In this article:
- What are Probiotics and Prebiotics?
- Why We Need Probiotics and Prebiotics
- Which Foods Are Probiotic?
- Which Foods are Prebiotic?
Probiotics and prebiotics support the body in achieving and maintaining a healthy microbiome ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and other microbial communities that live in the gut. Foods that naturally contain them have risen to superfood status — and appropriately so. Both are critical for keeping your gut in prime condition.
It’s important to know the difference between prebiotics and probiotics. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, probiotics and prebiotics are different and play vastly different roles in supporting gut health.
What are Probiotics and Prebiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria and fungus/fungi that support the health of your gut. When we talk about probiotics, it’s almost always Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, the two most common strains of beneficial bacteria found in probiotic supplements. Besides bacteria, the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii (a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is used as a probiotic also — it is particularly good at fighting off Candida.
Probiotics protect your gut from harmful organisms, help regulate the body’s immune response, and promote healthy function of the intestinal inner lining, among other benefits.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are a type of carbohydrate — mostly fiber — that humans can’t digest. These indigestible carbohydrates provide fuel for the beneficial bacteria and fungi in your gut flora. Think of prebiotics as nutrients for the beneficial bacteria in your gut microbiome. Together, prebiotics and probiotics contribute heavily to a healthy and balanced gut.
Because of their unique functions, prebiotics and probiotics work best when both are present plentiful in the body. No need to go overboard with the prebiotics. Moderation is key.
Why We Need Probiotics and Prebiotics
We need prebiotics and probiotics for our overall health. But there are some key roles they play in everything from our digestion to our ability to focus. Regularly consuming prebiotics and probiotics can help with:
Digestion and digestive disorders
Proper digestive function is the main benefit associated with prebiotics and probiotics. When your gut flora is stocked with the right amount of the right bacteria and fungi, your digestive tract performs at an optimal level. This means you should find relief from uncomfortable conditions like cramps, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
Research shows that probiotics may support your immune system because when beneficial microorganisms outweighs bad bacteria, your body can more easily fight off pathogens such as viruses and harmful bacteria and fungi. After all, it’s estimated that 70% of the immune system is actually in your gut!
Weight loss and weight management
Although more research is needed in this area, it’s possible that prebiotics help with weight management because of their satiating properties. Because the carbohydrates in prebiotics aren’t digestible, they promote a feeling of fullness. Additionally, a healthy gut microbiome can contribute to an overall feeling of balance within the body, which can reduce cravings and energize you.
Mental health and mood disorders
Promising research shows that probiotics — specifically Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus — may improve anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s still in its early days but what is called the “gut-brain axis” is increasingly an area of exciting research in the microbiome field.
Brain function and focus
Your gut and your brain are connected through a number of chemical and physical pathways. The gut-brain axis is how the two organs communicate inside your body. The trillions of microorganisms in your gut also make chemicals that affect your brain (increase in serotonin and dopamine), so a healthy gut appears to contribute to a healthy brain — and vice versa.
Which Foods Are Probiotic?
The most common probiotic food is yogurt. Yogurt — especially varieties that have the Live and Active Culture Seal — is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to consume probiotics.
Other fermented foods also contain natural probiotics, including:
Pickles, miso, tempeh, and some aged cheeses are also a source of naturally occurring probiotics.
Which Foods are Prebiotic?
The fiber inulin is the main source of prebiotics in most Western diets. Chicory root, asparagus, bananas, artichokes, and dandelion greens are all great sources of inulin.
Other foods with naturally occurring prebiotics include:
- Many roots, such as jicama and yacon
Editors note: This post has been updated for relevancy. Its first publish date was August 4, 2019.