Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, antibiotics–we hear many “biotic” buzzwords being thrown around today. What does it all mean? While many of us have taken prescription antibiotics to fight infections, prebiotics and probiotics are dietary supplements that are proactive rather than reactive, working to support levels of good bacteria residing in our bodies.* These “friendly” microorganisms are helping to boost bacteria’s public image, and they also may support our health in the process.*
Bacteria: not always the “bad guy”
While we generally tend to think of bacteria in a negative light (i.e. the three “D’s” — dirt, disease and death), there’s more to this story. You may be surprised to learn that bacterial cells actually outnumber our own tissue cells 10:1! Right now, about two to six pounds of your body weight is actually made up of bacteria.
Most of these trillions of bacterial cells are non-pathogenic, and many are even beneficial, working synergistically to support optimal health. As more research is done to characterize our human microbiome, it is learned that our bodies are like a complex ecosystem, with bacterial cells as key players. Many of these bacterial cells are concentrated in our nose, mouth and digestive tract, where they play a vital role in intestinal function, vitamin metabolism and much, much more.
When beneficial bacteria predominate in the intestine, this is called “normobiosis,” which favors the following:*
- Ease in digestion of lactose*
- Stool regularity and less reported GI upset among healthy individuals*
- Prevention of infectious diarrhea*
- Formation of short-chain fatty acids, which can support cholesterol metabolism*
- Support of the production of anti-inflammatory compounds and healthy inflammatory response*
- Prevention of asthma and atopic disease in infants*
Prebiotics vs. probiotics
It’s important to distinguish the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, as the terms are not interchangeable. Probiotics refer to viable bacterial microorganisms, such as those present in foods like yogurt, or in supplements, which remain active in sufficient numbers upon reaching the intestine. It’s important that probiotics are packaged” correctly, as they can be susceptible to degradation by stomach acid and high heat.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, can be thought of as “food” for probiotics. These are (1) non-digestible carbohydrates which are (2) fermented by and nourish existing good bacteria and (3) help promote increased production of beneficial strains. Presently, only two food additives meet all of the aforementioned criteria for a prebiotic: inulin and trans-galactooligosaccharides (TOS). Many other carbohydrate fractions are currently being studied for their potential prebiotic effect. Synbiotics provide the best of both worlds–synergistic combinations of both prebiotics and probiotics.
Maintaining healthy levels
With so many well-established benefits to a thriving microbiome, it’s important to take measures to support your body’s beneficial bacteria colonies. Luckily, many foods provide probiotics, including yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup and fermented cheeses, or prebiotics (oats, bananas, artichokes, and legumes) and are part of a well-balanced, nutritious diet. Another option is to take a probitoics supplement enhanced with prebiotics.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.