What is the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics, and What are Some Good Sources of Each?
Though many cultures have been consuming prebiotic and probiotic foods for thousands of years, it’s not until relatively recently that modern science has begun to study and realize the multitude of health benefits that the microorganisms in these foods provide. You may have been hearing a lot about probiotics and prebiotics lately and wondered what the difference was, if any. There is a difference, but they can both work hand in hand to build a healthy digestive and immune system as well as a host of other benefits.
Simply put, probiotics are friendly, live bacteria that, although may have scary looking names like Lactobacillus acidophillus, Saccharomyces boulardii, and Bifidobacterium infantis, can safely be consumed in the following foods:
- Cultured dairy products like yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and aged cheeses
- Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi
- Fermented drinks like kombucha, beer and wine
- Fermented soy and grain products like miso, tempeh and sourdough bread
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are non-living, non-digestible carbohydrates that serve as a food source for probiotics, and thus help set up an environment in the gut that is conducive to allowing the probiotics to thrive. Good sources for prebiotics include the following:
- Foods high in fructooligosaccharides (FOS) like chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, yacon, asparagus, blue agave, bananas and jicama
- Allium plants like garlic, leeks, and onions
Combining both prebiotics and probiotics into the diet is a strategy known as synbiotics, and a May 1999 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that pairing a probiotic with its preferred nutrient (prebiotic) may allow probiotics to stay present in the body longer and thereby represents the most efficient way to maintain all the health benefits they confer.
What Role do Bacteria Play in Our Health?
Our intestines are home to literally billions of bacteria, most are friendly and are responsible for everything from helping our digestive system by improving mineral absorption and obtaining vitamin K from your food, to helping the regulation of hormone production. And since 70 percent of the cells that make up the body’s immune system are located in the wall of the gut, they are also very important in maintaining a strong immune system.
So you can see why it is essential to keep these friendly bacteria flourishing in our body. Moreover, an April 2005 article in FEMS Microbiology Ecology explains that the more we populate our gut with good bacteria, the more we build up a protective shield against harmful bacteria and viruses that cause health problems. For this reason, it is especially important to consume prebiotics and probiotics after taking a course of antibiotics to replace the good bacteria in the flora of the intestines that gets destroyed along with the bad bacteria.
What if I Take Prebiotics Without Probiotics or Vice Versa?
You can take prebiotics without probiotics, however, keep in mind that just taking prebiotics alone would only stimulate the growth of probiotics already in your system and you may be missing out on the benefits of the other friendly bacteria you are lacking. Contrariwise, if you just take probiotics without prebiotics you will not be maximizing the potential benefits of the probiotics as they will not last as long in your system without the food necessary to sustain them. Therefore, if you can, the best strategy is to supply your body with both prebiotics and probiotics to ensure maximum efficacy.
There are many different supplemental forms of prebiotics and probiotics and you can experiment to see which agree with your system best. Be aware that most probiotic supplements require refrigeration to keep them viable, but there are some forms that can be kept at room temperature and are good options to take with you when traveling. However, you should try to get your prebiotics and probiotics from whole food sources, such as those listed above, in your daily diet as much as possible, and take supplemental forms as just an added security.
Here is a sample synbiotic daily diet you can use to supercharge your digestive and immune system:
Meal 1: Glass of kefir with a banana and/or scrambled eggs with kimchi
Meal 2: Mixed green salad with kimchi and/or miso soup with sauteed tempeh and mixed vegetables – Snack: Bottle of kombucha
Meal 3: Chicken sandwich with sauerkraut and aged cheese on sourdough bread
Meal 4: Garlic parmesan salmon with sauteed asparagus and onions, and a glass of red wine
The Bottom Line
Increasing your intake of both probiotics and prebiotics is a great way to build a strong and healthy digestive system. While you can have one without the other, for the best results it is ideal to supply your body with both.
1. “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition”; Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics: Approaches for Modulating the Microbial Ecology of the Gut; M. David Collins and Glenn R. Gibson; May 1999
2. “FEMS Microbiology Ecology”; Modulation of the Microbial Ecology of the Human Colon by Probiotics, Prebiotics and Synbiotics to Enhance Human Health: An Overview of Enabling Science and Potential Applications; Robert A. Rastall, Glenn R. Gibson, Harsharnjit S. Gill, Fransisco Guarner, Todd R. Klaenhammer, Bruno Pot, Gregor Reid, Ian R. Rowland and Mary Ellen Sanders; April 2005