When it comes to wellness, I have a handle on the basics: trends versus science, healthy versus hairbrained. One thing that’s confused me, though, is prebiotics; specifically, how are they different from probiotics? Prebiotic supplements seem to be everywhere, but what, exactly, do they do for gut health? I did some research to find out. Here’s what I learned.
First things first: Why is gut health important?
Prebiotics and probiotics support a healthy gut. Why is this important? Because a healthy gut supports overall health. In fact, up to 80 percent of your immune cells are present in your gut, which is why keeping a healthy gut microbiome is crucial.
Your gut microbiome hosts the trillions of itty-bitty microorganisms that live in your intestinal tract. These microbes — mainly comprising healthy bacteria — perform essential functions that are critical to your overall health and wellness. They play a major role in digesting the food you eat, as well as absorbing and synthesizing nutrients. Your gut flora are also involved in vital processes that occur outside of your GI tract. These include:
What are probiotics?
Now that we’ve covered the gut microbiome, let’s talk probiotics. These are living strains of bacteria found in specific foods and supplements. Taking them amplifyies the good bacteria in your gut, thereby supporting a healthy digestive system. So what are some of the best probiotic foods? Great question.
What about prebiotics?
Prebiotic fibers are specialized forms of dietary fiber that help nourish the beneficial bacteria — a.k.a. gut microbiota — living in your digestive tract. In other words, prebiotics provide the fuel that probiotics need to function optimally. When these friendly types of bacteria are thriving, the rest of your body reaps major health benefits. Prebiotic food sources include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Chicory root
- Whole grains
What happens if you combine prebiotics and probiotics?
One word: Magic. When the two biotics are combined, synbiotics occurs, and long story short — they work better. (Recall that prebiotics provide fuel for postbiotic live bacteria that support gut flora, which is why it makes sense that their effectiveness increases when taken together.) Thinking about taking a pre- and probiotic? Here are some of the potential benefits.
Supported Gut Health
The first of the major benefits of probiotics and prebiotics is that they are fantastic promoters of good digestive health. A 2018 review published in the National Library of Medicine indicated that probiotic consumption can improve immune, reproductive, and gastrointestinal health systems. In fact, researchers believe that friendly probiotic bacteria help soothe symptoms of certain gastrointestinal diseases like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
While more research is needed, there’s no denying that a healthy gut is a happy gut — and when a healthy and happy gut can ease symptoms like gas and bloating. If tummy issues plague you, consider talking to your healthcare provider about adding a probiotic to your supplements.
Boosted Mental Health
Experts often refer to the gut as the body’s “second brain.” Why? Because it produces many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain, including dopamine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid — all of which play a key role in mood regulation. It’s estimated that 90 percent of serotonin (also known as the “feel good” hormone) is produced in the gut. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how boosting the gut with friendly probiotic bacteria supports mental wellness.
Improved Immune Health
While some of the gut’s microscopic bacteria are good, others can be bad. If the bad bacteria overrun the good bacteria, a gut imbalance — medically known as dysbiosis — is likely to develop. Side effects of gut imbalance include:
- Excessive gas
- Abdominal cramping
The fact that 80 percent of the immune system resides inside the gut means that a gut imbalance can severely disrupt the immune system’s ability to fight off illnesses like the common cold and flu. Maintaining a healthy and diverse population of gut bacteria keeps the bad bacteria in check, which, in turn, prevents imbalances from taking root — and when you can keep dysbiosis at bay, your immune system returns the favor by keeping you safe from harmful pathogens, viruses, and microbes.
What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?
Think your gut health is lacking? Below are a few telltale signs of an unhealthy gut.
A number of symptoms could indicate an unhealthy gut and a lack of high-quality fiber-rich foods. These include common stomach complaints like excessive gas, belly bloat, diarrhea, constipation, and heartburn — all of which are not-so-subtle signs that your gut is having difficulty processing food and eliminating waste.
Experiencing a flare-up with a skin condition like acne, psoriasis, or eczema? While poor gut health is unlikely to be the only culprit behind these, researchers have found that digestive issues are more common in those with skin flares than those without.
Insufficient serotonin can result in bouts of insomnia or trouble getting to sleep. This is because the happy hormone is the precursor to melatonin, the sleep hormone. As earlier mentioned, the gut is responsible for approximately 90 percent of the body’s serotonin production — with this in mind, it’s not surprising that an unhealthy gut causes sleep disturbances.
Have a hankering for the sweet stuff? An imbalance in gut bacteria could be to blame. That’s because bad bacteria like yeast thrive on sugar. If your body signals a spontaneous sweet tooth craving, there’s a good chance that unfriendly gut bugs are running amok in your digestive system.
The Gut Guide
So, what’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics? In short, probiotics are living microorganisms that add to the population of good bacteria in the gut, while prebiotics support that bacteria so it can flourish. Although it can be tough to get enough of both through diet alone — especially if you don’t care for fermented foods — there are pre- and probiotic supplements that can help. Just be sure to confirm with your healthcare provider that they’re the right choice for you and your healthcare needs.