The gastrointestinal tract is home to billions of microorganisms, with a primary focus on bacteria. When talking about bacteria, the first thought that usually comes to mind is infections – but what you need to realize is that not all bacteria are considered bad. In fact, there are many of these microorganisms that help your body survive. The microbiome, which is the term used to describe the microorganisms in your gut, has been linked to liver disease, diabetes, obesity, and some types of neurodegenerative conditions. 

Improving your gut microbiome may help you fight against many conditions, while also reducing your risk of serious chronic diseases. When you look at ways to improve your gut microbiome, you will find that there are two types of supplements on the market. This includes probiotics and prebiotics. Understanding the difference between the two will help you realize how to balance supplements and even food to provide a more diverse, healthy gut flora. 

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Probiotics: What They Are And How They Help

Let’s start by taking a look at what probiotics are. The term probiotics are used to refer to the microbiome – or, more specifically, to the bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal tract. There are different strains of probiotic bacteria that are considered beneficial for your gut. The most popular two, however, include:

  • Lactobacillus strains
  • Bifidobacterium strains

These bacteria are found in a relatively large number of food products. They are also available in supplement form. Some supplements would only contain one or two strains of probiotic bacteria, while others may provide you with a more significant variety. It is important to note that a more diverse range of probiotic bacterium species in your gut leads to improved benefits. 

The Benefits Of Probiotics For Your Health

Over the last few years, we have seen a significant increase in research regarding probiotics and the well-being of the human body. Let’s consider a few studies that have proven the potential health benefits associated with an increase in the intake of probiotics.

One of the first benefits to be noted would be an improvement in the natural balance of the microbiome in the gastrointestinal tract. 

Other benefits associated with increased probiotic intake include:

  • Probiotics have been shown to reduce the risk of suffering diarrhea as a side-effect caused by antibiotics. One study also showed that probiotics might be useful in reducing the risk of travelers' diarrhea by an estimated 8%. 
  • It has been confirmed that there is a strong link between the gut microbiome and mental health. In one study, symptoms of certain mental illnesses were reduced with the use of a probiotic supplement taken over a one-to-two month period. The mental illnesses that may benefit from probiotics include anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, and depression. 
  • There are certain types of probiotic bacteria that may improve the break down of bile in the gastrointestinal tract. In turn, this may help to lower levels of cholesterol in the body. In one study, probiotic yogurt was used to review the effects of these bacterium strains on cholesterol. There was an average 5% reduction in LDL cholesterol, along with a 4% reduction in total cholesterol among the participants.
  • Some evidence suggests that the use of probiotics may reduce the inflammatory responses that some individuals experience when they consume dairy products. 

Food Sources Of Probiotics

 Probiotics are found in a large number of foods – it should be noted that the majority of foods with probiotics are fermented. This is because a very specific fermentation process is required in order to promote the growth of this probiotic bacterium. 

While it is possible to obtain probiotic bacteria with the use of dietary supplements, it is usually preferred to consume foods that are rich in these microorganisms. Probiotic bacteria seems to be more beneficial and effective when introduced to the body through natural food sources, instead of dietary supplements. 

Some of the best foods that you can eat that will help to improve the natural balance of the probiotic bacteria in your gut include:

  • Yogurt
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Pickles
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso
  • Kefir
  • Tempeh

These are, of course, only a relatively small number of probiotic foods. There are many more – if you are looking to eat a diet that is rich in probiotics, try to include many fermented foods into your daily meal plans. 

Are There Risks To Taking Probiotic Supplements?

In most cases, taking probiotic supplements will not cause any harmful effects in your body. Most people are able to take a dietary supplement with probiotics safely. There are, however, some people who have reported experiencing side-effects while using probiotic supplements. These side-effects are more likely to occur when a reaction is experienced to specific ingredients that a company uses in the production of a probiotic supplement. 

The majority of people who do experience side-effects from probiotic supplements would find that adverse effects occur with their digestive function. 

Bloating and gas are the most common side-effects that may be experienced when taking probiotics that contain beneficial bacterium species. 

In cases where the probiotic supplement contains beneficial yeast species, then you may find that you become excessively thirsty. You may also experience constipation. 

These side-effects are usually only temporary and will go away on their own. 

There are cases where probiotic foods may cause you to experience headaches. This is usually the case when the probiotic food you consume contains amines. 

When it comes to dietary supplements, it is important to note that allergic reactions could be experienced due to the added ingredients in these products. Thus, always take a closer look at the label of the probiotic supplement. 

Prebiotics: Food For Your Probiotics

Many supplements are promoted to contain prebiotics as well – and we even see many publications starting to focus on the importance of prebiotics along with probiotics. Prebiotics are not actual bacteria or any type of microorganism, for that matter. Instead, this is a type of fuel – or food – that allow probiotic microorganisms to survive in your gastrointestinal tract. 

Prebiotics allow the probiotic bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms to have food – by eating on the prebiotics, these microorganisms are able to continue surviving and serve specific functions in your gut. 

Every prebiotic in existence is a type of fiber. Inulin is the most common type of fiber that serves as a prebiotic in your body. 

The Benefits Of Prebiotic Foods And Supplements

By looking at the purpose of prebiotics, it becomes clear what the benefits of these fibers are. They allow the probiotics in your body to survive – and when there is a greater abundance of beneficial bacteria in your gut, you benefit from them. 

This is also why a lot of supplements would include both prebiotics and probiotics in one product. In such a case, it is called a symbiotic. The supplement would provide your body with probiotics, as well as the fuel they need to thrive in your gastrointestinal system. 

Best Food Sources Of Prebiotics

There are many foods that can be consumed in order to supply the gut with prebiotics. As mentioned, inulin, a type of fiber, is the most common type of prebiotic. 

Some of the best sources of inulin fiber include:

  • Chicory root
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas

These foods are not only rich in inulin, which will act as a prebiotic in your gut, but also contribute to additional nutrients that your body needs for optimal functioning. 

Legumes, artichokes, garlic, and onions are also excellent foods to consume if you wish to increase the amount of prebiotics that you take into your body. 

There are also several foods that are considered to be excellent symbiotic sources. These foods give you the probiotics and prebiotics you need for better digestive health, as well as the other benefits that come with a healthy microbiome. 

Excellent symbiotic food sources include:

  • Kefir
  • Cheese 
  • Yogurt

It should be noted, however, that not all types of yogurt will contain prebiotics and probiotics. 

Is It Safe To Take Prebiotic Supplements?

Similar to probiotics, taking a supplement that contains prebiotics is generally considered safe and may be beneficial for you. It should be noted, however, that quality prebiotic supplements should be consumed in powder or liquid forms. 

Since prebiotics is all types of fiber, you should be careful with your dosage, however. When you take in too much fiber, it may cause some digestive side-effects that could become uncomfortable and unpleasant. Always take a closer look at how much of the prebiotic fiber is found in the supplement to help you determine if it would be safe or potentially cause adverse effects. 

Conclusion

Both probiotics and prebiotics should play an important role in your daily diet. You can obtain both food and supplements. While probiotics refer to the actual microorganisms that help your digestive tract function properly and ensures nutrients are effectively absorbed, prebiotics help probiotics thrive and survive in your gut. 

When looking to use probiotics and prebiotics, we aim first to include more foods that are sources of symbiotics. Start with a lower dose when opting for supplements and gradually increase until you find what works best for you.

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