When you see the word “probiotics,” your first thought is probably “yogurt.” And when you see the word “prebiotics,” your first thought is probably, “that’s a typo, they definitely meant to write ‘probiotics.’”
Article at a Glance
Probiotics & Prebiotics
- Probiotics and Prebiotics are key players in digestive health
- Also influence immune and mental health
Probiotics: Good Bacteria
- Live microorganisms could improve everything from digestion to depression
- Natural sources include fermented foods like yogurt
- Probiotics can strengthen your immune system
- Gut microbiota can influence brain-related conditions, playing a role in your gut-brain axis by producing dopamine and serotonin
Prebiotics: Food for Probiotics
- Prebiotics provide sustenance to probiotics
- Prebiotics are dietary fiber and include bananas, asparagus, legumes, and more
- Prebiotics also increase the levels of certain anti-inflammatory proteins
- Prebiotics also work to influence blood-sugar and weight gain
The Enteric Nervous System
- Part of the larger nervous system that handles motor functions like digestion
- Nerve fibers in the enteric system mainly travel from the gut to the brain, influencing mood and general brain functions
The truth is, prebiotics are a real thing and probiotics refer to more than merely yogurt. Their names might be similar, but these two key players in your digestive system claim different roles in your body, while also complementing each other so that you can achieve a new level of overall health. It’s a complex relationship, to be sure—but your body is a complex collection of functions and matter, so it makes sense for your inner biome to be at least slightly complicated.
At the most basic level, probiotics are good bacteria and prebiotics are the food for that good bacteria. Before examining how probiotics and prebiotics work together, let’s discuss each one individually and break down their roles in your happy gut and how their work translates to a healthy immune system, brain, and more.
Probiotics: Good Bacteria Living Inside You
Your gut is a busy place. Besides the moment-to-moment turning and churning of your digestive system, you have literally millions of gut bacteria making a home inside of you at any given time. These live microorganisms are the perfect example of beneficial bacteria, potentially improving everything from digestive health to heart health and even possibly working to help reduce depression.
The main natural sources of probiotics include fermented foods, including, yes, the aforementioned yogurt. In fact, yogurt is one of the best sources of probiotics—but not all yogurt is created equal and in some cases, the live bacteria could be decimated during processing. So be sure to choose yogurt that contains live or active cultures. Other great natural sources of probiotics include unpasteurized (raw) sauerkraut, fermented soybean (tempeh), kimchi, miso, kombucha, pickles (without vinegar), and some cheeses including cottage cheese, gouda, and mozzarella.
Most famously, probiotics are known to aid in digestion, with some studies suggesting that it could help improve the symptoms of inflamed and irritable bowels, while also possibly addressing certain autoimmune conditions that affect the digestive system.
Less celebrated is the probiotic advantage in supporting the immune system and boosting mental health.
Your immune system is constantly on high alert against invaders — and having an arsenal of good bacteria helps your body in the fight against an overabundance of yeast and fungi, along with attacks from viruses. A 2003 study found that certain strains of probiotics were effective in protecting cells against specific bacteria-caused infections, while another study demonstrated that probiotics could potentially help women stave off urinary tract infections.
As for the probiotic effect on your mental health, the state of your gut microbiota has been shown to influence brain-related conditions like anxiety and depression. And it makes sense, as your gut is often referred to as your body’s “second brain,” with the technical term being the “gut-brain axis,” a phenomenon we’ve previously discussed. This refers to the unseen connection between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, populated by microorganisms. A published review in 2016 found that certain strains of probiotics were indeed effective in addressing anxiety, depression, cognitive performance, and even specific brain conditions.
And in perhaps one of the more fascinating revelations, the microbes in your gut produce more than 50 percent of the dopamine in your body and about 90 percent of the serotonin—two neurotransmitters that are explicitly responsible for your mood and happiness.
Prebiotics: Food For Thought
All of those probiotics you consume need nourishment of their own—which is where prebiotics come in. In order for probiotics to thrive and deliver benefits throughout your body, it needs a serving of sugars and fibers that are otherwise indigestible. That’s right: just like us, probiotics need healthy food to support their wellbeing.
The symbiotic relationship between probiotics and prebiotics is known as microbiome therapy, and it demonstrates that ingesting prebiotics with probiotics makes the health benefits of probiotics more pronounced. Think of probiotics as the car and prebiotics as the fuel the car needs to run. All prebiotics are dietary fiber, and are found in foods like bananas, asparagus, garlic, onions, leafy greens, legumes, and much more.
Besides being a source of food for good bacteria, prebiotics also support your immune system. Research shows that prebiotics can help to increase your gut’s levels of cytokine, a group of proteins that regulate your immune system and fight inflammation. And in a 2011 study, prebiotics where shown to enhance mineral absorption, along with other immune system-aiding functions.
Outside of strengthening immunity, studies show that prebiotics, especially in conjunction with Vitamin D, can help to keep your blood sugar levels normal and also possibly lend a hand in weight-loss efforts.
The Enteric Nervous System: A Deeper Connection Between Your Brain & Belly
Let’s double back to the conversation about your body’s “second brain.” We’ve talked about how the gut homeostasis achieved through a healthy balance of probiotics and prebiotics can have a positive effect on not only overall health and particularly your mood, but the specifics of this physiological process are so compelling that they are worth noting in greater detail.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is a somewhat autonomous sector of the larger nervous system that controls certain motor functions like the digestive system. For the most part, your brain uses a cranial nerve known as the vagus nerve to connect with various parts of the body, including the digestive tract.
While we’re used to hearing about your brain sending signals to the body, what is most surprising in this realm is that the majority of the nerve fibers in the ENS are actually traveling from your gut to your brain. This seems to illustrate that your gut—and the prebiotics and probiotics taking up residence in your gut—have more than a passing influence on your mood, but also on your decision making.
The Probiotic & Prebiotic Relationship: What Does It Mean In The End?
The simple act of introducing prebiotics and probiotics into your life can set into motion a wealth of health benefits that are first churned in your stomach, before being distributed to the rest of your body via your very own unique collection of millions of microorganisms. Consuming probiotics and prebiotics is a simple step you can take to alter your gastronomical health, while also influencing your mental state and immune system function. It’s a health regimen that both of your brains will appreciate!