The attention focused on probiotics has been incredible in recent years. There’s a huge demand for these products, as evidenced by the fact you can find more than 4,000 results when you enter the term “probiotics” into the search box on Amazon.com. While probiotics deserve that attention, thanks to the many health benefits they can provide, don’t forget prebiotics. They also play an important role in helping to keep us healthy. Here’s a look at how probiotics and prebiotics work.
Prebiotics – The Basics
These are the unsung heroes that help probiotics do their jobs. Just like an engine powers a vehicle, prebiotics provide the energy that probiotics need in order to function. Prebiotics are basically fibers that the body can’t digest, found in many different types of food such as bananas, garlic and asparagus. A lot of probiotic supplements also contain prebiotics.
While prebiotics primarily serve as a source of food for probiotics, there is some research that indicates prebiotics can provide a substantial amount of health benefits on their own. For example, studies indicate that prebiotics can help reduce inflammation, which has been linked to many different kinds of health problems.1 Prebiotics have also been shown to help boost the immune system, which helps protect us from illnesses ranging from mild colds all the way to severe gastrointestinal issues. Research suggest that increasing your prebiotic intake can help the body do a better job of absorbing nutrients, strengthening the immune system as a result.2
But the benefits don’t stop there. Studies show that prebiotics may also help keep our bones strong by increasing the production of calcium.3 If we don’t have enough calcium, we will be at a higher risk of not only suffering fractures but also developing brittle bones, a condition known as osteoporosis. Prebiotics also help to produce butyric acid, as short-chain fatty acid that helps keep harmful microbes from penetrating the walls of the intestines.4
A Quick Look at Probiotics
Prebiotics nourish probiotics, which are beneficial microbes that work to keep harmful microbes from taking over the gut. You don’t know it, but there’s a war going on in your gastrointestinal tract between good and bad bacteria and yeasts. If the good guys aren’t able to win the fight, that often results in severe digestive problems as well as a compromised immune system.
Since there are trillions of microbes in the gut, you might think that you have plenty of good ones to win the fight. But the truth is that beneficial microbes need reinforcements – and that’s where probiotic supplements come in. You can get probiotics from certain foods (namely yogurt and sauerkraut), but the best way of ensuring you have an ample supply is to purchase a supplement in a capsule form. There are probiotic drinks, powders and even gummies, but capsules are the most effective delivery method. Other types are often destroyed by stomach acid, and, as a result, the beneficial microbes can’t get to the gut.
Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium
These are Latin terms that describe two of the most common families of beneficial bacteria found in probiotic supplements. Each of these groups offers substantial benefits to the body.
For example, the Lactobacillus acidophilus strain helps to make the intestinal wall stronger as well as help us do a proper job of absorbing vital nutrients. 5 L. acidophilus, according to studies, also helps strengthen the immune system.6 Lactobacillus fermentum produces antioxidants that inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria.7
Bifidobacterium strains have also been shown to deliver significant health benefits. Unlike Lactobacillus bacteria, which usually thrive in the small intestine, Bifidobacterium are commonly found in the large intestine. Like Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium helps strengthen the intestinal wall and also helps us absorb nutrients such as copper and zinc. Bifidobacterium bifidum helps prevent traveler’s diarrhea and also breaks down proteins, carbohydrates and fats. 8 Bifidobacterium longum breaks down carbs as well, but it has also been shown to boost the functioning of the immune system.9
Before taking any sort of supplements containing probiotics and prebiotics, make sure you have a talk with your doctor. These products are considered to be extremely safe for people in good health, but it won’t hurt to stay on the safe side.