Prebiotics vs Probiotics: What’s the Difference?
You may already know that probiotics are the beneficial bacteria concentrated in your colon that help you digest and absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. They’re also your defense system against harmful bacteria, and prevent you from experiencing digestive symptoms and chronic digestive disorders. Probiotics have also been shown to protect against colon cancer.
Now, as essential as probiotics are for your gut, these friendly bacteria simply wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for prebiotics. You see, prebiotics are the “food” that feed probiotics, and allow them to grow and repopulate in your gut. For this reason, you can think of prebiotics as “gut fertilizer.”
While probiotics are found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi,kombucha and coconut yogurt, prebiotics are a type of indigestible fiber that’s found in certain plant foods.
Since this fiber cannot be digested in your small intestine, it passes through your GI tract and remains undigested as it enters your colon. This is where your friendly gut bacteria begin to breakdown or “ferment” the fiber, allowing them to grow and repopulate.
As you can see, prebiotics and probiotics have somewhat of a “symbiotic relationship,” where neither can survive without the other. And as the nutrient that feeds your probiotics, prebiotics also help your friendly bacteria do their jobs more efficiently.
Health Benefits of Prebiotics
Let’s take a closer look at how adding prebiotics to your diet each day can improve your overall health.
- Improved Digestion
It’s estimated that nearly 70 million people are affected by digestive disorders . Since many digestive disorders are often linked to a lack of healthy gut bacteria, prebiotics could be the nutrient your body needs to help repopulate your natural store of probiotics, which, in turn, can help alleviate painful digestive symptoms, such as gas and bloating.
By feeding and promoting the repopulation of your friendly gut bacteria, prebiotics can also help protect against bad bacteria overgrowth. Also known as bacterial dysbiosis, bad bacteria overgrowth can lead to stubborn intestinal bacterial conditions, such as candida or SIBO.
Both candida and SIBO are linked to digestive symptoms such as chronic bloating, gas, acid reflux, constipation, indigestion, nutrient malabsorption and brain fog.
- Stronger Immune System
Approximately 70% of your immune system is located in your gut—which is why having a healthy supply of probiotics cannot be emphasized enough (5). After all, the word “probiotic” literally translates to “giving life or pro-life” in Greek.
Needless to say, without the healthy bacteria that support your immune system, your body has no protection against the deadly viruses and bacteria that can kill you.
Sadly, many lifestyle factors in today’s society deplete our natural stores of probiotics, such as frequent antibiotic use, chronic stress, refined sugar and low fiber diets.
To worsen the matter, the Standard American Diet is rich in processed foods that contain little to no fiber, which means many people have a serious lack of prebiotics in their diet. This is why it’s no surprise that the occurrence of illness and disease is higher today than ever before.
Luckily, adding prebiotic foods to your diet can help replenish your body’s stores of probiotics, and contribute to keeping your immune system strong and healthy.
- Better Nutrient Absorption
Prebiotics help recolonize the probiotics in your gut. Since probiotics help us absorb essential nutrients, prebiotics are crucial for facilitating nutrient absorption by probiotics. In other words, without prebiotics, the probiotics in our gut wouldn’t exist. And therefore, we wouldn’t be able to absorb nutrients as efficiently.
Better nutrient absorption leads to better health all around: fewer sick days, reduced stress, healthier bones and teeth, increased feelings of happiness, and limitless energy.
In particular, studies suggest that probiotics can help your body absorb calcium and magnesium more efficiently, which are two essential minerals for stress management and maintaining bone density (6).
Probiotics have also been shown to produce certain vitamins in your GI tract, such as Vitamin K and several of the B vitamins, including B12, biotin and folic acid . B vitamins are essential for nervous system function and converting food into a usable form of energy.
- Sustainable Weight Loss
By improving your digestion, prebiotics may also contribute to sustainable weight loss. This is because a sluggish digestive system may eliminate toxins less efficiently, which may then get stored in your fat cells and contribute to weight gain.
It should also be noted that fibrous plant foods further contribute to weight loss because they’re slow to digest, allowing you to feel full for longer periods of time. Fiber also helps balance your blood sugar levels, which prevents your body from releasing excess insulin, a fat storage hormone .
- Natural Detoxification
If you’ve ever done a colon cleanse, chances are at least one variety of prebiotics was included in the protocol in the form of food or a nutritional supplement. Prebiotics can act as a natural detoxifier because they help improve bowel regularity, which may help your body eliminate toxins more efficiently (9).
