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The Difference between Prebiotics and Probiotics

Our culture today has become very germ conscious. Just about everywhere you turn you can find antibacterial hand cleaners, dish detergents, cleaning supplies and convenient hand sanitizers. In our attempt to remain bacteria free, the fact remains that bacteria is everywhere. It can be found in bathrooms, in kitchens, on door handles and the handsets of our phones, just to name a few. Unknown too many, is the fact that not all bacteria is bad for you. In the human body, specifically in our digestive tract, certain bacteria plays an essential role in our daily health. Did you know that it is estimated that there are approximately one trillion bacteria inside an average adult’s gastrointestinal tract?

In recent years there has been much discussion regarding a couple nutritional supplements called prebiotics and probiotics. In addition, they have been rapidly growing in scientific popularity as well for their effects in regulating the micro-environment in the body. Truth be told, neither one of these supplements are some new creation, but can be found naturally in the foods we consume. Just what are they and how do they benefit our overall health?

Prebiotics and probiotics are related to one another; however they are not the same. Both have positive effects on the intestinal flora (or good bacteria) in our body that helps with digestion, and both play an important role in maintaining the body’s intestinal health.

Probiotics are live bacteria that we can ingest (either by a food source or supplement), and they are naturally found in our digestive system. This live bacteria is good for us and is an important part of our body’s ecosystem. Probiotics help with the digestion and absorption of nutrients and minerals, as well as synthesizing our intake of vitamins. They also help to boost our immune system to protect our body from infections. They work to bring an overall balance to our gastrointestinal tract environment.

Probiotics can be found in foods such as sauerkraut, Kefir (fermented yogurt), fermented soy products, products that have had probiotics added to them including acidophilus milk and yogurt (such as Activia), and in nutritional supplements.

The benefits of probiotics are many and are thought to help with colic in babies, to prevent or treat diarrhea and constipation, aid in the treatment of both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disease (IBD), they help to improve lactulose intolerance, aids in the treatment of intestinal infections and by restoring an overall balance in the gastrointestinal tract.

Prebiotics on the other hand, are not bacteria, but are specific nutrients obtained by non-digestible food items that stimulate the growth and function of the “good” bacteria in our body. In other words, they assist the probiotics to function better. These nutrients are usually non-absorbable carbohydrates like fructo- and oligosaccharides (FOS) that are found naturally in whole grains, fruits, legumes, onions, garlic, bananas, leeks and asparagus.

There are currently many food products and nutritional supplements available on the market today. Despite all the current research that has demonstrated many benefits of the consumption of both prebiotics and probiotics; more research is still needed to discover all their potential benefits and risks to our health. It is recommended that you talk with your physician or a registered dietitian, to fully understand what is appropriate for you.

Sources used:

Chen CC, Walker WA. “Probiotics and prebiotics: Role in clinical disease states.” Adv. Pediatr. 2005; 52:77-113

Snelling AM. “Effects of probiotics on the gastrointestinal tract.” Curr Opin Intect. Dis. 2005 Oct; 18 (5): 420-6.

Bengmark S, Martindale R. “Prebiotics and synbiotics in clinical medicine.” Nurt. Clin Pract. 2005 Apr; 20 (2): 244-61