Prebiotics and probiotics sound almost identical and have similar goals; they are both taken to improve gut health. But there are many differences between them, and they can produce vastly different results.
In this article we will be taking a look at both prebiotics and probiotics, examining what they are, how they work, the benefits that are associated with taking them, and any potential drawbacks.
We will then decide whether prebiotics or probiotics are the superior option. And we’ll reveal our favorite supplement to help your digestive and gut health.
What are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics were first discovered in 1995 by Marcel Roberfroid. The definition of what makes a prebiotic has changed a lot since then. It was originally defined as “a non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one of a number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improves host health”.
Since then it has emerged that some prebiotics could affect bacteria outside as well as inside the colon, so the definition has had to be updated. For simplicities sake, this is our definition:
Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers found in foods such as wheat bran, bananas, onion, garlic, raw oats, artichoke, and certain breakfast cereals. These food ingredients travel through the small intestine in an undigested state and are then fermented in the colon (or outside) where they improve gut health.
While we can get prebiotics from our diet, it is rare that people manage to get the optimal intake of daily fiber, let alone prebiotic fiber (not all fiber is prebiotic). Because of that, people often supplement with prebiotics such as fructooligosaccharides, inulin, or a combination of the two. Psyllium is also often used as a prebiotic supplement. A popular prebiotic supplement – and one we recommend (more on that to come) – is Performance Lab Prebiotic.
Benefits of Prebiotics
There are many benefits to increasing your prebiotic intake, whether it is through diet or through supplementation. Yacon syrup (a source of fructooligosaccharides (FOS), also one of the ingredients in Performance Lab Prebiotic) has been shown to lower low-density lipoprotein (bad) cholesterol. A 2009 study on obese women found that taking the syrup for 120 days led to a significant decrease in LDL cholesterol levels. The study also found that the syrup helped lead to a small but significant drop in bodyweight.
As unpleasant as it is to discuss stool motility (how fast food travels from mouth to toilet) it is a standout benefit of prebiotics. Several studies have found that taking a prebiotic can increase the motility of the intestines. A 2008 study by Geyer et al found that 20g of yacon syrup (a source of fructooligosaccharides, remember) led to a 64% reduction in transit time. Perhaps something to consider if you typically have problems in that area.
A 1997 study on psyllium (another prebiotic) found that taking it regularly led to a significant reduction in appetite. Meaning that prebiotics are an effective dieting aid. If you can reduce your appetite, you are less likely to overeat, and you are more likely to stay within a calorie deficit (important for losing weight).
It is therefore no surprise that the study we mentioned earlier saw a reduction in bodyweight when taking a prebiotic.
A 2002 study found that psyllium helped to reduce absorption of carbohydrates. You may have heard of carbohydrate blocking supplements before; if you have, then you may be under the impression that they allow you to eat as much carbohydrates as you want without putting on weight. This is NOT the case. However, if you were to eat the same amount of carbohydrates before and after taking prebiotics, you would absorb a tiny bit less glucose. This would mean storing a little bit less, and overall could lead to a tiny reduction in body fat. Do this every day for ten years, and you will see a significant difference. That’s all weight loss is, tiny changes that last a long time!
The last benefit that we are going to look at is one that may apply to both prebiotics and probiotics (so we will mention it in the probiotic section too). Prebiotics may help to make the flu vaccination more effective.
When flu season arrives, many people, young and old, are given a flu shot. The idea is to give people a small exposure to the flu virus and then to allow the body to create antibodies which then protect the body from future flu viruses. The stronger your immune system, the more effective the flu vaccine is.
A 2010 study by Vos et al found that supplementing with prebiotics led to an improved immune response. The idea is that taking a prebiotic at the same time as your flu vaccine can increase the chances that the vaccine will be effective.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are living microorganisms that can be found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, some soy products, and dairy products like yoghurt. Probiotic supplements are a massive industry, worth over $41 billion in 2015, with massive growth in China.
The two main probiotics are: Lactoballicus and Bifidobacterium, which are found in dairy products such as yoghurt and kefir. There are hundreds of other probiotics, but these two are often used in supplements.
Probiotics work by entering the gut and fighting “bad” bacteria and increasing your “good” bacteria. Helping to create a balance of good and bad bacteria.
Benefits of Probiotics
There is quite a lot of evidence that probiotics, particularly Bifidobacterium, can help treat diarrhea and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). A common cause of IBS is bacterial overgrowth, where the balance of good and bad bacteria becomes uneven. Increasing beneficial bacteria via probiotics can help to treat IBS (though cannot cure it).
Studies have also indicated that long-term supplementation of probiotics can lead to fewer sick days being taken by both adults and children. A meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that probiotics reduce the duration of illness.
There is also evidence that probiotic supplementation can help people who suffer from allergies. A 2015 meta-analysis looked into the effect of probiotics on people suffering from allergic rhinitis. The meta-analysis found that probiotics may improve the symptoms of people with allergies.
Another meta-analysis looked at whether probiotics can help fight depression and anxiety. It found that supplementing with probiotics led to a reduction in depression and anxiety in people with pre-existing conditions. As we mentioned earlier, probiotics can also make the flu vaccination more effective.
Which should you take?
There are many benefits to taking both prebiotics and probiotics. However, if it were to be a choice between the two, we’d recommend prebiotics. There are a couple of reasons for this:
Your body already has thousands of different strains of good bacteria in the gut and taking a probiotic does not guarantee that what you consume is necessary or effective. Often, probiotic bacteria can be killed by stomach acid before it even has a chance to work.
Prebiotics on the other hand are actually designed to improve the good bacteria that is already present in your gut. A subtle, yet important, distinction. They are also unaffected by stomach acid.
Probiotics are also easier to consume through diet, with yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, kefir etc. becoming easier and easier to source. Meaning you may not need to supplement with probiotics but could still benefit from supplementing with prebiotics.
Our Recommended Supplement
There are many prebiotic supplements out there, but we have our favorite: Performance Lab Prebiotic, which ticks a lot of boxes. It contains Inulin-FOS. This is a combination of two prebiotics; Fructooligosaccharides and Inulin. This combination is a resilient prebiotic that travels well to the colon where it is unparalleled at stimulating bacteria growth.
It also increases Bifidobacterium (a probiotic) naturally within the gut, giving you the best of both worlds. Producing benefits from both prebiotics and probiotics. Here is a supplement that will improve your gut health by helping existing good bacteria to flourish. It will also help you while dieting by improving digestive health, reducing appetite, and reducing bloating.
If you care about what you’re putting into your body (and who wouldn’t?!), Performance Lab Prebiotic is also as clean as it comes. It is free from GMO, gluten, soy and synthetic additives and other allergens; it is GMP certified (meaning produced to stringent standards) and is suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
Probiotics and prebiotics both offer many health benefits, and it is no surprise that probiotics have become so popular in recent years. However, we believe that prebiotic supplements are a better option and that in the future, they may supplant probiotics. This is because they offer the best of both worlds and are a more stable product.
If you are looking to improve your gut health and enjoy the many benefits that are associated with this (reduction in depression and anxiety, shortened illness duration etc.) then a prebiotic supplement such as Performance Lab Prebiotic that contains 100% natural oligofructose enriched inulin is a great choice.
Looking to improve gut health through the addition of probiotic and prebiotic foods is also a great idea, as these foods tend to have numerous other benefits. As always, improving your health through exercise, diet, and sleep will also help to improve your gut health.