Probiotic v’s Prebiotic What Are the Differences?

Good bugs, probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics – it all sounds like gobbledygook! Hopefully, this article will clear up some confusion, perhaps.

So what are these bacteria or good bugs in the gut?

Beneficial bacteria in the large intestine are called commensal or symbiotic; they live as part of our healthy body. They make up what is termed the microbiome or the community of microorganisms in our body. While some medical research focuses on developing stronger and more robust antibiotics, there is a whole other field of research going into understanding this symbiotic relationship that we have with bacteria both in and on our bodies and in our environment.

So, then what is a probiotic?

The literal translation of ‘probiotic’ comes from Greek, meaning ‘for life’; it was first coined in the 1960s. However, the current understanding of probiotic and how we use the term today was not established until the 1970s, so that it can be considered in its infancy in terms of current vocabulary. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as ‘live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host’. Essentially, this refers to the consumption of live bacteria and microorganisms in fermented foods or oral supplements to aid with overall health.

Where do I find probiotics?

Those who indulge in commercial television’s glory would have come across many advertisements for probiotics containing good bugs. I tend to suggest that anything with commercial advertising should be cautioned before use. Yes, there are many wonderful probiotic supplements on the market, some in a capsule, some in a powder, and the occasional tablet. At our health centre in Lismore, we stock only high-quality probiotic supplements with therapeutic value.

Probiotic foods can be included in the diet daily, and when you study many ancient healthful cultures, fermented foods have always played a role in the diet. Fermented foods such as natural yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi contain natural probiotics. The fermentation process of making these foods allows for the good bugs, essential for our good health to grow. Eating these fermented foods containing naturally cultured probiotics encourages a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut.

When would I use a probiotic supplement?

For maintenance of good overall, digestive and immune health, it has been known for some time by nature care practitioners, naturopaths and nutritionists that our gut flora or the balance of bacteria in our large intestine plays an integral role. Many factors influence this balance of good bugs in our gut, with foods and pharmaceutical medicines being the most obvious influences. Essentially for good health, it is now understood that we require a multicultural society of bacteria in our gut to maintain good health. Achieving this balance of microorganisms sometimes requires supplementation with what I refer to as ‘pioneer’ bacteria to establish a community of good bugs. 

With their influence on the immune system, digestion and overall health, probiotic supplements are often used after or during any infections, after courses of antibiotics, after surgery, with digestive or mal-absorption issues and many other health issues. I suggest consulting with a whole health professional or a naturopath to discuss your specific health concerns.

What is a prebiotic?

Prebiotic is defined as ‘a non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon’ (phew!). Ok, so in English … a prebiotic is a substance that provides food and nutrition for the good bugs that live in our gut. Prebiotics in food are often polysaccharides or carbohydrates that cannot be broken down fully with digestion (hence the definition as a non-digestible food ingredient). When we think about components of food that cannot be fully broken down, our first inclination may be to think that these parts of food are useless in the diet; however, this is not true for these beneficial nutrients. More than just providing food, prebiotics play an important role in creating a healthier environment or ecosystem of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

So what kinds of food contain these beneficial prebiotics?

As mentioned earlier, the non-digestible carbohydrates of certain foods often have the prebiotic qualities; that being said, any of you reading this may have realised that many prebiotic foods can produce wind in some people; and yes, by wind, I am referring to gas! Some of your best prebiotic foods include Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, garlic, onions, burdock root and asparagus.

Foods such as slippery elm, spirulina and psyllium husks also provide good food for the bacteria in the gut; however, purists will term these foods as synergistic nutrients or as ‘colonic foods’ as they do not contain the specific carbohydrates to encourage good bacteria growth. I suggest that these foods play an important role in feeding the good bugs in our gut and promoting healthy digestion.

Prebiotics and probiotics, clearing up the confusion

It is easy to understand the confusion with prebiotics and probiotics, and sometimes manufacturers of health supplements will use these terms interchangeably. Oh, another term to get confused about is synbiotic (with an ‘n’). Actually, this is simply a product containing both probiotics and prebiotics; many product manufacturers will develop and promote these combination products to aid digestion.

Essentially, a probiotic is a bacteria or microorganism that you consume via fermented food or supplement to recolonise the good bugs in your large intestine. Whereas a prebiotic provides food for these probiotics and good bugs and helps create an environment for them to multiply and confer health benefits to the host or person consuming them. Including a good mix of prebiotic and probiotic foods in the diet and using quality supplements when required can promote good health and vitality.

The information provided in this article is for information purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. We recommend you consult with a GP or other healthcare professional before taking any action based on this article. While the author uses best endeavours to provide accurate and true content, the author makes no guarantees or promises regarding the accuracy, reliability or completeness of the information presented. If you rely on any information provided in this article, you do so at your own risk.

About The Author

Leonie Satori

Naturopath and Herbalist Leonie is passionate about women’s health, especially perimenopause and all that midlife encompasses for women - anxiety, gut health and hormones. Her holistic and down-to-earth approach to well-being incorporates wisdom from traditional healing practices, including Western herbal medicine and Ayurveda plus over a decade of clinical experience. In her free time, you’ll find Leonie bush-walking, gardening and living life slowly.

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