Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Prebiotics And Probiotics
Talking about our gut health is very much in vogue in the wellness space, but we have to admit something kind of embarrassing: we’ve lived this long not actually knowing the differences between prebiotics and probiotics. (Maybe you’re with us here?) We knew they’re both vital to the happiness of our digestive systems, but that’s about it. So naturally, we educated ourselves — and now we’ll fill you in on what we learned.
What is a probiotic?
Probiotics are what people refer to as the “good” bacteria in your digestive system that keep your gut healthy. They have the ability to control the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi, which can lead to significant health problems if not regulated by the good guys.
The two most common probiotic families you should concern yourself with are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Most over-the-counter probiotic supplements will include one or both of these types. And if getting your nutrition from your food is more your thing, fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and yogurt are probiotic powerhouses, too.
What is a prebiotic?
This may come as a shock to you, but prebiotics actually contain zero bacteria. Instead, they are the food the good bacteria in your body needs to eat in order to thrive. They are carbohydrates — a type of dietary fiber, to be more specific — that your gut can’t typically digest on its own, thus leaving it for the wonderful little probiotic bacteria to get the job done for it.
When it comes to prebiotic food sources, inulin (a particular type of insoluble dietary fiber) reigns supreme, and it can be found in things like bananas and asparagus. Other quality prebiotic sources, thanks to their fiber content, include onions, garlic, artichokes, oats and legumes. There are plenty of OTC prebiotic supplements available on the market as well.
When your prebiotic and probiotic intake is high…
Your system can function like the well-oiled machine it wants to be. Your immune system stays in tip-top shape, inflammation in the body’s various tissues can remain low, and your body can be more efficient in producing short-chain fatty acids, which keep the cells lining the colon healthy and cancer-resistant.
When your diet sucks…
You can negate the positive effects of the prebiotics and probiotics you do end up consuming by eating a diet too high in sugar and too high in fat. These things actually encourage the bad bacteria to flourish, making it harder for probiotics to do their job and keep them under control. And the more consistently you eat shitty foods, the quicker your digestive system will let those bad bacteria colonize and continue to grow.
Do you need to take both prebiotics and probiotics in supplement form?
Just like with most nutrients, the answer is no if you have a consistently healthy, balanced diet. However, that isn’t the case for the bulk of Americans, so it’s worth taking an honest look at your diet and assessing how many probiotic-rich foods you consume weekly, as well as how many fibrous foods you eat to serve as fuel for those probiotics. If your diet is low in one or the other — or both — supplements could be useful. Just do your research because a lot of different probiotic supplements contain a lot of different bacteria strains in them, some of which are better for you than others. The quality of the supplements can vary drastically as well.
Can you take them together?
Definitely! Some foods are even what you would call symbiotic, meaning they include both the probiotic bacteria your body needs, as well as some prebiotic fiber to keep those bacteria alive and working. Examples of these foods include yogurt and kefir.
Now, you might find that if your “good” bacteria count is on the lower end, too much prebiotic food could end up creating some… uncomfortable symptoms. That’s because the bacteria isn’t present to eat the fiber that the human digestive system can’t take care of on its own. In that case, it’s important to boost your probiotic intake via food and/or quality supplements and go easier on the fiber sources until your gut adjusts. These guys are designed to work in tandem, but they can be temperamental. Too much (or too little) of one or the other will be the difference in feeling on top of the world and constantly sick to your stomach.