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Prebiotics vs Probiotics: Which Should You Be Taking?

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Scientists believe that our human body contains up to 300 trillion bacteria, and a vast majority of these bacteria reside in the colon [1].  

Of all the microorganisms that thrive in your colon, many do not bring about any good or bad outcomes. While some of them are pathogenic and can lead to diseases, others help maintain your digestive and general health and well-being.

Prebiotics vs Probiotics: Which Should You Be Taking? 

Probiotics and prebiotics are beneficial bacteria and food, they are essential for gut bacteria and affect the balance of microbiota in the digestive tract. Whether this effect is explicitly beneficial is a question yet to be answered.  

What Are Probiotics?  

Probiotics refer to live bacteria found in food or supplements consumed to improve digestive health or general well-being. Many of the bacteria strains found in probiotics are similar to those occurring naturally in your digestive tract [2].  

Commonly, probiotics contain a diverse population of various microorganisms. The strains of bacteria that you will typically find in probiotics fall under the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium groups. Some probiotic products may also contain other strains of bacteria and yeasts. Each probiotic product will benefit the consumer differently, depending on the strains and species of bacteria found in those products [2].  

Probiotics interact with your naturally occurring gut microbiota, which, in turn, reinforces the integrity of the intestinal wall and modulates your body's immune system response [3]. The gut barrier function is improved by restoring mucus layer thickness and downregulation of intestinal cell inflammation by these beneficial microbes [4].  

What Are Prebiotics?  

Prebiotics are the fiber that cannot be digested or absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract but instead serve as nutrients for the good bacteria present in the gut.  

These dietary fibers are composed of carbohydrate polymers which serve no nutritional benefit for the human body but undergo the fermentation process performed by bacteria communities in the gut. This process triggers changes in the composition or activity of those bacteria [5].  

The fermentation of these mainly carbohydrate-based prebiotics by these strains alters and improves bacterial growth and functionality. As a result, this confers certain benefits upon the host, including better bowel movement and habits due to increased fecal bulking [3].  

Though the effects are primarily indirect, prebiotics can generally help improve the immune system function. This is done by increasing the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and decreasing the expression of proinflammatory cytokines [6].  

This indirect benefit in modulating the immune system is that prebiotics reduce harmful bacteria and encourage the growth of good and protective microbes in the digestive tract [6].  

Prebiotics vs Probiotics: Which Should You Be Taking?

The Difference Between Probiotics And Prebiotics 

Nature 

Probiotics are bacteria found in food, while prebiotics are indigestible fiber.  

Composition 

Probiotics are composed of different strains of bacteria with or without yeasts, while prebiotics are composed mainly of carbohydrate-based fiber.  

Function 

Probiotics are good bacteria that interact with the bacteria naturally found in your gut to maintain a healthy balance of microbiota in your digestive tract. On the other hand, prebiotics stimulate the growth and activity of good bacteria in your gut.  

Prebiotics vs Probiotics

Sources  

Probiotics are naturally found or added to most fermented foods, including yogurt, cheese, pickles, miso, kimchi, sourdough, and tempeh [15]. Foods containing prebiotics include sugar beet, garlic, asparagus, wheat, honey, barley, beans, and peas [16].  

Some companies manufacture supplements and products exclusively designed to contain higher amounts of probiotics and prebiotics than foods.  

The labels of these products should inform you of the species, strains, and groups and the number of bacteria in the product expected to stay alive until the best before use date if the storage instructions are followed closely [17].  

This information can be overwhelming, so it is best to consult your doctor or pharmacist to attain the most suitable product for yourself. 


Potential Health Benefits Of Probiotics And Prebiotics  

You do not need to take both prebiotics and probiotics, but taking them together may increase efficacy. Preparations containing both prebiotics and probiotics are known as synbiotics [7].  

Treating Diarrhea 

Probiotics and prebiotics have been vastly studied in terms of their benefits in shortening or reducing the severity of diarrhea symptoms, including acute infectious diarrhea and antibiotic-associated diarrhea [7, 8, 9]. The research findings show that probiotics with or without prebiotics play a role in treating these diseases as they compete with pathogenic disease-causing organisms in the gut for nutrients and receptor binding sites and inhibit these pathogens from adhering to the intestinal wall. Probiotics also modulate your body's immune system response [7, 8, 9].  

Skin Health 

Research suggests that both prebiotics and probiotics are good for skin health. They may be able to improve your skin's condition by altering the immune system response and producing therapeutic benefits if you struggle with skin conditions such as eczema, skin hypersensitivity and allergic inflammation, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and acne [10,11]. Topically and orally administered probiotics and prebiotics are prescribed to improve those conditions by re-establishing normal and healthy skin microbiome [10].  

Other Health Benefits 

Synbiotics are food and supplements combining probiotics and prebiotics. They could reduce the frequency and severity of urinary tract infections in women and respiratory tract infections in consumers [12]. A few other studies also suggest that they also help improve mental health and psychological functioning in conditions such as anxiety, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, depression, and autism by modulating the function of messengers in the central nervous system. However, these studies have considerable limitations, and none of them have yet to guarantee or confirm the efficacy [13].  

Further studies suggest that synbiotics are also beneficial in managing type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and other conditions affecting the digestive tract, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), enteritis, and lactose intolerance [14]. However, many of these benefits remain a possibility and not a guarantee.  

Should You Take Probiotics Or Prebiotics? 

These supplements are generally safe if consumed according to the instructions. Nevertheless, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not officially approved any of these products to treat or cure diseases or medical conditions [17]. If you want to improve your digestive health, skin health, or immune system, you may reap some benefits from these products.  

Suppose you are currently pregnant, breastfeeding, taking any medications, herbal products, regular supplements, or any medical condition. In that case, the safest action is to consult your healthcare provider before commencing any of these products.  


Prebiotics Vs Probiotics: Summing Up 

Probiotics and prebiotics have been shown through numerous studies to benefit your digestive health and skin health. While all these benefits have yet to be thoroughly confirmed, you can use probiotics and prebiotics to supplement your usual medications as they are generally safe.  

They should never replace the medicines prescribed by your healthcare professional, though. Plus, it is better to consult your physician before adding it into your medication routine to cross out the chances of any dangerous interactions.  

References:

[1] https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/036103v1 
[2] https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know 
[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41575-019-0173-3 
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6974441/ 
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5390821/ 
[6] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00430-016-0481-y 
[7] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1151505 
[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6532699/ 
[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30278238/ 
[10] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00403-017-1750-3 
[11] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24364369/ 
[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7090755/ 
[13] https://www.eurekaselect.com/178137/article 
[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5622781/ 
[15] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-get-more-probiotics 
[16] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6463098/ 
[17] https://gastro.org/practice-guidance/gi-patient-center/topic/choosing-the-right-probiotics/ 

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