To make sense of prebiotics and probiotics, we first need to take a journey into your gut.
Stretching almost 8 meters in length, your gut is home to an impressive 40 trillion (or so) bacteria. Collectively, these bacteria and the genes that allow them to function in your body are known as your microbiome.
THE WORK OF YOUR GUT MICROBIOTA
Groups of microbes are referred to "microbiota". We have billions of microbes and microbiota clusters living on our skin, in our mouth, and throughout our GI tract. The sets of genes within each microbe, and the way in which they collectively contribute to the health of the host, is called the "microbiome".
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 fiber 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 fiber 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 all aspects of your health, including 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.
We also know that changes to the composition of gut bacteria can lead to changes in your hormone production, mood, and how much energy your body absorbs - which plays a big role in managing your weight.
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 in your gut.
If consumed in sufficient amounts, they can benefit our health. Probiotics are helpful when our own gut bacteria are under pressure – when traveling, because of a poor diet, or due to antibiotic use.
Probiotics are found in foods (like yogurt, 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 fiber 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 – are examples of prebiotics that you might see listed on a supplement label.
When prebiotic fiber is fermented by the bacteria in your large intestine, inaccessible nutrients are converted into absorbable metabolites, mainly short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). The three main SCFAs: butyrate, acetate, and propionate, offer a ton of health benefits like:
Reinforce the gut barrier that protects against leaky gut
Decrease gut inflammation
Builds up our immune response
Release hormones in gut to suppress hunger
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 of pre and probiotic foods can trigger gas and bloating (especially in people with IBS), so start with small amounts.