If you’ve ever been on antibiotics, you’ve probably been recommended probiotics by your doctor. Probiotics, as the name suggests, are live, bacteria that colonize your gut and improve your intestinal health. They are found in certain foods, such as yogurt, some cheeses, and other dairy products. Other fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, miso soup, and sourdough bread, also contain a good source of probiotics. Labels advertising “live active cultures” on these foods are a good indicator that they contain these bacteria. Probiotics can also be taken in pill form.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are carbohydrates that cannot be digested by humans, but can nourish bacteria that are already in the gut. Prebiotics might not be so helpful if you need to quickly restore your gut bacteria. They can help your gut bacteria replace itself, but they can’t simply replace it. However, they can be really effective at encouraging the growth of pre-established good bacteria, encouraging their growth. Prebiotics include asparagus, bananas, onions, oatmeal, legumes, and other fiber-rich plant foods.
In situations where prebiotics are useful, they have certain advantages over probiotics. For one, probiotics can be killed by heat, time, or stomach acid, whereas prebiotics, which are not alive, work fine under these conditions. For another, while probiotics might not work the same for everyone, as everyone has different make-ups of gut bacteria, prebiotics are more or less universally helpful.
Both probiotics and prebiotics are likely beneficial even if you aren’t concerned about losing gut bacteria to antibiotics. Prebiotics are quite beneficial outside of feeding gut bacteria. Studies have suggested that they could improve your metabolism and immune system, and help your body absorb and utilize vitamins and minerals more effectively. Probiotics may help prevent vaginal yeast infections, relieve inflammatory bowel diseases, and potentially even improve allergies and autoimmune diseases. Probiotics have also increased serotonin levels in animals, meaning that they may even be beneficial for mental health.
Should you take prebiotic or probiotic supplements? Prebiotics have been becoming more of a buzzword in recent years, and now there are some supplements that contain both. However, as long as you are eating enough prebiotic-rich foods, there’s probably no need to take prebiotics as well.
You can usually get enough probiotics from your diet as well. However, if you are on antibiotics, taking a probiotic supplement is probably a good idea. Additionally, if you don’t eat many probiotic-rich foods –which is especially common in people that don’t consume dairy– a supplement can keep your gut bacteria levels healthy.