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Probiotics vs. Prebiotics: Understanding the Differences

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Remember all those commercials that were on for a while with the yogurt in the green packaging that talked all about how it was packed with billions of active and live probiotics? If you’re not familiar with probiotics and what they do, the words “active” and “live” associated with something you’re about to put in your mouth may seem off-putting. Really, though, there’s nothing crawling around in there — it’s all so microscopic that you’d have no idea about any of it except for the big announcement on the carton.

So just what are probiotics? They’re beneficial bacteria — live, of course — found in various foods and supplements. The reason for all the fanfare? They provide numerous benefits to your health — which, by all accounts, is a reason to put it on the “must” list. As you’ve already noted, yogurt is a natural source of probiotics; but there are also a number of other places to find these helpful bacteria, such as fermented foods (stop wrinkling your nose and just read) including:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha tea
  • Unpasteurized pickled veggies 
  • Kefir
  • Miso soup

So, now that you know about probiotics, it’s time to learn what prebiotics bring to the party. Simply put, they are food for beneficial bacteria. Think you need a supplement to get prebiotics? Think again. You can actually find them in a wide variety of foods that are probably in your pantry or on your grocery list. Prebiotics come from various forms of carbohydrates — fiber, for example — that aren’t digestible by humans, but the beneficial bacteria in your gut (collectively known as gut flora or gut microbiota) eat this fiber. From there, your good gut bacteria turn it into a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate. 

Short-chain fatty acids act as the main source of nutrients to the cells that line your digestive tracts, which promotes a barrier for keeping out all the bad stuff: viruses, bacteria … you get the picture. That barrier also reduces inflammation and is believed to help reduce the risk of developing cancer. Convinced yet?

Foods high in prebiotics include: 

  • Legumes, peas, and beans
  • Oats
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus 
  • Berries
  • Bananas
  • Dandelion greens
  • Chicory root
  • Garlic
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Oats
  • Apple skin

The importance of all of this good (that word is VERY important) bacteria in your digestive tract is to protect you from harmful bacteria and fungi, and eating a proper ratio of pro- and prebiotics helps ensure that you have a good balance of bacteria to help keep your gut microbiota healthy. This is essential because, as studies show, gut bacteria aid the functions of the immune system, supports weight control, and even helps improve symptoms caused by depression. No small feat for such tiny microorganisms, right? 

So, what’s the bottom line here? You need both pro- and prebiotics to maintain a healthy digestive system and balanced gut bacteria. Discuss your needs with your healthcare provider to find out if you’re getting the right amounts and whether you might need to begin taking supplements.

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