Prebiotics and probiotics represent essential aspects of a wholesome, nourishing diet. Though not the same, prebiotics and probiotics complement one another and work together to improve overall health and wellness. Simplistically, a prebiotic promotes the proliferation of beneficial bacteria while probiotics contain live beneficial bacteria that help to recolonize your intenstinal flora. Both prebiotics and probiotics work in harmony with one another. A diet deficient in either prebiotics or probiotics may severely impact health and immune function in particular.
Prebiotics promote the growth and proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Unlike probiotics, which are live organisms, prebiotics are components of food that are not otherwise easily digested by humans and these food components essentially feed beneficial bacteria in your gut. Oligosaccharides such as oligofructose and inulin are only partially digested by humans and the remaining components of these carbohydrate molecules feed beneficial bacteria.
As inulin and other prebiotics are not well-digested by the body, foods rich in these components do not cause significant rises in blood sugar; moreover, prebiotics like inulin may increase your body’s ability to better absorb iron from the foods you eat1. Traditional diets typically contained over twice the amount of inulin that is present in the Standard American Diet1. Essentially, humans throughout history ate foods richer in prebiotics than they do today. Tubers, greens and other plant foods offer a great source of prebiotics. Take care, however, if you have not typically consumed a fiber-rich or plant-rich diet as these foods may cause gastrointestinal upset if you’re unaccustomed to eating them.
Good Sources of Prebiotics
- Fresh Dandelion Greens
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Wheat & Sprouted Wheat (See sources.)
- Prebiotic Supplements (See sources.)
As differentiated from prebiotics (which feed beneficial bacteria) and beneficial bacteria themselves, probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live, beneficial microorganisms. Probiotics, when ingested properly, help to recolonize the digestive tract with friendly, beneficial bacteria. Beneficial bacteria are essential to health; indeed, without them, you’d die. Seriously. Beneficial bacteria help your body to synthesize vitamins, absorb nutrients, keep pathogens at bay and interact with directly with your immune system for your overall health4. Intestinal flora is thought to be critical to a vast and wide away of human health issues. Indeed, researchers are even looking at how beneficial intestinal bacteria might prove effective in treating obesity5.
While everyone’s digestive tract plays host to beneficial bacteria, antibiotics and poor eating habits including diets deficient in prebiotics can kill off and inhibit the proliferation of these friendly intestinal microflora. For this reason, it’s important to consume probiotics either as whole foods or as supplements. Consuming probiotic foods and supplements will help to recolonize your digestive tract’s natural flora and encourage their proliferation. This act is particularly important if you’ve come off a round of antibiotics. Remember: antibiotics kill the good guys too.
Good Sources of Probiotics
- Yogurt (See sources.)
- Kombucha (See sources.)
- Water Kefir (Learn to brew water kefir.)
- Fermented & Cultured Vegetables (See recipes for fermented foods.)
- Probiotic Supplements (See sources.)
Probiotics and Prebiotics: They Work Synergistically
It’s important to remember that both probiotics and prebiotics work together, synergistically. While you may load up on probiotic supplements, it won’t do your body much good if you continue to eat a diet devoid of fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods rich in inulin, fructans and oligosaccharides. Similarly, a diet rich in prebiotics will give your intestinal flora something to feed on, but it’s likely that your intesinal flora could use a boost if you’ve typically eaten a poor diet or been at antibiotics at some point (that is, if you’ve lived like most of us).
Learn More About Probiotics
1. Inulin May Help with Iron Uptake. Science Daily.
2. Inulin and Oligofructose: Safe Intakes & Legal Status. Journal of Nutrition. 1999;129:1412S-1417S
3. Presence of Inulin & Oligofructose in the Diet of Americans. Journal of Nutrition. 1999;129:1407S-1411S.
4. Gut Flora in Health & Disease. The Lancet, Volume 361, Issue 9356, Pages 512 – 519, 8 February 2003
5. The gut microbiota ecology: a new opportunity for the treatment of metabolic diseases? Frontiers in Bioscience. 2009 Jun 1;14:5107-17.