Probiotics and Prebiotics: How They Are Useful and How to Get Them

Probiotics – or so-called “good” bacteria – have earned the celebrity status of the Kardashians in the health world for their digestive benefits and links to overall health. There are also prebiotics. Wait, it’s the same thing, right? Not at all. Let’s clear up the confusion.

First of all, probiotics is a general term to describe living microorganisms (mainly bacteria) that have colonized our digestive tract. These tiny critters are our friends, although not the kind you run into and say, “Let’s hang out even more!” but never do. They are true friends who help us digest food, absorb nutrients, produce vitamins such as B and K, inhibit the growth of more harmful microorganisms, and have many other promising benefits . You can find probiotics in supplement form and in fermented food sources including (but not limited to):

  • kimchi
  • sour cabbage
  • pickles
  • miso
  • yogurt
  • kefir
  • Tempe

For a food to be considered a probiotic , the bacteria cultures inside must be alive and “stable” during processing and throughout the food’s shelf life, and be able to survive digestion and possibly colonize your intestines to perform the magic of digestion.

On the other hand, prebiotics are often referred to as “probiotic food” to help stimulate their growth. You know them as soluble fiber and other classes of carbohydrates such as resistant starch and longer chain sugars called oligosaccharides , which are eventually fermented by bacteria. Sources of prebiotics often include raw or less ripe versions of these foods:

  • bananas
  • potato
  • plantains
  • asparagus
  • leek
  • onion
  • chicory
  • garlic
  • hikama

This review of the study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, notes that all prebiotics are made up of fiber, but not all fiber are prebiotics. To be a prebiotic, it must demonstrate that it can enter the colon, ferment to our critter friends, and provide some benefits to bacteria, which in turn are supposed to provide health benefits.

Prebiotics have many purported benefits . They are reported to help better absorb minerals such as calcium and magnesium, recover faster from severe bacterial infections, and fight intestinal discomfort, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome. So, does that mean we have to foolishly stuff ourselves with asparagus, garlic and green bananas, seasoned with yogurt and miso soup?

Not so fast.

While prebiotics and probiotics look very promising so far , there is still a lot of long-term research to be done to quantify their health benefits. Plus, since many prebiotics differ depending on where you get them and what they might do in your body, more research is needed to study their effects on our gut flora and the benefits they may have for healthy people. Not to mention, even if you deliberately ate prebiotics, it’s hard to tell how much you’re getting from food alone.

However, there is one thing that everyone can agree on , and that most of us can eat more (and a wide variety) of vegetables and get more fiber.


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