If you’ve yet to be convinced that gut health is important, you’re in the right place. These days it seems like almost everyone is talking about it, whether it’s friends, the news, people you follow on social media, and so on. Or maybe you do know that gut health is important, but you’re confused by conflicting recommendations and articles and advice and just don’t know who to listen to.
We all know that we need to eat food to survive and that the gut, GI tract, GI system, however you want to refer to it (more on this here), is responsible for dealing with said food. However, it’s a much more complicated system than previously thought. It may seem trendy now (looking at you, probiotics and fermented foods), but it’s much more than a trend.
Welcome to our gut health series. Follow along to dive into this topic to help make it a little less complicated.
Probiotics vs. Prebiotics: What are they?
Probiotics, and their up-and-coming counterparts, prebiotics, might be more than a trend.
“In human intestines, there are many strains of two main species of friendly bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium,” according to Dr. Gail Cresci, Ph.D., RD from the Cleveland Clinic. Probiotics and prebiotics both play supporting roles to those two main species in their own unique way.
Probiotics are, simply put, live microorganisms, or more simply put, the good guys. They have various and varying health benefits and some adverse effects, depending on who you talk to or which website you read.
The benefits range from the treatment of diarrhea to aiding digestion. But more on that, and the potential harm, later.
On the other hand, prebiotics are essentially food for the good bacteria that live in our gut. And lucky for them, they’re able to consume this food because the human body cannot digest it (certain fibers and resistant starches).
Do we need them?
While we don’t need probiotics or prebiotics like we need essential vitamins like Vitamin A or Vitamin B12, it’s worth considering the benefits they offer to determine whether they are necessary for you.
But since prebiotics are food for the good bacteria in our gut, and this food is (primarily) fiber, which is kind of a big deal, it’s probably safe to say that yes, we do need some prebiotics in our diet.
(If you’re asking yourself why you should care about the bacteria in your gut, check out the first post in our Gut Health Series here.)
Depending on your diet, you may already be consuming sufficient amounts of prebiotics to keep those good gut bacteria happy. However, maybe you’re one of the 97% of Americans who don’t consume enough fiber in their diet, or perhaps you have a chronic disease or have an altered immune system that limits the number of good bacteria in your gut.
The bottom line, we need to keep the good guys in our gut happy. Because if they’re not happy, then neither are we. The level of “need” will vary among individuals.
And hey, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you’re unsure whether to add more pro- or prebiotics into your diet, consider starting small. A gradual increase may even help your body to adjust better. You could also consider one of the lower-dose probiotic options on the market (you can find our low-dose Probiotic Blend here).
Are they harmful?
The dose makes the poison, whether it’s a glass of wine versus an entire bottle or a small handful of chips versus a family-sized bag. You know the difference.
Let’s take yogurt as another example. If you’re not a regular yogurt eater (this goes for both vegan and non-vegan yogurts), and you decide to have a serving (or more) of yogurt, you may find yourself running to the bathroom. This is likely because your body needs time to adjust.
Other potential side effects when adding more probiotics into your diet may include (but are not limited to) mild stomach upset, gas, and bloating.
Similarly, suppose you’re used to eating the Standard American Diet (which is very low in fiber) and start consuming more fiber in the form of whole plant foods. In that case, you may also experience some gas and bloating while your body adapts.
A note about kombucha: The fermented tea that (likely) first originated in China has been taking up shelf space in health food stores (and restaurant menus) in recent years. And while companies and the Internet go on and on about their health claims, there are limited studies supporting such claims. However, there are cases reporting severe and even fatal metabolic acidosis after kombucha consumption (as mentioned in this video).
Fermented foods like miso and tempeh, on the other hand, don’t raise similar red flags.
So, while most people may consume kombucha without any negative consequences, it might make sense to avoid or limit consumption until there are more studies supporting positive effects than negative.
Other possible side effects of probiotics include headaches, allergy symptoms, allergic reactions (due to ingredients in the probiotic - food or supplement), and infections in those who are susceptible or immunocompromised (though this is rare).
