What are prebiotics and probiotics?
They're all the rage and for good reason, but just what are probiotics, why is everyone talking about them, do they really work and where do you start when looking for a probiotic? Let us explain. And if you haven't already, check out our nutritionists' blog: How to look after your gut through your diet.
What are prebiotics and probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in the body and are found in very large numbers in the gut, however they are also on nearly every surface of the body. Our bodies are teaming with organisms ranging from bacteria, fungi and parasites, which are kept in check by probiotics as they compete for space and produce substances that keep pathogenic organisms (organisms that cause disease) at bay.
Prebiotics on the other hand are the fibres that feed probiotics and keep them thriving in the gut. Different types of prebiotics encourage the growth of different types of probiotics.
UK regulation doesn't actually allow companies to use the words 'probiotic' or 'prebiotic', so instead you'll often see products containing pre and probiotics referring to 'Live cultures' or 'Friendly bacteria'. UK regulation is expected to change soon however so you'll start hearing even more about prebiotics and probiotics.
Benefits of prebiotics and probiotics
Many systems in the body rely on probiotics to function effectively. Probiotics help with the digestion of food by producing digestive enzymes, they support the function of the immune system, promote effective detoxification, they help to maintain healthy skin, and they create neurotransmitters when they travel to the brain. Our gut and our brain are connected via 'the gut-brain axis' and the importance of probiotics to our gut health is why our gut is our 'second brain'.
Probiotics tie themselves to the gut wall and prevent the adhesion of harmful bacteria in your gut. Harmful bacteria may include salmonella, Campylobacter, and many others which cause unpleasant symptoms.
These harmful bacteria may make you very sick, while other types of bad bacteria may cause milder symptoms such as bloating, gas, sugar cravings, and even mood and skin disorders. As you can see, the health benefits of probiotics are extensive so probiotic supplements are almost always beneficial for nearly every health problem.
You might enjoy our blog: 10 practical tips to reduce bloating.
How do prebiotics work?
Prebiotics support the existing probiotics in your gut. They don't get nearly as much attention as probiotics, but they're just as important - without prebiotics, probiotics are not nearly as healthy or effective.
Prebiotics are important for maintaining a healthy gut flora, or when taken alongside probiotics. Probiotic supplementation is like the seed, whereas the prebiotic is like the fertiliser to help the seed grow. Prebiotics are also used to support the regeneration of gut flora, like giving fertiliser to a poorly plant.
Prebiotics are plant-fibres that aren't digested by your body. As a result, they travel through your stomach to your digestive tract, which is where the action happens. The healthy bacteria in your gut - probiotics - feed off the prebiotics which allows them to get stronger and multiply, and therefore better able to digest your food and whole physical and mental wellbeing. When probiotics feed off prebiotics, they also produce lactic acid and short-chain fatty acids which improve overall digestion and our gut microbiome.
If you consume too few prebiotics in your diet or through supplements it can lead to a condition called 'dysbiosis', which is an imbalance of the gut microbiome. Studies show persistent dysbiosis can lead to inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), IBS, diabetes, obesity, depression, and cardiovascular disorders.
Do probiotics work?
Having healthy levels of probiotics in the gut is essential for both gut function and overall health. There are countless published studies on the benefits of healthy microbiome. Probiotics aid with digestion by producing over 200 digestive enzymes. The improved digestion means more nutrients are absorbed for use within the body. There is a wealth of research available on probiotics and gut health.
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Probiotics have also been shown in many research papers to promote the regulation of the immune system. The gut and the immune system are closely linked, and a healthy gut, usually equals a healthy immune system.
Best probiotics for gut health
Lactobacillus strains of probiotic are a good place to start. They are typically hardy and survive well in supplement form. Lactobacillus bacteria are also a dominant form in the gut, so it makes sense to use a probiotic that is usually found in the gut.
Of the Lactobacillus strains, some are hugely beneficial. Lactobacillus acidophilus is one of the most researched strains. It was one of the first discovered in the lactobacillus family. Lactobacillus plantarum has a lot of new research on it for digitisation and particularly common symptoms of IBS and IBD’s. Lactobacillus Casei is a transient bacteria, this means that it passes through the body in a couple of weeks, but as it passes through, it positively influences the resident bacteria in your gut.
The probiotics in the gut have a huge role to play in healthy bowel movements. They provide more of the weight of faecal matter than fibre. Probiotics produce short chain fatty acids which encourage efficient peristalsis, supporting healthy bowel movements. Although it is beneficial to take a wide variety of probiotic strains, one of the best probiotics for constipation is Lactobacillus Plantarum.
You may enjoy 'What does your poo say about your health'.
What should I look for in a probiotic?
The main thing to look for in a probiotic supplement is self-stability. It is very difficult to guarantee refrigeration from production of a probiotic right to the time you take the supplement, which could be up to two years after it was produced. As such, probiotics that do not need refrigeration are more popular because they're more convenient.
Having multiple probiotic strains is also a bonus as each strain provides a different action in the gut. It is estimated there are over 40,000 different strains of probiotics in the gut, so it makes sense to take a multi-strain formula.
Most probiotic supplements available on the market are not vegan as they are grown on a base of dairy, or they have been originally sourced from dairy. Some of the best probiotics are vegan and instead are grown on a vegetable or plant base.
Best probiotic foods
Some foods naturally contain probiotics. These include fermented foods such as kombucha, plant-based yoghurts, sauerkraut and Miso and tempeh. These foods have some of their sugars broken down by the probiotics making them easy to digest. Sauerkraut is also a fabulous immunity boosting food.
Best prebiotic foods
There are many great foods which are full of prebiotics. These include oats, fruits, vegetables and soya beans. The most beneficial foods for prebiotics are bananas, apples, kiwis, onions, leeks, chicory, asparagus and artichokes.
You may also enjoy reading:
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- The 'Gut-Hormone Connection' explained
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- 6 signs of an unhealthy gut
- How your gut and vagina are linked
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