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Prebiotics Vs Probiotics: The difference and why you need to incorporate them right away

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Dr Jaishree Sharad

When it comes to digestive health, you may have heard of “prebiotics” and “probiotics”. Both are extremely essential in supporting the health of your digestive system - particularly that of the microorganisms that live in your gut, also known as the microbiome. In simple terms, probiotics are the “good” bacteria that keep your gut healthy, while prebiotics are the foods that promote their growth.

To dig deeper and dive into the benefits and effects of both, we have Shruti Kainya; a nutritionist and expert who takes us through the what, why and how of the big P’s.

What are probiotics and prebiotics?

  • You would be surprised if I told you that our gut (mostly intestine) harbours a complex community of over 100 trillion microbial/bacterial cells which influence the entire human physiology on a daily basis.
  • Now Probiotics are simply the good bacteria coming from the food & supplement we consume. They are live microorganisms, extremely diverse in nature that bind to the different parts of our large intestine. They are responsible for improving the community of good microorganisms needed for a strong immune & digestive function, and for keeping our body in a healthy condition.
  • Prebiotics on the other hand, are the indigestible part of food we consume in the form of fiber, legumes & resistant starch based items. They act as the food or fertilizer that stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria (probiotics) in our gut.

What is the difference between the two?

  • Probiotics are oral food or supplements that are the inhabitants of our body responsible for maintaining & improving the overall count of good microflora that not only help fight intestinal diseases but directly influence the functioning of our digestive system, immune system and metabolism. So for e.g. if a bad bacteria enters our body and increases in number, it completely knocks our body out of balance. This is when the good bacteria works to fight off the bad bacteria and restore the balance within our body, making us feel better.
  • Prebiotics, however, are a group of nutrients that usually come from fiber rich foods which our body cannot digest or utilize directly; hence they are consumed by the probiotics as a source of food & energy.
  • So in simple words, if probiotics are like the plants in our garden, then prebiotics act as the fertilizer, water & sunlight to help them grow & flourish!

Why are the gut bacteria beneficial?

  • Gut bacteria are an important component of the microbiota ecosystem in the human gut, which is 10 times more than the total number of cells in a human body!
  • The gut microbiome affects the body from birth and throughout life by controlling the digestion of food, response to diseases, functioning of the central nervous system, reducing inflammation and many other bodily processes.
  • Heard of the millennial term “Hangry”? Well it arises from the brain and gut 2-way connection as 95% serotonin – a happy hormone is made in the gut using these healthy bacteria.
  • They are essential in synthesizing vitamin K, absorbing essential vitamins & minerals like B12, D3, iron, folate & calcium
  • Scientific studies now affirm that this 2-punch combination of pre & probiotics not only help to improve our overall health, but fight strongly against the 3 “C’s” – Cold, Constipation & Cancer.

How does food affect the gut microbiota?

  • We often hear, "you are what you eat." However, we are feeding a lot more than just ourselves when we eat. Trillions of microbes live in our guts and help us digest our food. What’s more fascinating is that we influence each other.
  • The food type we consume modifies microbial diversity, and these microbial communities can further affect our health/diseases status; making diet one of the biggest influencers.
  • Recent studies have shown that a diet high in fat and sugar leads to changes in the gut microbiota that may explain the coincident increase in conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
  • That’s why it's recommended that a diet rich in microbiota-accessible carbohydrates —abundant in whole grains, vegetables, legumes and nuts but lacking in processed foods—and exposure to fermented foods may be beneficial for preserving gut bacteria that are beneficial to human health. Beyond the well-known effects of dietary fiber on gut health, other nutrients including carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and small compounds such as dietary polyphenols (with their antioxidant properties) can also act on the gut microbiota.
  • In other words, the food we eat today is the main fuel for our gut microbes & a proper balance must exist, with the healthy species dominating the harmful microbes.
  • So, the focus should be on maintaining a species-rich gut ecosystem through diet as it’s a science-backed way to achieve a healthier lifestyle.

Which foods are prebiotic?

  • We can find good prebiotics in many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses & legumes. Some easy sources could be apples, bananas, onions, whole oats, greens, artichoke, barley, flaxseeds etc
  • Also, resistant starch dominant items like beans, legumes, cooked & cooled rice & potato etc are also a fantastic source of prebiotics as they cannot be broken down in the intestine and are hence degraded by the good bacteria to feed on.

Which foods are probiotic?

  • The most common fermented foods that naturally contain probiotics, or have probiotics added to them; include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sourdough bread and some cheeses.
  • It is important to remember that cooking foods above 60-65 degree Celsius (or 115 degree Fahrenheit) can kill these microbes and hence don’t add these sources to recipes that require too much cooking or the heat will surely kill them.

Should we take probiotic supplements?

  • Supplements as the name suggests, need to supplement a good nutrition plan and they cannot replace food or your regular meals. In some severe cases like excessive use of antibiotics, medical ailments, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, digestive disorders or due to poor eating habits & an erratic lifestyle, a probiotic supplement can be beneficial to restore the balance of good microorganisms for the normal functioning of the body.
  • But don’t have a copycat approach as everyone’s microbiome – the collection of bacteria in their body – is different and exists in a delicate balance. So a probiotic supplement that helps one person might not help someone else. Always consult a nutritionist or a medical expert to find a supplement that is right for your body & meets its requirements.
  • I personally believe in a “Food-First Approach”; meaning focusing on having a colorful & balanced plate for all our meals.
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