Have you ever strolled through the pharmacy section of your local grocery store and noticed bottles advertising “probiotics” and “prebiotics?” What exactly are they, and what can they do for me?
Before diving deeper, we must first appreciate the role microorganisms (also called “microbes”) play in our bodies. Microorganisms, commonly referred to as “microbes”, include bacteria and viruses found throughout the human body that reside both internally and externally. While we were raised to fear these organisms as potential sickness-inducers, the truth is there are trillions of “good” microbes within the gut which help digest food, protect us from disease, produce vitamins and more — this collective of “good” microbes is known as the microbiome.
When your gut microbiome becomes disbalanced, your risk for disease increases significantly – this is when probiotics and prebiotics may provide useful support in dealing with certain medical conditions.
What Are Probiotics (Live Microorganisms) Probiotics are living bacteria found in certain food, supplements and beauty products. Probiotics contain organisms similar to those already existing within your body, helping improve digestion by maintaining or increasing good bacteria counts in your system. They may even aid with weight management by supporting metabolic health!
What Are Prebiotics? Prebiotics are nondigestible fibers which act as food for probiotics in your body. By feeding this beneficial bacteria with nutrients from prebiotics, prebiotics help balance out microorganisms within your system while simultaneously providing energy to cells, reducing inflammation, and strengthening immunity as additional potential benefits.
How are prebiotics and probiotics different?
While their names might sound similar, prebiotics and probiotics differ significantly in reality. Probiotics contain living beneficial microorganisms which promote gut health while prebiotics provide food to these microorganisms to grow stronger and thrive in your gut environment.
Can Prebiotics and Probiotics Be Taken Together? You can take probiotics and prebiotics together. In fact, some food like cheese contains both probiotics and prebiotics in equal measure, while certain supplements contain both as well. Supplements may offer higher concentrations of probiotics/prebiotics than food sources – although their cost might exceed buying natural food sources to add prebiotics/probiotics into your diet.
Should You Take Probiotic and Prebiotic Supplements? Research remains divided as to the health benefits of supplementing with probiotic and prebiotic bacteria, although healthy people often rely on these organisms naturally balancing out their microbiome balance in this regard. Furthermore, recent research indicates that too much “good” bacteria could alter diversity within an ecosystem leading to inflammation and other health issues.
Research connecting these conditions and probiotics/prebiotics supplements remains ongoing.
Noting that most supplements are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s wise to consult your HCP and conduct your own research before purchasing any product.
Not all supplements are created equal
Not all probiotics or prebiotics (in supplement or food form) act in an equal manner. This is because different probiotics serve different functions in the body and produce differing results, with lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium being two popular examples; additionally certain prebiotics may facilitate growth of specific microorganisms.
What works for one individual may not benefit another; because microbiomes differ for each person, there’s no one-size-fits-all probiotic or combination probiotic and prebiotic regimen that would best fit.
Editor’s Note: If you are considering supplementation with prebiotics or probiotics for digestion issues, speak to your healthcare provider immediately.