The promotion of probiotics as supplements and in foods has skyrocketed in the last two decades as scientists learn more about the beneficial bacteria, but prebiotics have only recently started to make the news.
Although the two sound alike, probiotics and prebiotics operate in the body in different ways.
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"The internationally endorsed definition of probiotics is live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host," according to the Oxford journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. "Probiotics
have been shown to exert a wide range of effects. The mechanism of action of probiotics (e.g., having an impact on the intestinal microbiota or enhancing immune function) was dropped from the definition to encompass health effects due to novel mechanisms and to allow application of the term before the mechanism is confirmed."
Probiotics, which can be bacteria or yeast, come in a wide variety of types, with the most popular being Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium, and strains of those bacteria. One common misconception about probiotics is that taking a general supplement will be helpful for any condition. Scientific research into probiotic impact on health conditions focuses on specific strains, and consumers should talk to their medical provider about what type of probiotic works best for their health problem.
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"Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that act as food for probiotics. When probiotics and prebiotics are combined, they form a symbiotic," according to The Mayo Clinic
. "Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and kefir, are considered synbiotic because they contain live bacteria and the fuel they need to thrive."
A much-cited Nutrition Research Reviews journal article
in 2004 pointed out that a "prebiotic effect has been attributed to many food components" that actually are not prebiotics, and the scientists made an effort to update the definition of prebiotics to clear up confusion. Specifically, the article said, "not all dietary carbohydrates are prebiotics."
Prebiotics aren't broken down in the stomach and digested, and they are fermented by the microflora, or the bacteria, already present in the intestine, researchers wrote. Lastly, the prebiotic must simulate growth and activity of intestinal bacteria "associated with health and wellbeing."
"Prebiotics are found in whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey and artichokes," The Mayo Clinic said. Supplements are also available.
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