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What is the Difference between a Probiotic and Prebiotic? Part One ~

Prebiotics v Probiotics

The human gut is teeming with a diverse array of bacteria, but don’t be alarmed! Unlike organisms that cause illness, the trillions of bacteria that live in the digestive tract are gut-friendly bacteria that have potential health benefits. In fact, a growing body of research finds that the bacteria that call the gut home impact digestive health, nutrient absorption, and immune health. Some research even suggests that gut bacteria regulate body weight by their effect on appetite and metabolism.

Each person has a unique population of gut bacteria that make up their gut microbiome. The microbiome is made up of 100 trillion bacteria and each person’s gut population is vastly different. In a way, the gut microbiome is a unique “fingerprint.” However, the makeup of the microbiome can change fast. Studies show that the composition of the gut microbiome can shift in as little as a day in response to dietary changes and antibiotics.

One reason people take a probiotic supplement is to protect their gut against the damaging effects of antibiotics.  Unfortunately, antibiotics kill bad bacteria and healthy ones, and it can take months or even a year for the gut to recover from a single dose of antibiotics. That’s where probiotics come in. A review from the Cochrane database, a repository of evidence-based research reviews, showed that taking a probiotic during antibiotic therapy lowered the risk of developing diarrhea by 60%.

The Role of Prebiotics in Gut Health

probiotic food preparation kimchi and korean carrots

Probiotics are a growing trend, but a term you hear less about but which are no less important is “prebiotic.” People sometimes confuse probiotics and prebiotics but they are distinct entities. Prebiotics are the food and source of energy that probiotic bacteria need to survive. The probiotic bacteria that make up the gut, like all other living creatures, have to eat!  Doctors tell patients to take a probiotic supplement to enhance the number of healthful bacteria in the gut, but the bacteria need nourishment to thrive. That’s the role of prebiotics. Some scientists liken probiotics to a garden and prebiotics to fertilizer that provides nutritional support for the bacterial garden to multiply and flourish.

Where are prebiotics and where do they come from? They are the non-digestible fiber abundant in certain plant-based foods. Some examples of foods that contain prebiotics are Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, banana, oatmeal, dandelion greens, barley, chicory root, lentils, leeks, wheat, soybeans, and the outer skin of apples. Humans don’t have the digestive enzymes to break these components down. When bacteria feast on prebiotics, they ferment them and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), like butyric acid, acetic acid, and propionic acid.

 Do these weak acids have health benefits? Scientists discovered that short-chain fatty acids supply energy to the cells that line the colon and help them stay healthy. Research suggests these fatty acids made by bacteria when they ferment prebiotics have an anti-inflammatory effect on the colon lining. Short-chain fatty acids also boost the absorption of minerals from the gut. Therefore, your gut takes up more calcium and magnesium when short-chain fatty acids, like butyric acid, are in the gut.

Studies even suggest that short-chain acids produced by bacteria when they consume prebiotics may lower the risk of inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. By supporting and nourishing the lining of the colon and reducing inflammation, research also suggests that butyric acid and other short-chain fatty acids could reduce the risk of colon cancer.

To be continued…..see PART TWO