Probiotics and Prebiotics
Recently there has been a lot of interest in probiotics. However, many are confused about how probiotics differ from antibiotics and prebiotics. The similarity between these three terms is that they all are related to bacteria in some way. In this column I will describe each term, how they interrelate, and explain some of the health implications. Before I proceed, it is important to know that there are hundreds of different types of bacteria. Some can cause disease in humans (pathogenic) while others , the “good bacteria”, do not cause any disease but may, among other benefits, protect from other more dangerous infections.
There are billions of “good bacteria” in the intestines of all humans which have been traditionally referred to as intestinal flora. More recently the term gut microbiome has been used to describe them. A growing number of studies are now showing that the number, type and variety of gut bacteria can influence one’s health status. Here are some health effects according to the American Microbiome Institute:
- Effect on the immune system: The gut bacteria play a vital role in the development of a strong immune system, especially during early childhood.
- Effect on nutrition and body weight: Gut bacteria break down or digest plants into smaller molecules which our body is then able to digest. Interestingly, a study in mice showed that certain bacteria were associated with obesity and others with normal weight. When obese mice were given the gut microbiome of normal mice, the obese mice lost weight.
- Influence on disease: The gut microbiome is now being implicated in many gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome(IBS).
About antibiotics and probiotics
Antibiotics are medicines used to kill, treat and control pathogenic bacteria that cause serious infections including meningitis and pneumonia. It is not surprising that antibiotics also can kill or affect the good bacteria in the gut microbiome. This is where the term probiotics comes in. Probiotics are solutions or pills that actually contain living “good” bacteria. In addition to being available in pill form, they are also added to foods such as yogurt. The dose of the probiotics is measured in the billion ranges referring to the number of bacteria in a capsule or certain food. Probiotic formulations vary in dosage and by the type of beneficial bacteria they contain. Probiotics are designed to replenish, alter and /or strengthen the gut microbiome.
There is a relationship between diet and the presence of certain gut bacteria. For example, vegetarians have gut bacteria that are better able to break down plants and related foods that humans cannot otherwise digest. This is where the term prebiotics comes in. Prebiotics are actually foods that feed and help build and maintain our gut microbiome bacteria. There are many types of foods considered to be preobiotics including: yogurt, sauerkraut, soft cheeses, kefir, sourdough bread, sour pickles and asparagus.
We have come a long way in better understanding the relationship between bacteria and our health. The constantly emerging knowledge and experience in this area will no doubt have long term positive implications, in terms of potential disease prevention and control as well as overall health and wellness.