While the general public is aware of probiotics, most people have little knowledge about prebiotics. But there are significant differences between the two, including health benefits. Probiotics are live bacteria found in yogurt, other dairy products, certain foods, and supplements. Healthcare workers often prescribe probiotics to patients on antibiotics in an attempt to combat gastrointestinal side effects of the medication. And while probiotics have been shown effective in managing certain gastrointestinal conditions, they do not have the same health benefits as prebiotics.
Prebiotics are quite different from probiotics. Prebiotics in simple words is food for the “good” bacteria that reside in the colon. In most living species, there is a balance between the good and bad bacteria in the colon. Prebiotics are natural foods that are readily available in most grocery and health food stores. Prebiotic fiber is found in many vegetables and fruits like chicory root, beans, bananas, onions, garlic, asparagus, dandelion greens, apple skin and Jerusalem artichoke to name a few. To derive the health benefits from prebiotics, one needs to ingest about 25 grams a day, and this means eating foods with high prebiotic fiber. Many health benefits have been attributed to prebiotics, but how they work is still not completely understood.
How do Prebiotics work?
Prebiotics are essentially insoluble dietary fiber. After ingestion, the fiber reaches the colon where it is acted upon by the bacteria, resulting in the release of some substances including short chain fatty acids. It is now known that these short chain fatty acids play a vital role in the nourishment of the colon and also boost the number of good bacteria. The short chain fatty acids are also known to increase the effectiveness of immune cells that line the intestinal wall. The prebiotic fiber also lines the abdominal wall and provides physical protection to the colon from harmful bacteria. By increasing bulk, prebiotics is known to increase consistency of feces and relieve constipation. People who consume prebiotics regularly seldom develop intestinal disorders like diverticulitis.
Other reports suggest that prebiotics also stimulates the good bacteria to produce a variety of proteins and enzymes, which can help break down toxins and chemicals. Prebiotics also reduce diarrhea by increasing bulk in the colon. Individuals with irritable bowel syndrome who use prebiotics have decreased symptoms and regular bowel activity. The latest work reveals that prebiotics also stimulates metabolism of food in the intestine, which helps with absorption of vital minerals and fatty acids. Examination of stools reveals that people who consume prebiotics may also have a low pH. This may be of importance in the prevention of colon and rectal cancer. This acidic benefit may also be of help in patients with Crohn disease and ulcerative colitis.
Prebiotics have only been recently introduced, and there is very little published in the scientific literature as to how these substances benefit people. What is known is that when consumed regularly, prebiotics not only help prevent disease, but also they can help maintain a healthy weight, lower blood pressure, and decrease blood glucose.
Probiotics are living microorganisms, often bacteria, that are similar to beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut. More specifically, the microorganisms can be things like bacteria, viruses, or yeasts. It is believed that the use of probiotics dates back to Roman times when the historian Plinio was said to promote the use of fermented milk to treat gastrointestinal (GI) infections. There are a lot of individuals who ask whether they should take probiotics. The health food stores and naturopaths seem to make it sound like probiotics are a cure for every medical disorder in life. There are many people who believe that probiotics can help the already established good bacteria fight off any new infection or help heal old infections. Probiotics can be bought without a prescription and are sold everywhere. Every day there is a new probiotics product on sale. Some common foods known to contain probiotics include yogurt, dark chocolate, milk, soy, and many herbal beverages such as kombucha.
The question is: Do Probiotics work?
Well, the answer to this question is very complicated. There are no randomized controlled clinical trials showing that these products are effective. However, there are many anecdotal reports indicating that probiotics may help cure certain infections. The first available probiotic bacterium for intestinal use was Lactobacillus GG. Since then, many formulations of Probiotic bacteria have been developed. Among the many products, yogurt and soy are the two that have been the most widely studied. For good health, probiotics should be taken on a regular basis for months. It takes time to repopulate the colon with health-promoting bacteria. Once these bacteria have established themselves in the colon, this may slowly lead to less gas production and bloating.
There is some medical evidence that probiotics may 1) Prevent or help cure vaginal yeast infections 2) Prevent and cure urinary tract infections 3) Decrease some types of diarrhea caused by antibiotics 4) Help diminish allergies 5) May contribute to reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and 6) May help decrease abdominal bloating and/or cramps that occur during the premenstrual cycle.
Differences Between Prebiotics and Probiotics
The one universal feature which both prebiotics and probiotics share is that they both act via the intestine. For those of you considering taking a prebiotic or a probiotic, here are some of their differences:
- Prebiotics are a particular type of dietary fiber that help stimulate further growth of the “good” bacteria in the intestine. On the other hand, probiotics are live bacteria that are found in dairy products and certain health supplements. There are hundreds of probiotics on the market, and no one knows which one is the best or the worst.
- Prebiotics powders are stable and not affected by cold, heating or acidity. The powder remains stable even when refrigerated. Probiotics, on the other hand, contain bacteria that are easily killed by heat, acidity or freezing.
- The health benefits of prebiotics have been demonstrated in many clinical studies, whereas the health benefits remain questionable with probiotics. With most of the probiotics, it is the manufacturers who have hyped up claims of health benefits, but clinical studies are lacking for most probiotics.
- Prebiotics provide nourishment to the good micro-organisms already present in the intestine. Whereas with probiotics, there is competition for nourishment for both good and bad bacteria.
- Prebiotics may be of some health benefit to the individual with inflammatory bowel disease like ulcerative colitis or Crohn disease whereas probiotics may be helpful for the management of childhood diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and colitis induced by Clostridium difficult.
No one knows 100% if probiotics work. The data are very confusing and hard to interpret. The good thing about probiotics is that eating foods like yogurt has no side effects and certainly cannot hurt one’s health. However, do remember, too much of any food can lead to weight gain. Finally, probiotics are considered dietary supplements rather than pharmaceuticals. Hence, the safety, purity, composition, or potency of probiotics is not regulated by the government. Further, interactions between probiotics, herbs, drugs and other supplements have not been studied. Since no two bacterial strains are alike, properties that apply to one may not apply to another. Finally, dosing is not always uniform among trials, so more studies are needed to determine how many live bacteria need to be ingested for the desired outcome.
Reader – What has your experience been with taking prebiotics or probiotics?
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