Probiotics and Prebiotics

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

Probiotics are very different from prebiotics. Probiotics are living organism which when ingested provide health benefits, while prebiotics are essentially food for the gut microorganisms in form of indigestible fibers present in foods. Fermented foods such as yogurt, curd and unpasteurized pickled vegetables are the best sources of probiotics and a plethora of supplements are also available. Most common probiotics used as supplements are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Different strains of bacteria provide specific health benefits and similar to multivitamins, multi-probiotics combine different species of bacteria in one supplement while synbiotic supplements have both probiotics and prebiotics.

Importance of probiotics:

We often learn that bacteria make us sick but not all of them are dangerous. The microorganisms in our gut play multiple crucial roles in our well-being and also protect us from various diseases. Most of these microorganisms are found in our large intestine and are known as gut microbiome. The functioning of this complex community is similar to an organ and following are its essential roles:

  1. Maintain and enhance digestive health.

  2. Manufacturing of Vitamin K and B vitamins.

  3. Strengthening the immune system.

  4. Reduce inflammation in the body.

  5. Reduce symptoms of mental issues like anxiety and depression.

  6. Concert fiber into short chain fats which further play important metabolic functions.

Studies have shown that the gut microbiome is quite sensitive to the diet you have and an unbalanced community of microorganisms can be a precursor of many diseases. Having a diet rich in probiotics plays a crucial role in maintaining this balance.

Side effects and caution:

If you begin taking probiotics especially in form of supplements then you may face some digestive issues like gas, bloating and abdominal pain. However, these symptoms may subside once you get used to it. Most importantly, people with compromised immune systems or those suffering from diseases like HIV AIDS may contract infectious diseases if these supplements are administered without a proper consultation. There are currently no strict regulations on these supplements so it is best to get an advice from your doctor before purchasing one.

The takeaway box

Maintaining a good gut health is essential for not just keeping digestive problems at bay but as recent studies suggest, many other health factors are linked to it too. Although there are many supplements available in the drug store, it is best to get a thorough consultation by your doctor before you start taking them. I would suggest you take a diet rich in prebiotics which would help promote a healthy gut microbiome and the best sources of prebiotics are:

  1. Legumes

  2. Beans

  3. Peas

  4. Oats

  5. Wheat barn

  6. Barley

  7. Berries

  8. Banana

  9. Apples

  10. Garlic

  11. Onion

  12. Flax seeds

References and further reading:

Blaabjerg S, Artzi DM, Aabenhus R. Probiotics for the Prevention of Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea in Outpatients-A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Antibiotics (Basel). 2017;6(4):21. Published 2017 Oct 12. doi:10.3390/antibiotics6040021

Chang, CS., Kao, CY. Current understanding of the gut microbiota shaping mechanisms. J Biomed Sci 26, 59 (2019).

Davani-Davari D, Negahdaripour M, Karimzadeh I, et al. Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications. Foods. 2019;8(3):92. Published 2019 Mar 9. doi:10.3390/foods8030092

Didari, T., Solki, S., Mozaffari, S., Nikfar, S., & Abdollahi, M. (2014). A systematic review of the safety of probiotics. Expert opinion on drug safety, 13(2), 227-239.

Gunnars K. Probiotics 101: A Simple Beginner's Guide. Healthline. Published 2020. Accessed March 9, 2021.

Hill, C., Guarner, F., Reid, G. et al. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol 11, 506–514 (2014).

King, S., Glanville, J., Sanders, M. E., Fitzgerald, A., & Varley, D. (2014). Effectiveness of probiotics on the duration of illness in healthy children and adults who develop common acute respiratory infectious conditions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The British journal of nutrition, 112(1), 41–54.

Lescheid, D. W. (2014). Probiotics as regulators of inflammation: A review. Functional foods in health and disease, 4(7), 299-311.

Lewis S. Probiotics and Prebiotics: What’s the Difference?. Healthline. Published 2020. Accessed March 9, 2021.

Luna, R. A., & Foster, J. A. (2015). Gut brain axis: diet microbiota interactions and implications for modulation of anxiety and depression. Current opinion in biotechnology, 32, 35-41.

Natarajan N, Pluznick JL. From microbe to man: the role of microbial short chain fatty acid metabolites in host cell biology. Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2014;307(11):C979-C985. doi:10.1152/ajpcell.00228.2014

Rowland, I., Gibson, G., Heinken, A. et al. Gut microbiota functions: metabolism of nutrients and other food components. Eur J Nutr 57, 1–24 (2018).

Semeco A. The 19 Best Prebiotic Foods You Should Eat. Healthline. Published 2016. Accessed March 9, 2021.

Slavin J. (2013). Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients, 5(4), 1417–1435.

Zhang Y-J, Li S, Gan R-Y, Zhou T, Xu D-P, Li H-B. Impacts of Gut Bacteria on Human Health and Diseases. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2015; 16(4):7493-7519.