Probiotics and prebiotics keep your gut bacteria healthy, but do you know the difference between the two? We got the gut health lowdown from our pharmacist Daniel Zhou…
When it comes to gut health, it pays to eat right. The foods and nutrients we consume play a huge role in our overall health and wellbeing. In fact, it’s fundamental — the gut is one of the epicentres of your body, housing 70 per cent of the cells that make up your immune system, and 90 per cent of the body’s serotonin—a neurotransmitter responsible for your mood, appetite, sexual desire, sleep, digestion and memory.
It does’t just digest food, it regulates everything from your weight to your mood to brain health, inflammation and immune function.
You are essentially what you feed the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut, so it’s important to make sure that you’re feeding it correctly. The food that you eat considerably affects the types of bacteria that live inside you — if you don’t put the right nutrients into your body you’ll upset the balance of bacteria in your gut, which means that your health can suffer as a result.
But it’s not just what you eat that determines your health, it’s how effectively your gut breaks down that food and absorbs the vitamins, minerals and nutrients into your body. And that means you have to balance out the good and bad bacteria in your gut. Keeping it healthy is key to healthy digestion, immunity and overall health.
So what is good gut health?
The lining of your gut, like every surface of your body, is covered in microscopic creatures, made up mostly of bacteria. These organisms create a micro-ecosystem called the microbiome — the most dense microbe population is in your gut, where they play a critical role in digestion, immune function and weight regulation.
A person has between 300 to 1,000 different species of bacteria (microorganisms) in their digestive tract. While some are harmful to our health — studies have shown that specific types of bacteria in the gut can lead to a number of health issues including low immune function, allergies, chronic illness (such as heart disease and diabetes) as well as anxiety and depression — many of them play an essential role in keeping our bodies healthy.
So, what you feed your microbiome really does have an impact on your overall health. The healthier it is, the healthier you are.
How do you maintain good gut health?
A healthy microbiome = a healthy gut. To keep your microbiome healthy you must balance out the good and the bad bacteria in your gut. Your gut bacteria absorb the types of nutrients you consume, they also have an impact on certain hormones and transmitters, and send chemical messages around your body.
If you’re eating too many processed foods, for example, the bacteria in your gut can’t do its job properly because there are no nutrients to absorb, and there are no good chemicals to send to your brain, thus creating an imbalance that can lead to further health problems. The key is keeping that healthy balance.
There are two ways to maintain this balance — helping the microbes already there to grow by giving them the foods they like (prebiotic) and adding living microbes (beneficial bacteria) directly to your digestive system (probiotic).
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are classified as the non-digestible food ingredients that probiotics can feed off. They don’t actually contain bacteria, they are fuel to help bacteria grow. They’re used in the gut to increase healthy bacteria, aid digestion and enhance the production of essential vitamins.
They can be found in a variety of high fibre fruits and vegetables — particularly those containing complex carbohydrates, such as fibre and resistant starch. Your body can’t digest these carbs, so they pass through the digestive system to become food for the bacteria and other microbes.
Prebiotic foods run the gamut from asparagus to onions to bananas, cocoa and oats — the list is endless, but essentially they’re all mainly rich in fibre. You can find a more detailed list here, or if you’d prefer, you can always arrange a consultation with a registered dietitian who will be able to advise you on a specialised diet plan.
You can also take prebiotic supplements — they usually contain a complex carbohydrate such as fibre to stimulate the growth and activity of certain 'good' bacteria in the large intestine. You can take these orally, and many of them target specific conditions such as bone health, weight management or irritable bowel syndrome.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you, especially your digestive system. They help to maintain or improve the good bacteria already present in the human body. Unlike prebiotics, they contain live organisms, usually specific strains of bacteria that directly add to the population of healthy microbes in your gut. Probiotics thrive on a diet of (what our digestive tract would consider to be) indigestible sugars and fibres.
You can find probiotics in supplements and certain foods — these are usually fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and kimchi. They’re thought to help restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut (including your stomach and intestines) when it's been disrupted by an illness or treatment. A diet rich in probiotics helps to produce more of the friendly bacteria your body needs to protect itself from illness and other health issues.
Probiotic supplements also contain live organisms. A single dose may include a particular strain of microbe or blend of microbes. Like with prebiotic supplements, probiotic supplements can target specific conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
In fact, studies show that probiotic supplements can help with a number of health issues, including digestive and gastrointestinal health, mental health, immunity and general health.