- Stress Support
Plenty of research has been done on the gut-brain connection, which suggests your GI tract is like a “second brain” because it’s highly sensitive to emotion. For this reason, it’s suggested that poor gut health may influence negative emotions as well as feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, while good gut health can positively influence your emotions .
By improving your gut health with prebiotics, managing stress may become easier. You may also experience a greater sense of emotional well-being.
Now that you understand why prebiotics are a must-have nutrient for improving your health, let’s take a look at the best sources of prebiotics and how to add them to your diet each day.
Many foods that contain prebiotics are recommended on a Paleo diet. In fact, studies have shown that the typical male hunter-gatherer diet was rich in prebiotics, which is another reason why following a Primal diet is so beneficial for your health .
As you now understand, prebiotics are indigestible plant fibers. The most common types of prebiotics are inulin, resistant starch, fructooligosaccharides (also known as FOS’s, or fructans) and galacto-oligosaccharides.
These varieties of prebiotics can be found in several Paleo-friendly foods, such as:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Chicory root
- Sweet potatoes
- Unripened bananas and plantains
- Apples (especially the peels)
- Citrus fruits
- Yacon root
Eating the foods listed above in their raw form is said to be the best way to get prebiotics in your diet. However, it’s not every day that you’ll crave raw asparagus, yacon root or a green banana. Luckily, certain prebiotic foods such as green bananas are available in the form of flour, making it easier to add prebiotics to your recipes. Green banana flour can be added to your favorite Paleo snack recipes, such as Banana Flour and Raspberry Muffins.
Chicory root, one of the richest sources of inulin, many also seem tricky to add to your diet. But like green banana flour, chicory root can be added to Paleo snack recipes for a boost of prebiotics, such as Paleo Energy Bars and Paleo Chocolate Chip Zucchini Muffins. You can find chicory root in bulk at most health food stores.
Chicory root is also an ingredient that’s often included in plant-based, caffeine-free coffee substitutes. When combined with dandelion root, chicory root has a taste similar to espresso.
It’s also easy to include prebiotic foods in your Paleo lunch and dinner recipes. Here are a few of our favorite prebiotic Paleo recipes from our blog archives:
You can also find prebiotics in prebiotic supplements, which are typically made from chicory root and oligofructose powder.
Side Effects of Prebiotics
Based on how effective prebiotics are for improving health, who wouldn’t want to eat them at every meal?
While eating prebiotic-rich foods is a fast way to boost your health, there are precautions with increasing the prebiotics in your diet. Since plant fiber is tough for your body to break down and digest, adding too much fiber to your diet at once may cause digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating and abdominal cramping. This is especially true if you have a diet high in processed foods which contain very little fiber. In this case, it can take some time for your body to get used to breaking down high fiber foods.
How to Add Prebiotics to Your Diet
Now, that’s not to say you should avoid adding prebiotics to your diet, as they can greatly improve your health. Instead, I’ll leave you with these last few tips for adding prebiotics to your diet, which can help prevent the onset of digestive symptoms.
Start Slow and Gradually Increase
Everyone will have a different tolerance to prebiotics, based on their current diet and digestive health. For this reason, it’s best to start slow when adding prebiotics to your diet, and gradually increase each week.
For example, you may start by having a Green Banana Flour muffin for breakfast, and a sweet potato at dinner. If you experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms, such as gas or bloating after high fiber meals, you’ll know that your body’s tolerance to fibrous foods is low. Therefore, it’s best to eat small amounts of these foods until symptoms after meals disappear.
Increase Your Water Intake
As you increase your fiber intake, you’ll also need to increase your water intake. This is because water helps move fiber through your digestive tract. If you don’t simultaneously increase your water intake, you may find that high fiber foods constipate you.
Increasing your water intake is as easy as drinking an extra glass of water as soon as you wake up in the morning, or even having a green smoothie each day full of high water-content veggies, such as celery and romaine lettuce.
Pay Close Attention to How You Feel After Meals
Your body knows best, so don’t forget to pay close attention to how you feel after eating a high-fiber meal. Paying attention to how you feel after meals, as well as noting the frequency of bowel movements, can help you determine whether you need to increase or decrease the prebiotic foods in your diet, and if you’re getting enough water each day.