Probiotics & Prebiotics

Understanding probiotics & prebiotics

What is probiotics?

Probiotics and prebiotics are both elements that are covered within nutritional science. They are, in the simplest terms, things that make up part of a healthy eating routine. If you do not consume enough of either, then your gut health can significantly suffer. Without them, your microbiome – that is, the natural environment within your gut – will not be sufficiently diverse, which can lead to adverse health effects. Many people take them routinely as part of their daily intake of food to ensure that their guts are always in good condition. However, there is no need to consume them from food supplements so long as you have a good diet with a great deal of variety in it. In this regard, they are not dissimilar to vitamins – although there is plenty of vitamin supplement available to buy, people who consume them through their diet don't need them. That said, these nutritional elements are not so widely understood as vitamins which means that getting a helping hand from supplements that contain them is increasingly popular.

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 What is the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?

Although they have very similar names, pre- and pro-biotics are, in fact very different things. To be clear, probiotics are live microorganisms that are found in a variety of foodstuffs, often in the form of a culture. In short, they are bacteria. Although many people associate bacteria with germs, there are certain types that are good for health when they are consumed. Put simply, good bacteria help the gut to do its primary job of breaking down food so that it can be converted into energy and so the good nutrients from it – including proteins and vitamins – absorbed by the body. On the other hand, prebiotics is not bacteria. Indeed, they are not alive at all! What they are is food for the bacteria you want to grow in your gut. In most cases, they are fibrous material that people cannot digest but which the microorganisms in your gut can, helping them to thrive.

How do you take probiotics and prebiotics?

Pro- and pre-biotics are found in many foods. Probiotics are found in foodstuffs like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles and yoghurt. On the other hand, prebiotics are found in foods with a high fibre content, such as bananas and legumes. As such, they are consumed orally. Even if you purchase products that are specifically designed to contain them, they are eaten or drunk. In other words, they are not like medications that can be taken intravenously or with a suppository. The whole point is that you want them to go down the oesophagus and to enter the digestive tract directly and in the most natural way possible. Once they have entered the gut, they should remain there for a time quite naturally. However, over-consumption of them can lead to problems with needing the toilet excessively which means they should be taken in the recommended doses or the effect can be counterproductive.

When should you eat probiotics and prebiotics?

The opinion is divided about the best time to eat probiotics and prebiotics. Some manufacturers of food products that contain one or other of them say that eating them on an empty stomach is preferable. For this reason, many are marketed as the sort of thing you would consume with your breakfast. That said, other food product designers state that their products are best consumed with a meal so that the process of absorbing them into the gut is more natural. In addition, some scientific studies into saccharomyces boulardii microorganisms, a type of bacteria that is known to be particularly beneficial in the gut, have found that there is no difference whether they is consumed with or without a meal. In other words, the viability of certain products does not seem to rely on whether the gut is empty or not.

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Who discovered probiotics?

The first probiotic to ever be known to science was a certain strain of a bacillus – a rod-shaped bacteria that is a member of the Firmicutes phylum - in a type of Bulgarian yoghurt. This probiotic was named Lactobacillus bulgaricus to reflect the fact that it was first found in Eastern European yoghurt. A physician and microbiologist named Stamen Grigorov was credited with the discovery when it was first made in 1905. The Bulgarian scientist merely noted the existence of this bacillus, however, and did not go on to theorise greatly on the existence of others and what they might be doing in the guts of human beings. The modern-day theory that is based on his initial discovery is generally attributed to Élie Metchnikoff, a Nobel laureate who gained his prize for his work on immunity. It was the Russian-born Metchnikoff who first came up with the idea that Bulgarian peasants, who consumed their local yoghurt in great quantities throughout their lives, tended to live longer lives than other comparable communities.

Which foods contain prebiotics?

If you want to give the probiotic bacteria in your gut a good feed, then you will need to consume prebiotics for them. These fibrous foodstuffs are not digestible within the human gut but they are just the sort of things the good microorganisms in your digestive tract will want to consume. The best food for prebiotic-consuming people to eat is chicory root. This has the greatest quantity of dietary fibre per weight of any natural foodstuff. Jerusalem artichokes and dandelion leaves are the next best things to eat if you want to up your prebiotic dietary intake. More common foods which are good to eat include garlic, leeks, onions and asparagus. You will also find it in things like wheat bran, wheat flour and bananas. These days, many food products contain such ingredients, including some bread, breakfast cereals and crackers that contain seeds. It is fairly easy to include prebiotics in your diet in the case of vegetarianism or veganism too, as well as in a raw food or low carb diet.

Who should take probiotics and prebiotics?

Anyone who wants to improve the quality of their microbiome should consider just how beneficial both probiotics and prebiotics can be. People who have a particular issue with their gut health – perhaps some of the digestive tract having been removed following a surgical procedure, for example – can find that it is especially advantageous to consume them as a supplement. That said, it is worth getting a professional medical opinion before going down this route, particularly when there is a known medical issue. Overall, however, simply eating a more varied diet with lots of different elements, especially in-season vegetables, will often be enough to maintain good gut health without needing to worry about supplements. If you have taken a course of antibiotics, then your healthy gut bacteria may have been destroyed in the process. Shortly after such a time, consuming probiotics and prebiotics can be advisable to help them build back their presence.

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Which probiotics contain prebiotics?

