Probiotics and prebiotics are often put on a pedestal as a solution for several ailments, but what exactly are they and do they work? Here’s everything you need to know.

Balance is one of the most sought-after characteristics in life, including when managing gut health. An unbalanced gut microbiome can contribute to a slew of digestion, metabolic, and neurological disorders, so if you’re struggling to cure uncomfortable symptoms, it’s tempting to try anything (and everything) that’s popular in the market. 

Maybe you’ve gone all-in on fermented foods or bought pills recommended on Instagram but have no clue if they’re doing anything. Since we’re often left with more questions than answers when it comes to our well-being, we’re delving into the mysterious world of probiotics and prebiotics for more clarity on what and how to consume them — plus, how these supplements impact gut health.

Each person’s gut microbiome is unique

The gut microbiome is one of the keys to regulating individual health. It resides in your colon and is home to trillions of microorganisms — such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses — and their genes. The diverse community of microorganisms, also called microbiota or microbes, has several crucial functions. 

  • Regulates digestion along your gastrointestinal (GI) tract 
  • Extracts, synthesizes, and absorbs nutrients and metabolites, including vitamins, fatty acids, lipids, bile acids, and amino acids
  • Prevents the growth of disease-causing bacteria
  • Produces bacteriocins that protect the body from infections
  • Maintains the internal lining of the gut to restrict leakage

But depending on your lifestyle and diet, your gut microbiome can switch up on you anytime. Continuous abnormalities leading to an unbalanced gut may have links to health issues, such as inflammatory bowel diseases (like IBS), type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, and other disorders. If you’re experiencing irregularities, your doctor can conduct tests to determine if the state of your gut is to blame. 

Photos courtesy of Pexels.

Read more: How (and why) to Improve Your Gut Health

The difference between probiotics and prebiotics

Both probiotics and prebiotics play different roles in keeping your gut microbiome’s ratio of good and bad bacteria balanced and functioning well. To be considered a true probiotic, scientists support the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization’s definition: “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit.” 

Essentially, these live strains of good bacteria restock microbes in the gut. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics says probiotics assist your immune system, digestion, vitamin production, and nutrient absorption. 


Examples of probiotic foods:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Miso
  • Natto
  • Tempeh
  • Kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented vegetables, depending on how they are processed
  • Dry fermented sausages
  • Most cheeses
  • Most kombuchas

Prebiotics act as food for select microbes in your gut to help them do their job and strengthen healthy bacteria growth. Most prebiotics are dietary fibers that help prevent constipation, increase bowel movements, improve mineral absorption, and regulate blood sugar.

Examples of prebiotic foods:

  • Chicory Root
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Oats
  • Bananas
  • Green tea

Sameer Islam, MD of Lubbock Gastroenterology says people likely won’t experience any benefits if they take probiotics alone and recommends combining prebiotic foods with probiotic foods. 

You can also try synbiotic supplements, which combine prebiotics and probiotics to potentially increase the likelihood of healthy bacteria’s survival in the gut. However, the research is still preliminary on if the outcome is better. 


How do I know what to take, how much, and when?

Since no two gut microbiomes are the same, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to taking probiotics and prebiotics via food, capsules, or powders. Your needs will differ from the person next to you, the person next to them, and so on. And since these products are available in an unregulated, over-the-counter market, stay clear of vague claims not backed by clinical research. 

Despite what wellness ads try to tell you, probiotics and prebiotics are not effective for everyone. They can also potentially trigger side effects, like an allergic reaction, antibiotic resistance, or an upset stomach, and if you’re pregnant, immunocompromised, or have a severe illness, be especially careful. 

Cut down some of the guesswork by speaking with your doctor to understand the health of your gut and determine any risks if you are on medications. After those conversations, here are some tips to help you feel more confident when shopping for probiotics and prebiotics. 


Understand each probiotic’s benefit

Probiotics have several species with many different strains — in fact, thousands — and you’ll want to decide which to take based on the benefit you seek. The lengthy names of probiotics identify their genus, species, and strain. Two genus types are considered the most important bacteria for the gut: Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. 

Bifidobacteria live and grow in the colon and generally help with inflammatory processes, carbohydrate digestion, and mood regulation. Lactobacillus inhabit the small intestine to help with lactose digestion, regular bowel movements, and cholesterol levels. 


Choose fermented foods with live microbes

Not all fermented foods have probiotics. During fermentation, live microbes are killed or removed if the item has been pasteurized, baked, or filtered — for example, baked bread, shelf-stable pickles, and vinegar. While delicious, these aren’t probiotic foods.

Photos courtesy of Pexels.

Read more: The Lowdown on Fermented Foods

Learn to read labels

Supplement labels can be baffling. What does “12 billion CFU” mean? How do you pronounce these long words? Is this dose enough to help? Getting answers for the latter is tricky. There are no official guidelines for an effective daily dose of probiotics and prebiotics, but understanding the labels can help while the research is ongoing. 

Some prebiotic supplements won’t say “prebiotic” on them. Instead, you might see Galactooligosaccharides (GOS), Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), Oligofructose (OF), Chicory fiber, or Inulin. 

Here is a list of what to review when perusing probiotic labels.

  • Genus, species, and strain names: This shows exactly what’s in the product. 
  • Colony Forming Units: The CFU is the number of live microbes per serving or dose. Keep in mind that a bigger number doesn’t necessarily mean better, and avoid probiotics that say “at time of manufacture” on the packaging because the CFU can decline while in storage. Instead, look for a “use by” or “ expiration” date. 
  • Suggested dose or serving size: This tells you how much to take each day for the best chance of benefiting from it.
  • Recommended use: Some companies list the expected benefits. Don’t rely solely on this; do a quick search to verify that a clinical study backs the company’s claims.
  • Storage information: Some probiotics must be refrigerated to maintain quality and safety. 
  • Company contact: This is handy if you have questions or need to report adverse effects.

The future of microbiome science and its relation to probiotics and prebiotics will continue to be a hot topic for scientists and the public. Hopefully, new studies and evolving technology will uncover more precise answers to enhance gut health stability.

Read more: Can Taking Probiotics Make You Happier?

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