Ask a Nutritionist: What is the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?
Probiotics have been all the rage in both the health and wellness space, as well as mainstream media in the last number of years.
While probiotics are important, and definitely have a time and place where they can be really supportive for your gut health, mental health, immune system, skin, and more, prebiotics are arguably even more important.
Today I am going to break down both prebiotics and probiotics and cover:
The difference between prebiotics and probiotics
Food sources of both prebiotics and probiotics
Supplement options for both prebiotics and probiotics
What is a Prebiotic?
Prebiotics are dietary fibres and polyphenols that feed the good bacteria in your gut. As long as you are eating 6 cups per day of veg and fruit and getting good plant diversity (aim for 30 different plants each week!), you will be feeding your microbiome.
Certain foods, though, are extra beneficial for feeding good bacteria.
When these good bacteria feed on prebiotic foods, they create something called "postbiotics," a byproduct of the fermentation process. These healing substances, called short-chain fatty acids (or SCFA's for short). SCFA's are an important part of keeping the intestinal lining healthy and have anti-inflammatory effects both in the gut and throughout the entire body. To make short chain fatty acids your gut bacteria transform dietary fibers, starches, and carbohydrates into Butyrate, Propionate and Acetate, which are SCFAs.
What is a Probiotic?
"Probiotics" refer to actual microorganisms that can be taken via supplementation, or found in certain foods that are fermented. For a microbe to be called a probiotic, it has to have the following characteristics:
Can be isolated from a human
Survives in your intestine after being eaten
Benefits you in proven ways
Is safely consumed
While probiotics aren't necessary or even beneficial for everyone (it's really important to ensure you're getting enough prebiotics to feed the good microbes), they do have a time and place, so keep reading!
The following are prebiotic foods that are extra-supportive for your gut bugs. Try to incorporate these into your daily nutrition:
Jerusalem artichokes (aka. Sunchokes): High in inulin, a soluble fibre that feeds good bacteria in the colon and strengthens the immune system.
Garlic: Increases bifidobacteria species growth while decreasing growth of bad bacteria.
Onions: Rich in FOS which feeds good bacteria and boosts your immune system by increasing nitric oxide production in cells.
Leeks: Same family as onions and garlic with similar benefits.
Asparagus: High in inulin as well as antioxidants.
Green bananas: High in resistant starch, which has prebiotic effects, and is lower glycemic than the sugar in ripe bananas. As they ripen this resistant starch converts to sugar.
Oats: Contain large amounts of beta-glucan fiber, as well as some resistant starch which both feed good bacteria.
Apples: High in pectin which increases butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that feeds beneficial gut bacteria and decreases the population of harmful bacteria, strengthens gut lining and reduces “Leaky Gut.”
Cacao: Rich in polyphenol compounds that help grow beneficial gut bacteria while reducing the growth of harmful bacteria.
Flax seeds: The fiber in flaxseeds promotes healthy gut bacteria, encourages regular bowel movements, and reduces the amount of dietary fat you digest and absorb.
Some foods contain high amounts of beneficial bacteria themselves, so while you are working on feeding the good guys through prebiotic foods, you can also bring more of them around for extra benefit:
Yogurt: When buying yogurt, look for organic, grass-fed varieties that are made from goat’s or sheep’s milk or non-dairy with only coconut milk and bacterial cultures.
Kefir: Similar to yogurt, can be made with dairy or non-dairy milk. Tends to contain higher levels and diversity of bacteria. Contains little to no lactose in the final product, even when dairy is used.
Sauerkraut: High in vitamin C and digestive enzymes. It’s also a good source of natural lactic acid bacteria, such as lactobacillus.
Kombucha: Fermented tea. Most commercial products are high in sugar. Fermented with yeast so not great for people prone to yeast overgrowth.
Kimchi: Kimchi is a cousin to sauerkraut and is the Korean take on cultured veggies. It’s created by mixing a main ingredient, such as Chinese cabbage, with a number of other foods and spices, like red pepper flakes, radishes, carrots, garlic, ginger, onion, sea salt and fish sauce.
Getting prebiotics from food is the ideal situation. When your diet is optimized, there should be no need for prebiotic supplementation. However, certain prebiotic supplements can be helpful in some situations. That being said, prebiotic supplements never replace the whole food sources of these beneficial fibres!
Here are some ingredients to look for in a prebiotic supplement:
Green banana powder
Fruit and veggies (ie. Reds and Greens powders)
There are so many probiotic formulas, finding the right one for you can be confusing.
Not everyone is going to need a probiotic, though! Including prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet is a great place to start and a great place to end, using probiotic supplements therapeutically as needed.
When you’re looking at probiotics, their names tell you the genus, species and strain as well as how much of each strain the formula contains. For example, you might see Lactobacillus rhamnosus A119 12 billion CFU
CFU: 12 billion (at the time of expiry)
If the probiotic does not contain this information, it’s usually not a quality supplement.
Times when you may need a probiotic:
For extra support while you are increasing your good bacteria
To help reduce growth of bacteria, yeast, and parasites
During and after antibiotic treatment
For extra support when travelling
Types of Probiotic Formulas
There are more than one type of probiotics to supplement with. The following are three:
1. Multistrain Probiotics
Blend of multiple probiotics
Usually a combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species
Varying strengths from 2 billion CFU to 100+ billion CFU
May or may not need to be refrigerated
Multistrain probiotics are helpful for: Comprehensive support during/after antibiotics and when the microbiome needs more support for good bacteria. General digestion and GI support.
2. Saccharomyces boulardii Probiotics
Contain S. boulardii strains only
Usually not high CFU
May or may not need to be refrigerated
Sacchromyces Boulardii is helpful for: Diarrhea, parasites, H. pylori, IBD, candida, SIBO, low SIgA.
3. Spore Based Probiotics
Also called soil-based organisms
Remain dormant until needed
Can colonize the gut
Spore Based Probiotics are helpful for: Leaky Gut, SIBO, antioxidant support.
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