What’s the Difference Between a Probiotic and Prebiotic?

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Q: What is the difference between a probiotic and a prebiotic? What is a prebiotic anyways? What does that mean?

A: This is a great question because there is so much information that the scientific community continues to discover about probiotics and prebiotics. For those who do not know, a probiotic is good bacteria that live in our digestive system. We can increase the number and diversity of these bacteria with food intake and supplementation. Interestingly enough, there is no sufficient evidence to provide a recommendation for how much or what kinds of probiotic to ingest. Prebiotics on the other hand are the foods that probiotics eat to survive. Prebiotics are fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A healthy digestive system needs both prebiotics and probiotics to maintain healthy colonization and support our immune system. These bacteria and microorganisms live together as a community and they are called microbiota. Our microbiota help to digest our food, absorb vitamins, and produce anti-inflammatory compounds. Just as we can be negatively affected by illness, stress, and lifestyle choices, so can our microbiota.

Probiotics can be found in foods or supplements in pill form. The most commonly known probiotic is yogurt- containing lactobacillus bacterium. Often it is suggested to increase yogurt intake when taking an antibiotic to replenish the good bacteria in the intestines that may decrease in number during the recovery process. But lactobacillus is only one kind of probiotic and more than 1000 species of bacteria live in a healthy digestive tract. Bacteria in the digestive tract differ in number and in type from person to person. Also, to maintain that healthy digestive tract, probiotics must be eaten or taken regularly, not just when we are ill. So for gut health, I recommend eating a variety of probiotic foods and a variety of prebiotic fibers, as your diet allows.

Probiotic foods follow a similar trend as they are all fermented. Some examples are fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut or kimchi. Sauerkraut and kimchi can be scrambled in eggs for breakfast or added to a stir fry bowl at dinner. Other fermented products can be found in the dairy group with kefir, sour cream, and buttermilk. Kombucha is a fermented tea. Some proteins that are also considered probiotics are natto, miso, and tempeh.

Prebiotics, the food of probiotics,  break down in our bowel producing butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid. The breakdown of that fiber can cause cramping, bloating and other unpleasant digestive symptoms in certain individuals. Sometimes this pain is short-term as the body adjusts to an increase in fiber intake, but for some individuals this pain does not decrease with continued consumption. For those without a history of gastrointestinal difficulties it is advisable to increase water intake when attempting to increase fiber intake. The additional fluid is needed for breakdown of the added ruffage. There is fiber and then there is prebiotic fiber which is highly fermentable. Prebiotic fiber can be found in asparagus, avocado, banana, eggplant, garlic, leek, onions, honey, sunchokes, jicama, beans, whole grains, and yogurt.

Citation: Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Probiotics and Prebiotics, what you need to know. Integrative.org. 2018.

Looking to make your own fermented foods? Sign up for the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Transylvania County Center fermentation series and learn how to make Sauerkraut and Shrubs ( a drinking vinegar). Sauerkraut making class is on August 9th from 5-7 p.m. and Shrub making class will be on August 25th from 5-6 p.m. Both will take place at the Cooperative Extension office at 106 East Main Street in Brevard NC. Find more details at EventBrite.com or theN.C. Cooperative Extension, Transylvania County Center website.

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