Probiotics have been in the spotlight in recent years, with specialists touting the benefits of probiotics on gut health and much more. Prebiotics aren’t talked about quite as much, but definitely deserve recognition all the same, and we are starting to see more and more products on the market that include prebiotics. Both pre- and probiotics offer a variety of benefits to our health and well-being, but it can be confusing to figure out which ones you need, and how you can incorporate these into your daily life. Let’s find out how.
What are Prebiotics?
Although their names are similar, prebiotics are not bacteria like probiotics, but rather they are nutrients in the foods we eat that feed the bacteria found in our gut. These nutrients (specifically plant fibers) can’t be digested by our own bodies, and instead become food for the probiotic species living in our intestines. So, even though they don’t have a direct benefit on our health, they are critical to the development of a healthy gut and indirectly benefit us in many ways.
How are Prebiotics Beneficial to Human Health?
There are two ways to look at it. On the one hand, prebiotics help us improve our health by promoting the growth and diversity of good bacteria in our guts (among a slew of other health benefits). On the other, consuming prebiotics requires that we consume foods that are already healthy for us in many ways, such as beans, asparagus, bananas, onions, garlic, lentils and most other plant foods. Just to clarify, not all dietary fibers are considered prebiotics, however we can classify the majority of prebiotics as fibers. The rest are other types of indigestible carbohydrates found in plant matter.
Although prebiotics have been extensively studied, there is still some debate on all of their health benefits. However, based on current research, it is suggested that consumption of prebiotics increases the amount of good bacteria in our gut, specifically Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, decreases the population of harmful bacteria, increas-es calcium absorption, decreases allergy risk, improves gut barrier permeability, improves immune function, and aids in the prevention and treatment of chronic illnesses.1
What is definitely clear is that increasing the fiber in your diet (thus increasing prebiotic consumption) is capable of altering the gut microbiome. In fact, switching from a meat-based diet with virtually no fiber to a plant-based diet high in fiber (>30 g per day) can cause these changes in just 24 hours.2 These changes include an increase in the amount of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacilli, which are likely the reason why we see so many potential health benefits from the consumption of prebiotics. For example, the relationship between calcium absorption and prebiotics likely lies in the interaction between prebiotics and the microorganisms in our gut.3
While we’re on the topic of beneficial bacteria, let’s discuss what probiotics are. Like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacilli, probiotics are bacteria that are beneficial to our health. We can consume them in the form of food and supplements, and they can also be found naturally in our gut. There are a variety of bacteria species that are considered probiotics, but Bifidobacterium and Lactobacilli are some of the most widely used probiotics on the market. Sources of probiotics include yogurts, kefir, fermented vegetables, tempeh and even infant formula, in addition to over the counter supplements.
Probiotics help us in a variety of ways. They boost our immune system and help protect against infectious diseases. They show promise in treating gastrointestinal problems (such as inflammatory bowel diseases and irritable bowel syndrome), asthma, and they may even play a role in weight loss.4,5
As mentioned earlier, probiotics are natural to our systems. Our gut microbiome is naturally full of the beneficial bacteria that we can find in different foods and supplements. In fact, Bifidobacterium colonizes the gastrointestinal tract just days after birth. As we grow up and are exposed to our surroundings, more and more bacteria continue to colonize the gut. Considering that dietary changes can affect our gut microbiome in just 24 hours, we know that the gut is sensitive to the environment and changes, even in adulthood.
Why Supplement With Pre- and Probiotics?
Although both are naturally (and sometimes through processing) found in food, pre- and probiotic supplements can be essential to good health. Taking supplements is a great way to get a controlled (and often larger) amount into your system. In addition, with supplements, you can typically choose the type of probiotic you want to ingest to target particular health issues, whether it’s something specific like ulcerative colitis or more general like trouble digesting your meal.
When we say supplements, we don’t always mean taking pills either. For example, the company inner-ēco offers fresh coconut water probiotic drink and frozen smoothie packs made with coconut, fruits and added probiotics.
Both pre- and probiotic supplements can also be a good option for those who may not have a diet high in fiber, those who avoid fermented and dairy foods, and for those who are taking antibiotics. Although antibiotics are meant to get rid of harmful bacteria in your system, they also indiscriminately wipe out beneficial bacteria too.
What About Shelf Stable vs. Refrigerated Versions? Which is Better?
This is a good question that isn’t talked about enough. Although there are a lot of factors about the environment that can destroy probiotics, like temperature and moisture, the truth is, it’s hard to say if the shelf stable or refrigerated type is actually better than the other.
There exist such techniques that allow us to produce and maintain probiotics on a shelf without killing them or losing their health promoting properties. For example, freeze-dried probiotics can be placed in specialized capsules, which are then typically stored in a blister pack (the silver packaging that you push the pill out of). These probiotics are processed to be shelf-stable and viable. The key is to follow the instructions on the box for storage, and don’t remove the capsule from the blister pack until the moment you are going to consume it.
Refrigerated probiotics, similarly, will be packaged in a different way that allows them to be viable while kept cool. The only potential downside to refrigerated capsules is that you may not be able to easily carry them with you while traveling, if needed.
It’s also possible to find prebiotic supplements, but typically these don’t need to be stored in a refrigerator. In many cases, like with Wonder Drink Kombucha, you can supplement with prebiotics without a pill. Products like Wonder Drink kombucha are actually a great idea, because although you can get prebiotics from food, you would have to eat a lot (like a pound of asparagus) to get the amount of prebiotics that you can get in just one can.
Taking pre- and probiotic supplements is generally recognized as safe, and there is sufficient research to suggest that there are no adverse effects associated with taking pre- or probiotics in supplement form. With that in mind, plus the potential health effects, there’s no better time than the present to try it out for yourself!
1 Carlson JL, Erickson JM, Lloyd BB, Slavin JL. Health effects and sources of prebiotic dietary fiber. Curr Dev Nutr. 2018; 2(3): nzy005.
2 Holscher HD. Dietary fiber and prebiotics and the gastrointestinal microbiota. Gut Microbes. 2017; 8(2): 172–184.
3 Whisner CM, Castillo LF. Prebiotics, bone and mineral metabolism. Calcif Tissue Int. 2018; 102(4): 443–479.
4 O’Neill I, Shofield Z, Hall LJ. Exploring the role of the microbiota member Bifidobacterium in modulating immune-linked diseases. Emerging Topics in Life Sciences. 2017; 1(4): 333-349.
5 John GK, Wang L, Nanavati J, Twose C, Singh R, Mullin G 2018. Dietary alteration of the gut microbiome and its impact on weight and fat mass: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Genes (Basel). 2018; 9(3): 167.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.” You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.