Probiotics and Prebiotics: Everything You Need To Know
The popularity of probiotics and prebiotics keeps getting bigger every year, especially with the hundreds of advertising campaigns that promote their benefits.
Today, millions of people around the world take these supplements to promote their digestion and reduce the risk of disease.
Perhaps the primary reason that led to this massive popularity goes back to the scientific studies that supported the benefits of probiotics and recommended their use in individuals with imbalanced microbiomes.
In the next sections, we will briefly cover the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, then dig into more details about when and why to take these products.
What is prebiotics?
According to experts, prebiotics take a larger share of the supplementation market annually. These substances are vital for your gastrointestinal system and overall health.
Despite the rich content of legumes, oats, bananas, and berries in prebiotics, people often don’t reach the recommended daily allowance.
Furthermore, differentiating between probiotics and prebiotics can be quite confusing.
To simplify things, you can think of these two supplements as follows:
- Probiotics – commensal microbes that promote digestion
- Prebiotics – food for probiotics (e.g., fibre)
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When do you need probiotics?
There is a common belief that supplements are always good for your health even if you have sufficient amounts of nutrients in your body.
Unfortunately, this statement is not true.
At best, supplementing your body without needing it will offer you no benefits and make you lose some money. At worst, you may develop adverse effects of toxicity to that product, especially when you exceed the maximal dose.
This rule also applies to probiotics, so here are the scenarios where taking probiotics is reasonable:
Most people associate probiotics with digestive problems. However, research keeps revealing that a healthy gastrointestinal tract impacts several organ systems and physiological functions.
For instance, if you are having sleep abnormalities, immune dysfunction, poor energy, or lack of concentration, they may all be signs of microbiome dysbiosis.
Taking antibiotics irrationally
Antibiotics consist of molecules with the ability to stop the growth of bacteria or destroy their structural integrity.
These molecules have revolutionized the field of medicine and allowed us to eradicate some debilitating infectious diseases, such as the bubonic plague.
However, when you take antibiotics irrationally, you’ll endanger the healthy bacteria found in your gut. Unfortunately, researchers found that the imbalanced created by antibiotics abuse can take up to 3 years before fully resolving.
In this scenario, taking probiotic supplements will help you accelerate the process of restoring the balance to your microbiome.
For specific diseases
Aside from optimizing your gastrointestinal health, probiotics improve the symptoms of numerous conditions by increasing the number of circulating antioxidants and producing crucial fatty acids.
For instance, researchers found that patients with increased intestinal permeability (i.e., leaky gut syndrome) can significantly benefit from probiotics.
Additionally, probiotics improve liver, bone, and skin health.
What to look for in probiotic supplements
When you are buying a probiotic supplement, you need to check these features first:
The stomach constantly secretes HCL, which is an acidic chemical that lowers pH and disintegrates the structures of all foreign pathogens.
Logically, the next question you would ask is how probiotics (a type of bacteria) will survive this harsh environment to reach the intestines.
The answer to this question varies depending on the species involved. For instance, studies showed that Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium infantis are excellent at surviving through the harsh passage of gastric acidity. Other strains showed conflicting results.
With that being said, many companies started using enteric coating and time-releasing technologies to protect the bacteria from acidity.
The product that you’re purchasing should be compatible with the scientific rationale set by regional governments.
Additionally, you should look for a third-party verification stamp on the cover of the supplement.
Pitfalls while buying probiotic supplements
If you’re not familiar with probiotics, you could easily get overwhelmed with the amount of information written on the label.
To make it easier for you, here are the parameters you should be on the look for when purchasing probiotics:
Colony-forming unit (CFU) – is the number of bacteria found in the product. Contrary to popular belief, a high CFU number does not equal more benefits. Instead, choosing the right number depends on how your body will react. In other words, it is a trial-and-error approach.
Strain diversity – while it might be tempting to buy the probiotic supplement with the highest number of strains, this is not always the right thing to do. Instead, opt for a product that has 1–3 strains for optimal results.
Encapsulation – as we mentioned above, not all bacteria can survive the harsh environment of the stomach. Therefore, try to stick to acid-resistant bacteria or products with the proper capsulation.
Dosage – many companies promote the idea of taking 3–4 tablets of probiotics per day to make frequent sales. Unfortunately, this can easily disrupt your gut microbiome and precipitate digestive problems.
Natural sources of probiotics
Contrary to popular belief, you can get plenty of probiotics from natural sources, such as:
Yogurt is one of the richest sources of probiotics.
This substance is the result of milk fermentation with friendly bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria. According to studies, consuming yogurt in moderate quantities leads to several health benefits, including the optimization of bone health and the lowering of blood pressure.
Additionally, antibiotic-associated colitis, which is a common condition seen in children after intake of antibiotics, quickly resolves after consuming probiotic-rich yogurts.
Note that antibiotic-associated colitis manifests with abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive symptoms.
Interestingly, researchers also found that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms improve after consuming yogurt.
However, keep in mind that not all yogurt contains live probiotics, as in some cases, the live bacteria have been killed during processing.
Kefir is a substance that is similar to thin yogurt; the basic component of this drink is fermented milk. It was originally used in eastern Europe and Russia.
In recent years, interest in kefir has grown substantially, which is because of the beneficial effects of kefir on general health, and especially, gastrointestinal health.
Because kefir is a fermented version of milk, people with lactose intolerance can drink it without any problem, which further contributed to its positive reputation.
Most importantly, kefir is very rich in probiotics, even more than yogurt.
As a result, it improves digestion and helps with gastrointestinal diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.
Lactobacillus kefiri is a type of probiotic found uniquely in kefir. This particular type contributes to the protection against harmful bacteria, such as Helicobacter pylori, E. coli, Salmonella, and Shigella.
Sauerkraut results from a fermentation process led by lactic acid-producing bacteria. It is a traditional food that’s especially popular around Europe.
Similar to other foods on this list, sauerkraut is quite rich in probiotics. However, it also has considerable amounts of fibre, vitamins (e.g., B, C, K), sodium, iron, and manganese.
When buying this product, make sure to opt for the unpasteurized form since other types of sauerkraut kill the healthy bacteria.
Probiotics and prebiotics are essential to keep your gastrointestinal tract healthy and to optimize other organs.
Hopefully, this article introduced this topic in a simple, entertaining manner. However, if you do have any questions or comments about anything, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below.