There are a lot of buzzwords happening in the world of gut health. There’s hard science that proves gut flora not only exists, but is responsible for a myriad of our body’s ultimate, optimal function—think, even the brain, which is seemingly far removed from our gut. However, there is also a lot of pseudoscience that markets flimsy products and vague claims.
Naturopathic doctor and author of Younger Skin Starts in the Gut, Dr. Nigma Talib, breaks down exactly what some of these products are—prebiotics vs. probiotics—plus why we need them both, and how they serve us and each other.
First of all, while both prebiotics and probiotics sound similar, they function very differently. Dr. Nigma tells us that while they are very different, they work together in order for our gut to function normally and healthfully.
“Prebiotics are plant fibers that stimulate the growth and activity of good bacteria living in the gut microbiome,” Dr. Nigma explains. And before we get caught up wondering what plant fibers are, it’s good ol’ fashioned fiber—aka the necessary part of our diets that helps move things along, ehem, regularly.
“Prebiotic fiber is food to existing ‘good bacteria’ that help keep the bad bacteria and other organisms in check.” However, while all prebiotic material is dietary fiber, not all dietary fiber is prebiotic, according to this study. To break down what that means, we have to think of food texture quite literally.
Super fibrous materials such as roughage and insoluble fiber are not easily broken down by gut microbiota, and therefore are not prebiotic foods. Soluble fiber is further fermented by the gut bacteria.
Once soluble fibers make their way down the digestive tract to the colon, this is where the party gets started. There, they encounter gut microbes, where they are broken down and essentially food for our good gut bugs, creating essential short-chain fatty acids. What these SCFAs do for us is act as a source of energy for colonocytes, curb glycemic responses and satiety, promote weight loss, enhance mineral absorption, reduce systemic inflammation, and even improve intestinal health, according to this study.
Now, Dr. Nigma explains that “probiotics are actual live microorganisms that add to the existing population of good bacteria in the gut.” What exists in the gut are not probiotics, but our personal fingerprint of active flora. Probiotics help to replenish this population, allowing it to grow, flourish, and diversify.
“I recommend about 5 grams of prebiotic fiber each day to help increase the beneficial bacteria in the gut,” Dr. Nigma shares. It’s just as important to feed our gut population as it is to add to it, so don’t forget to eat!