Because they are different things, not many natural foodstuffs contain probiotics and prebiotics. If you think about it for a second, then the reason for this should become apparent. A prebiotic, after all, is the food upon which a probiotic bacterium will feed. In other words, if they were already combined in foodstuffs, then the prebiotic element would already be consumed by the probiotic element. As such, it is best to consume them from separate foodstuffs and combine them in your gut rather than looking for a single form of nourishment that has both elements included. That said, human nature being what it is, some manufacturers have sought to combine the two in a stable product that can be consumed as one. These come in the form of supplements. Usually, a pill format is used to help the product to remain stable. This class of nutritional supplement tends to be referred to as synbiotics because the two elements are synthetically combined with one another and only start to work when they are consumed.

Which regulations are in place for probiotics?

Since probiotic elements occur quite naturally in certain foods - such as yoghurts, for example – they are not considered to be something that requires food regulation of their own accord. In other words, people have been consuming them since pre-history and, so long as the food production facility that includes them in its products is safe, there are no specific regulations covering them. That said, products that make health claims about probiotics are regulated. For example, the European Food Safety Authority has banned the use of health claims on food products that contain them since 2019, arguing that any such benefits are inherent in such products and that no additional health outcomes are possible. The Food and Drug Administration in the US has also issued similar guidance about making exaggerated health claims about probiotic food products when similar outcomes are possible from simply maintaining a well-balanced diet.

What are probiotics and prebiotics good for?

As you have read, probiotics and prebiotics are good for maintaining a healthy gut, but what does that mean? Well, if you have a microbiome in your gut that is swimming with so-called healthy bacteria, then you will be able to digest the rest of your food intake much more effectively. This does not simply mean that you extract more energy and nutrients from it than would otherwise be the case but that your faecal output is much healthier with less rich and fatty foods passing through your digestive tract without having been processed properly. More importantly, perhaps, good gut health is increasingly associated with strong immune systems. You are more likely to ward off ailments if you have a good balance of bacteria in your gut which are fed regularly with the right foodstuffs. In addition, good gut health is associated with better sleep and, more often than not, improved mood.

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Can probiotics and prebiotics cause diarrhoea?

Yes, the can. However, this is not something to worry about if you are taking them as a part of a well-balanced diet. What some people find is that the introduction of lots of healthy bacteria – no matter how good they usually are for people – will cause an overload to the system. This will result in increased flatulence and stomach cramps which usually subside as the body adjusts. Only in the worst cases, perhaps when excessive amounts of probiotics and prebiotics have been consumed at the same time, will diarrhoea come about. Remember that the prebiotic elements you consume to keep your healthy bacteria well-fed are, in fact, indigestible to humans. This means that when they are taken in large quantities, the feeling of needing to poo soon afterwards can be quite strong. Simply take them in smaller quantities until the body adjusts to their introduction if you feel this way.

Are prebiotics natural?

Yes, they are. Although you might be sold a supplement that makes you think that prebiotics is human-made, they occur in nature. Indeed, human beings have been consuming things that they cannot digest – or only partially digest – since the dawn of time. At its simplest, a prebiotic is a piece of fibre that the body cannot absorb but which bacteria living within our guts can. What's more, there are various forms of such fibre. Some are starches and simple sugars, for example. As previously mentioned, you can obtain them from many root vegetables, such as leeks, garlic and chicory. However, they are also found in the legumes, especially their skins. As such, eating things like chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans is a good idea if you want to give your healthy gut bacteria a meal as well as yourself. Bananas, watermelons and grapefruits are also full of just this sort of fibrous material.

Do probiotics and prebiotics help with weight loss?

Yes and no. Consuming probiotics and prebiotics is a healthy habit that is something that comes about as a result of a well-balanced diet. By simply adopting a better dietary intake, so weight loss is something that is likely to occur, especially if it means your immune system improves, so you feel fitter and are more likely to do sports and physical activity. That said, some studies have also suggested that taking them as supplements will result in weight loss. One British research team gave 125 men and women a particular supplement over a 12-week weight-loss programme and found positive results compared to those consuming a placebo. Indeed, their comparable weight loss continued after the supplement was no longer given. That said, similar research in the United States has found no significant variation with people taking them compared to placebos.

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Probiotics and prebiotics in summary

There is a lot of talk among nutritionists about the pros and cons of probiotics and prebiotics in modern diets. Although the existence of probiotics has been known about for well over a century, their role in the maintenance of good gut health is only starting to be fully explored. It is only in the relatively recent past that food manufacturers started to promote the use of them in their food products, notably in the so-called healthy yoghurt market. Even when such food products began to be marketed in earnest, the role of prebiotics – and how they interplayed with probiotic foodstuffs - was understood by nutritionists even less. Today, we know that you need both to be able to maintain a strong microbiome in your gut, one to replenish the microorganisms that are spent and the other to help those that are there to survive and thrive.

Although there are a raft of health benefits you can enjoy from consuming probiotics and prebiotics, often the best way of so doing is to improve your dietary intake. With a well-balanced diet which includes lots of them, you should find that your gut health improves. With this will come other health benefits which include improved immune response and better all-round physical health. Of course, it is also possible to consume probiotics and prebiotics as dietary supplements. However, there is simply no need to if you eat enough of the right sorts of foods to begin with! That's why regulators don't dispute the health benefits of supplements but they tend not to allow exaggerated claims about them.

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