Bottom line, for the majority of healthy individuals, probiotics are generally considered to be safe. And since prebiotics are most likely consumed in the form of whole plant foods, they’re as safe as any other food you may consume, taking allergies and medical conditions (and medications) into account.
What are the benefits?
More fiber! That is if you’re focusing on prebiotics.
Why is fiber important? Well, besides helping to make those trips to the bathroom a bit more regular, you can think of fiber as a natural detoxifier, flushing away toxins like lead and mercury as well as excess cholesterol and estrogen. It’s also known to reduce certain cancers like colon and breast and may even decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
Other benefits of prebiotics include improved immune function, fewer bad guys in the gut, and more short-chain fatty acids (which are important for optimal gut and immune health).
The benefits of probiotics are equally impressive. While they’re commonly used to treat diarrhea and constipation and aid digestion, probiotics are also used to treat irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.
They may also help with conditions such as eczema, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Probiotics can even help improve insulin resistance and immune function.
It’s worth noting that different strains may be used for specific treatments. So, as always, please consult your healthcare provider before taking action on your own.
What about taking probiotics with or after antibiotics?
As previously hinted at in this post, the best intentions can have negative and long-lasting consequences to overall gut health.
Appropriate prescribing aside, antibiotics tend to kill the good guys along with the bad. So, once you’ve completed a course of antibiotics and have gotten rid of the not-so-friendly bacteria in your body (yay!), your gut may be in a state of imbalance (more on that here).
You might have read online or heard from a friend that you need to take probiotics to restore balance. However, you may be better off letting your gut microbiome bounce back all on its own versus loading up on probiotics.
The idea behind replacing what was lost from the antibiotics makes sense. If you’re low on good bacteria because they were killed along with the harmful bacteria, why not replace them?
Well, unless your healthcare provider is concerned about the development of Clostridium difficile (a potentially life-threatening opportunistic bacteria, depending on your current health status), some studies (like these: 1,2) suggest that people who allow their gut microbiome to rebalance naturally do so more quickly than those who supplement with probiotics.
Want a natural way to speed up this rebalancing in the gut? Feed the good guys with, you guessed it, fiber.
How do we get them?
You can get probiotics in the form of supplements or foods, such as yogurt and other fermented foods (miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and unpasteurized pickled vegetables).
(You want to look for unpasteurized as the pasteurization process kills the bacteria.)
You can even make your own fermented foods at home.
Keep in mind that there are many different types of probiotic supplements. Some will only contain one strain, while others will have a blend. It’s also common to see probiotic supplements target specific conditions with specific strains.
Another thing to consider, and research, is whether the probiotic supplement you’re considering is designed to make it all the way to your gut, as the acid destroys some in the stomach.
You can get prebiotics by consuming complex carbohydrates (fiber and resistant starch), such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes.
You can even get a synbiotic, which is a combination supplement containing both probiotics and prebiotics. Some of these may advertise the addition of inulin, a type of carbohydrate that is high in fiber. Dr. Cresci recommends getting inulin either in the form of a synbiotic or by eating Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes), a very rich source of inulin.
So, which is better, probiotics or prebiotics?
It’s not exactly a question of which is better, but which is best for you (like everything). And it depends on why you’re taking them or thinking about taking them, in the first place. It’s much better to start from a place of why than to start from a place of societal or peer pressure.
The best approach involves a balance of both prebiotics and probiotics in your diet. However, this may not always be possible to achieve. Whether it’s a change in lifestyle or a medical condition, it may be appropriate for you to supplement.
If you follow a vegan diet, make sure to check your labels! This is a good rule of thumb in general, but probiotics, specifically, may contain non-vegan ingredients (such as dairy).
If you’ve decided that taking a probiotic supplement is the right move for you, preferably after speaking with your healthcare provider or a registered dietician, please check out our probiotic products here and here.
This blog post does not provide health or medical advice. This blog post is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health or medical advice. Before taking any actions based upon such information, we encourage you to consult with the appropriate medical and healthcare professionals. We do not provide any kind of health or medical advice. The use or reliance of any information contained on this blog is solely at your own risk.