Do I need probiotics or prebiotics?

Short answer: Probiotics and prebiotics can both be very effective in improving a range of gut health and other health issues in the body, with the right approach required to ensure the right types are given where necessary.

Long answer:

A lot of gastrointestinal problems can stem from not having the right level of good bacteria in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Our large intestine consists of trillions of good and bad bacteria, with the vast majority being good bacteria that help with tasks like staving off inflammation and protecting you from harmful infections. The collection of bacteria in your gut are known as the gut microbiome.

While our stomach and small intestine house some strains, the vast majority live in our large intestine with thousands of strains having been discovered, with Latin names often associated with a tub of yoghurt such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Probiotics and prebiotics can both help our friendly bacteria, but in different ways.

· Probiotics: Live microorganisms isolated from humans and cultured in a lab to be used as a supplement. When we ingest them in either food or supplement form, they survive in the gut and provide benefits to us like our good bacteria naturally occurring in our gut. If our gut microbiome was looked at like a rainforest, the probiotics are the seeds we plant that helps the right bacteria grow.

· Prebiotics: A food source (specialised plant fibre) for the friendly bacteria in our GI tract. Our digestive system can’t break down prebiotics, so they survive the journey through the digestive tract. They eventually reach the part of the colon where the friendly bacteria live. The bacteria have the ability to break down the prebiotics into nutrition that helps them grow and thrive. If the probiotics we take are the seeds, prebiotics are the fertiliser that help them grow, meaning each needs the other to best do their job.

In a healthy state you can trust your gut to do all the right things for you. For some people it may not be a lack of fibre but a chronic disease or other illness that results in not enough friendly bacteria residing in the GI tract. Gut dysbiosis refers to the bad state of the friendly intestinal bacteria in people whose condition may negatively affect the blend of good intestinal bacteria.

You can buy prebiotic supplements, but you don’t need them if you eat the foods that fortify the army of friendly bacteria in your GI tract.

Some of those foods are:

· Fibre-rich foods – Fruits, vegetables and whole grains

· Potatoes – Ideally, a boiled and cooled potato since starch is more resistant to digestion

· Bananas – Green, less-ripe bananas are rich in resistant starch

· Jerusalem artichokes – A root vegetable rich in the prebiotic inulin

Eating probiotic rich foods (fermented foods) can also help your friendly bacteria.

Some of these foods are:

· Yoghurt – Containing added Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains

· Kombucha – Fermented tea

· Tempeh – Fermented soybeans

· Sauerkraut – Fermented cabbage

Making small changes in your diet can help significantly boost your prebiotic and probiotic intake and overall health. Eating the wrong things like high sugar and high fat foods can feed the wrong bacteria in your gut and give them an advantaged over the good guys. It is advisable to see your regular GP and discuss if taking probiotics is right for you.

If you would like to learn more about your own gut microbiome, our Dietitian Danielle Di Carlo can assist you with an eating plan that incorporates all the right foods and supplements to keep your gut healthy. She can also provide you a referral code to Microba who can analyse your microbiome through specialised testing to determine the specific strains in your gut and their quantities compared with the general population.

While probiotics can be very helpful to some people in improving and managing their health, they are not a miracle cure for all ailments. As they are prescribed as a supplement, they are designed to supplement good health habits and not be a substitute for them. A good balanced diet that suits your gut health and personal preferences is always the best approach, while listening to your gut and learning what it best tolerates and prefers for optimal health.