For example, your doctor may prescribe probiotics alongside a course of antibiotics. This is because antibiotics disrupt the microbiome, dramatically changing the amount and type of bacteria in the gut. These changes in the gut microflora can lead antibiotic-associated diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal side effects.
Taking probiotics balances out the microbiome to prevent these reactions. They do this by introducing beneficial bacteria into the gut to help restore that healthy microbiome balance, and to prevent harmful bacteria becoming too abundant.
How do probiotics and prebiotics work together?
An easy way to remember the difference between the two: probiotics contain good (pro) bacteria, while prebiotics act as fuel for these good bacteria.
Prebiotics and probiotics are vital for the health of not only your gut, but your body in general. Prebiotics are types of fibre that provide nourishment to your health-promoting gut bacteria, whereas probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that boost your overall health.
Without prebiotics, probiotics can’t thrive because eating probiotic foods along with prebiotic fibres encourages safe delivery of healthy bacteria to your gut, and also gives them a food source to convert to beneficial organic compounds.
Ultimately, prebiotics, or "good" bacteria promoters, and probiotics, the "good" bacteria, work together in synergy. In other words, prebiotics are breakfast, lunch and dinner for probiotics, which ultimately work to improve and restore your GI and overall health.
So which supplements should I take?
Unless your healthcare practitioner or dietician suggests otherwise, most people can freely consume a diet of pre- and probiotic foods. However, you should always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming pre or probiotic supplements, or changing your dietary routine, especially if you’re taking other medications or supplements, or if you are being treated for any specific health condition.
Because there are so many different varieties of probiotics and prebiotics to choose from, it can be difficult to know which supplement is right for you. That’s because everyone’s microbiome is unique, so there’s no best prebiotic and probiotic specifically for you — at least not without taking a microbiome test and consulting a nutritionist to find the right combination.
For instance, one type of bacteria commonly used is lactobacillus. There are, however, more than 120 species of lactobacillus, and at least a dozen of them are used as probiotics. Every type of bacteria is made up of multiple species — the amount of bacteria can also differ between brands — so it’s not easy picking the right one when there are so many different variations out there, and when your microbiome is uniquely different to everyone else’s.
Our advice? Research the condition you wish to address and select the probiotic/prebiotic based on that specific health concern. It’s also worth noting that people react differently to each type of supplement, so whilst it may be successful in treating symptoms in one person, it could have a completely different reaction in someone else.
As always, when considering taking supplements, talk to your health care professional first.
Here are our pharmacist, Daniel Zhou’s recommendations:
Blackmores Probiotics+ Daily Health contains five probiotic strains providing 30 billion good bacteria, plus a prebiotic. It helps restore digestive balance and maintain digestive and intestinal health.
This multi-strain probiotic contains 15 strains of beneficial bacteria. Specifically formulated to support general health and wellbeing, digestive health and immune health.
Life-Space have a great kids, breastfeeding, pregnancy and general probiotics range.
To prevent vaginal thrush, we suggest Women’s Microflora Probiotic — it helps to restore the natural balance of the vaginal flora.
For anyone with digestive issues and/or a low iron count, Inner Health offers a women’s energy and gut health probiotic that boosts iron levels whilst also reducing digestive complaints.
Life-Space Digestive Enzymes are ideal for people who struggle with their gut health. They help the digestion of carbohydrates, lactose and fats whilst also assisting in the digestion of plant foods containing cellulose.
Inner Health IBS Control works to reduce and relieve gut pain, discomfort, intestinal gas and bloating as well as supporting a healthy bowel function.
Inner Health Digestive Defence works to support a healthy balance of good gut bacteria. Relieve digestive discomfort or symptoms of medically diagnosed Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Suitable for both children and adults, this eleven strain probiotic powder supports gastrointestinal health to keep the immune system healthy, maintain and balance beneficial intestinal flora and vagina flora/microflora, and provide relief of symptoms of medically diagnosed Irritable Bowel Syndrome, including abdominal bloating/distention and excess intestinal gas, and flatulence/carminative and abdominal pain.
Swisse Ultibiotic Daily Immune Probiotic provides daily immune support to protect against illness. These probiotics also help to reduce the severity of common cold symptoms.
Blackmores Probiotics+ Immune Defence combines probiotics with zinc and vitamin C to support good bacterial growth and healthy immune function.
Life-Space Probiotic 60+ Years helps to aid digestive issues and supports a healthy immune system for those who are over 60.
Loved our guide to gut health? Now you know the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, we've got plenty more health advice to check out on our Health & Wellness Edit. Can supplements really boost your immune system? Are you suffering from depression or could you have vitamin D deficiency?