Prebiotics and Probiotics: What's the Difference?

Prebiotics and Probiotics are everywhere right now. Health drinks, gut health books, and fitness gurus all speak to the importance of having both in your body. But what exactly is the difference between prebiotics and probiotics? 

To start off, both involve bacteria. Bacteria are typically viewed as a tiny little villain lurking on countertops waiting to make us sick. They aren’t always evil! In fact, our bodies depend on certain types of bacteria to keep us healthy. Gut health is dependent on a balance of good bacteria to avoid bloating, gas and keep your microbiome in order. 

The microbiome consists of the trillions of microorganisms that reside in your gut, such as fungi, parasites, and bacteria. Yes, it sounds scary as these things are all considered bad outside the body, but when they work together they create a healthy digestive system. Every person’s microbiome is unique, and it’s important to keep it balanced. One of the best things you can do for your microbiome is kept the good bacteria healthy.

The good bacteria living in your gut are called probiotics. There are trillions of bacteria lurking in your digestive system working night and day to ensure you stay healthy. Working hard all the time means they will need energy, and they feed off of a substrate called prebiotics. With such similar names, it can be easy to confuse the two. All it takes is one misplaced vowel, and you’re searching for the wrong thing! 

What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, anyway? Let's look at the main differences, and how prebiotics and probiotics work together to maintain gut health and keep the bloat away.

The Importance of Gut Flora

Before diving into the question of what the differences between prebiotics and probiotics are, we need to look at gut flora. Gut flora is the ecosystem found in your digestive tract, and it’s filled with trillions of microorganisms working to keep things moving. In fact, there are twice as many microbes living in your gut as cells in your entire body. That’s a lot! 

Your gut flora is so important to your health. It regulates your immune system and aids in digestion. If you’ve ever dealt with gas and bloating, there was probably an imbalance in your gut flora from something you ate. The good news is it can be easy to restore balance since these bacteria live naturally in the body already. 

It’s also important to understand that everyone’s gut is unique and no two people will benefit from the exact same balance of bacteria. The process starts before you’re born, and is partially reliant on your mother’s microbiota. As you come into the world and grow, your own diet and lifestyle will greatly affect your gut flora and what balance works for you. 

Probiotics

To start, in order to understand what the differences between prebiotics and probiotics are, we need to know how probiotics work. Probiotics are the living microbes that call your gut home. They occur naturally in the body and are always there for you. To be considered a probiotic, they must survive after you’ve ingested them and prove to have a health benefit. They can be found throughout the digestive tract, and are primarily found in the large intestines.

Other places they can be found include your mouth, urinary tract, and lungs. Probiotics are found naturally in your body, but you can increase the population by taking supplements and eating foods that contain them naturally. When your gut has a healthy balance of probiotics, they fight off the bad bacteria that enter your system. Probiotics also help your immune function and fight off inflammation. Research has also been done that shows probiotics can improve symptoms of depression and improve mental health. 

The microbiome can be tough to navigate since there are literally trillions of microorganisms coexisting in there. When it comes to probiotics, there are two main types found in your gut. Those are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. If you look at a bottle of probiotic supplements, it will list what kind of bacteria is included and how many live cultures are in each pill.

Since they occur naturally in your body, a person in good health will have probiotics working to maintain the gut balance with no outside interference needed. If you have an underlying condition, however, such as inflammatory bowel disease, you may want to call in reinforcements. You might also want to increase the population of good bacteria in your gut if you experience frequent bloating or gas.

Other benefits of probiotics include keeping your heart healthy. Studies have shown that this bacteria can lower cholesterol and blood pressure with a healthy diet and exercise. They may also reduce eczema symptoms and some allergies. Overall, probiotics are working night and day to keep us healthy and we should be thankful they’ve decided to call our bodies home.

There are several ways to grow the probiotic population in your gut’s ecosystem naturally. Fermented foods like yogurt, for example, are an excellent way to add more probiotics to your body. Supplements and drinks are also on the market that will have different amounts of different good bacterias to try.

Common Conditions Probiotics Have Been Known to Help:

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Yeast Infections
  • Diarrhea

Foods With Natural Probiotics

  • Yogurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Pickles

If you are dealing with a medical condition and want to increase the probiotics in your body to help out, be sure to consult with your doctor before trying anything. To keep your probiotics in working order, they’ll need the energy to keep you healthy. This brings us to prebiotics, answering the question of what the difference between prebiotics and probiotics is.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are a relatively new concept that wasn’t studied until the 1990s. In 1995, a medical journal titled Dietary Modulation of the Human Colonic Microbiota: Introducing the Concept of Prebiotics, published by Glenn R. Gibson and Marcel B. Roberfroid mentioned the health benefits of prebiotics.

The journal defined prebiotics as “microbial food supplements that beneficially affect the host by improving its intestinal microbial balance, have been used to change the composition of colonic microbiota.” Since then, all research done in regards to prebiotics has been related to gut health.

To put it simply, prebiotics are substrates found in plant-based fiber. The human body cannot digest prebiotics, so they will take up residence in your digestive tract. This is because prebiotics are typically found in fiber which is a complex carbohydrate that your body can’t digest and serves different functions throughout your system. Good bacteria in the gut will feed on prebiotics, which gives them the energy they need to keep your gut health in working order.

Prebiotics studies have shown that they help increase the production of short-chain fatty acids, which help to ferment foods quickly in the digestive system. They also help to protect the layers of the intestine and help the body to absorb minerals.

Since they are a newer concept, there isn’t as much research on prebiotics as there are probiotics. What we do know is that they are linked to the improvement of gut health, and there are several ways to bring them into your body. Some of the known benefits of prebiotics include:

  • Helping the body absorb calcium
  • Process carbs quickly
  • Encourage growth of preexisting probiotic bacteria that can help with digestion

Food and Drinks that Contain Prebiotics Naturally

Since prebiotics occurs naturally in many foods, there’s not much need to take a supplement such as you would with probiotics. If you do want to take a supplement, it can be hard to come by. If you want to increase your prebiotic intake, try Halfday Tea Tonics.

Each can has 8 grams of plant-based fiber that contains prebiotics to keep your probiotic bacteria healthy. The drinks are also non-carbonated so you don’t need to worry about upsetting your gut with unwanted bubbles. Be careful of other gut drinks- they can be packed with sugar and be high in calories.  Halfday tastes great (like your favorite childhood iced tea) and is low in calories, sugar, and any junk.   

Conclusion

To sum it up, the difference between prebiotics and probiotics isn’t only one vowel. Probiotics are the good bacteria your gut needs to keep your digestive system healthy, and prebiotics act as food for the probiotics. Since your body cannot digest prebiotics, they serve another positive function as this energy source and keep you healthy! 

The world of gut flora is a vast and interesting place. There’s still so much to learn, but what we do know is that good bacteria is essential for proper digestive function. Having a healthy diet full of foods that naturally increase probiotic bacteria along with a healthy lifestyle can help you avoid gas, bloating, and other uncomfortable symptoms.

Since probiotics happen naturally in the body, you’re already in good shape. Taking supplements and eating probiotic-rich foods can help you increase numbers and balance if your gut is feeling off. Increasing your intake of prebiotics will help to feed the probiotics to keep your gut happy and healthy.

Prebiotics and probiotics are an important part of everyone’s digestive system, but each microbiome is unique and it may take some time to find your perfect balance. If you’re interested in increasing the number of good bacteria in your body but have a medical condition, always be sure to consult with your doctor first.