes in the microbiome seem to affect the risk of developing different diseases.
For example, scientists think that changes in gut bacteria may be a trigger for IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which can lead to symptoms like gas, bloating and tummy pain.
One thing is clear – taking care of your gut bacteria is important – and this is where pre and probiotics can play a role.
The difference between pre and probiotics
Probiotics are types of live, helpful bacteria – similar to the ones already living your gut.
If consumed in sufficient amounts, they can benefit our health. Probiotics are helpful when our own gut bacteria are under pressure – when travelling, because of a poor diet, or due to antibiotic use.
Probiotics are found in foods (like yoghurt, cheese and fermented foods) and in supplement form. Probiotic supplements vary significantly, with different brands containing different strains and doses of helpful bacteria.
Prebiotics aren’t live bacteria – they’re ingredients which feed your resident bacteria, encouraging them to multiply.
Prebiotics are mostly types of dietary fibre which are found in various foods (like onion, chicory, garlic, asparagus, banana and artichoke). However they can also be taken in a supplement form – fructooligosaccharides and inulin (types of carbohydrate) – are examples of probiotics that you might see listed on a supplement label.
Why both matter
Both pre and probiotics are important because they have different effects on the gut.
As probiotics pass through your digestive system, they interact with various cells, triggering helpful changes. However, they don’t necessarily increase the numbers of good bacteria in your gut on a long-term basis – you can think of them as temporary residents.
Prebiotics on the other hand do encourage the growth of your helpful gut bacteria, by providing them with food.
When consumed together, pre and probiotics have what we call a ‘symbiotic’ effect – they work together to balance the bacteria in your gut.
Including both pre and probiotics in your diet can contribute towards maintaining a beneficial balance of gut bacteria.
However – be aware that some types some types of pre and probiotic foods can trigger gas and bloating (especially in people with IBS), so start with small amounts.
Food or supplement—which is better?
This is down to personal preference – foods are a cheaper source and contain other nutrients aside from pre and probiotics, but supplements may contain higher doses.
Side note: different strains of probiotics have different effects on the gut – and we’re still learning which strains are the most helpful. The best advice is to look for a product with studies that support the benefit you want.
(This article was originally written for Link Nutrition)
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