What is the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics, Anyway?
These days, it seems like people have been trained to look for probiotic foods. They don't know much about prebiotics and even think that prebiotic might be a misspelling of probiotic. This couldn't be further for the truth. To get right to the point of this post, healthy people and even some unhealthy people might do themselves a favor by focusing on eating more prebiotic food than on consuming more probiotic food. However, probiotics can help people with certain health conditions AND probiotics also contain prebiotics, so they won't hurt you.
These are quick definitions:
Probiotic: To understand probiotic, think "pro-life." These are the helpful bacteria and yeast cultures that form colonies in your gut. They mostly live in your large intestine. In any case, you have several trillion of these little guys in your body, and you need them to help you stay healthy and fit.
Prebiotic: These living creatures are tiny, but you have a lot of them. They have to eat. Prebiotic simply describes the food and nutrients in food that you consume that feed your gut microbes to sustain healthy cultures. For example, you have probably heard that you can't digest fiber, but your gut bacteria can.
Anyway, one of the basic ideas is that healthy populations of these friendly bacteria can crowd out bad microbes to help support the immune system. To put it simply, if your body hosts a lot of good bacteria, there's little room for the bad ones. Besides staving off diseases, they can help eliminate toxins and may help people with certain allergies or who have to live and work in less than ideal environments. Since your gut is in constant communication with your brain, there's evidence to support the idea that healthy guts can alleviate cravings and even improve moods.
Does Eating Probiotic Food Improve Health?
Yes, certain kinds of food may contain active microbes. Some of the most common examples include yogurt with live cultures and fermented dairy products. The quality for these dairy products can vary greatly, so do some research on the kinds of products and brands you plan to buy. Vegan sources include fermented vegetables (think pickles, brine-cured olives, and sauerkraut), miso, tempeh, and apple cider vinegar. If you don't care to purchase these kinds of food often, you can also find probiotic supplements that come in capsules.
While scientific studies have found that consuming certain kinds of probiotics may restore healthy function to people who suffer from certain health conditions, results have been mixed and pretty unimpressive to support the idea that healthy people really benefit from consuming a lot of probiotics. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-probiotics-really-work/) Studies haven't really found that probiotics produce big changes in gut microbes when they study healthy people, mostly because the amount you can consume is a "drop in the bucket."
These are two areas in question for eating probiotics:
- One of the biggest problems is that the strains that some manufacturers may choose for certain products are easy for them to grow but might NOT be the kinds that can survive the trip through the stomach anyway.
- Your healthy gut already hosts trillions of these guys. The average serving of probiotic food might only contain a few hundred million. They aren't likely to make an impact if you're healthy.
Are you taking antibiotics? If so, these kinds of medicine can attack your healthy gut bacteria as well as the infections they're supposed to fight. Scientists do believe it's a good idea to consume probiotics to help relieve unintended consequences of taking antibiotics.
Are you sick or stressed? If you're ill or even under a lot of physical or mental stress, eating these kinds of food may help maintain your health.
Do you have certain chronic health conditions? Scientists also believe that certain kinds of probiotics may help people with certain health conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. They've also been useful in treating pre-term babies without fully functioning immune systems. In cases, like these, consuming probiotics might be good medicine!
TLDR; Consuming probiotic food probably won't hurt you. Many of these kinds of food are also healthy for other reasons too. If you have certain health conditions or at risk for them, probiotics might help you. If you're already healthy, you probably could make better use of your grocery money than by focusing on eating a lot of expensive probiotic food or especially, buying supplements. in other words, eat them if you want to or think you need to.
What About Prebiotics?
Feeding Your Little Helpers
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. If you're relatively healthy, you should already be supporting these big colonies of helpful bacteria in your gut. You might adjust your diet to make sure you feed them. If not, they are in active communication with your brain through the large network of nerves in your gut. If you don't feed them, they may send lots of unpleasant message up to your brain that result in food cravings, fatigue, and so on.
If you keep them content, scientists believe that they can help your digestion and even stave off or remediate such illnesses as Chron's Disease, Type II diabetes, obesity, and some mood disorders. They help remove toxins, so they may help reduce allergy symptoms or prevent allergies from developing. This comes from the U.S. National Institute of Health (https://www.medicinenet.com/probiotics/article.htm#what_are_prebiotics_and_synbiotics).
What Should You Eat to Feed Your Helpful Microbes?
Basically, prebiotics describe some kinds of indigestible fiber that you consume but don't digest in your stomach. You can't digest this fiber, but your friendly gut bacteria can. Resistant starch is another similar nutrient that you don't digest but your gut bacteria do. In any case, you see fiber content on food labels these days. Not all of this fiber will feed your gut bacteria, but if you consume enough fiber every day, you're bound to eat some of what your bacteria craves. If you're not interested in learning about various kinds of gut bacteria, just focus on fiber.
If you eat your share of produce and/or whole grains, you're probably already doing a pretty good job of feeding your helpful gut bacteria. The kinds of food that are already described as probiotics also tend to come naturally packaged in their own prebiotics too because that's how the bacteria stays alive until you consume it. Again, eating probiotics doesn't hurt.
This is a list of examples of the kinds of very common food you might want to choose from for your daily menu every day to make sure you're keeping your microbe colonies contents: (https://drjockers.com/top-33-prebiotic-foods/)
- Raw or cooked onions, raw garlic, sweet potatoes, chicory root, and carrots
- Berries, apples, and bananas (With bananas, greener is better for this use.)
- Dark chocolate, whole grains, honey, seeds, legumes, and ginger
If it's So Easy to Feed Your Gut Microbes, Why Doesn't Everybody Do It?
Yes, you can also buy prebiotic supplements. However, you probably won't need to if you choose some of these common kinds of food every day. The problem is that average Western diets don't include enough produce and other kinds of whole food. Honestly, if you just focus on eating recommended amounts of all kinds of fiber every day, you're bound to improve.
If you subsist on burgers, fries, and sodas, you might get a little help from the thin slice of pickle, but it won't be enough. If you can't avoid fast food, try replacing the fries with a salad. If you're craving those fries, order the salad too, throw out the crappy, processed bun, and stick your burger on top of the salad. Even small changes in your diet can make big changes in your health.
Sources for further illumination:
Picture source: Pixabay
Let's Get Excited About Gut Microbes
Previous, related articles:
Really, focusing on feeding my own gut bacteria has been part of my journey towards a vegan lifestyle. I don't claim to be 100-percent there yet, but I'm 90-percent there and feeling great. Of course, dairy probiotics aren't vegan, but you can make choices that work for you.
Let me know about your experiences in the comments. I typically VOTE on RELEVANT comments. I find most of the people I follow here on my own blog posts too. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you around again on the blockchain for a long time, so let's get those gut bugs fed.