What's the difference?
Bacteria live everywhere—inside our mouths, on our skin, in our gut; and some of us ingest ‘good’ bacteria by taking a probiotic every morning, eating yogurt during lunch or snacking on fermented foods and drinking kombucha. No matter the source, we’re aware that ingesting bacteria can be good for us, but why?
Coming from my college history of digestive issues and a growing interest in gut health, I want to help people understand why gut bacteria is important for a healthy GI system and why ingesting prebiotics and/or probiotics might be beneficial.
The gut plays a role in almost every aspect of our state of health and wellness. If you think about it—whatever you ingest, you are bringing into your body and your body recognizes as either nutrients or harmful substance. Our gut is the first host for anything that we eat, and it does the job of passing along nutrients or sparking an inflammatory response. Therefore, our immune system, elimination system, hormone regulation system and digestive system all benefit from the inner workings of our gut. This is why it’s so important to have a properly functioning one! Without it, our other bodily systems wouldn’t function optimally.
Bacteria that already exist in the gut (a.k.a. probiotics) feed on the sugars and carbohydrates that we ingest, and they break down the nutrients from other foods as well. Bacteria can be added to the gut by taking a probiotic supplement or eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and drinking kombucha. Basically, probiotics help balance the good and bad bacteria in your gut—‘bad’ bacteria referring to the toxins, carcinogens and yeasts that can counteract the ‘good’ bacteria, which refer to microorganisms that help breakdown nutrients, fight off harmful bacteria, reduce inflammation and synthesize essential vitamins.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are special types of soluble fiber that probiotics, or the bacteria already existing in the gut, use as fuel, or ‘feed’ on. Because of their soluble fiber properties, prebiotics could potentially help create a good environment for digestion in the GI tract. The reason prebiotics are used in supplementation with probiotics is to ensure that the probiotics have something to feed on—it encourages good bacteria growth.
It’s not mandatory to take a probiotic or prebiotic, but here are a few things to consider:
- If you regularly take antibiotics, then you might want to think about supplementing your gut with a probiotic. Antibiotics inhibit the growth of microorganisms, or bacteria—this means your gut in addition to everywhere else! Taking a prebiotic in addition to a probiotic might help the good bacteria flourish in your tummy again.
- If you commonly suffer from yeast infections, then a probiotic might help you steer clear of them. (This was a problem for me my junior year of college, when I was taking an antibiotic daily for acne. When I stopped taking the antibiotic, began changing my diet and lifestyle, I noticed that this symptom went away, and it’s no longer something that I worry about.)
- If you have ‘gut issues’ that you suffer from regularly, maybe taking a probiotic alongside a prebiotic would benefit you and lessen your symptoms. I have found that adding more fermented foods to my diet has made a difference in my digestion, but you want to be careful about how much bacteria you ingest, because—just like everything else—balance is best!
- If your diet does not include many prebiotic and probiotic foods, then you know what might help!
Foods that contain prebiotics:
* Denotes high FODMAP food, which can potentially result in digestive upset
Foods that contain probiotics:
Yogurt (aim for lowest sugar content possible, and make sure the label says contains live and active cultures)
Microalgae or blue algae
Dark chocolate (70% or greater)
When shopping for a prebiotic and/or probiotic supplement, you want be sure that you're buying a high-quality product. When shopping for a supplement, research brands online and make sure that they are backed by research. Look for supplements that list the specific bacteria strains included in each dose, and make sure that there is a variety of them. Also, look for expiration dates, considering live bacteria don't stay alive forever!
Here are two probiotic and/or prebiotic supplement brands that I advocate for based on research and/or use: