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Probiotics and Prebiotics

Source: GreenWise Magazine – Fall 2011
Probiotics may get star treatment, but prebiotics are their best supporting nutrient. Here’s why you may benefit from both.

Confused? Here’s what you need to know about these soundalike siblings.

What They Are

Probiotics are “good” bacteria that can benefit your health. They are found naturally in your digestive tract where they help fight infections and improve digestion. Foods like yogurt, aged cheese and some fermented foods are natural sources of probiotics. Eating them can boost your body’s population of probiotics. You’ll also find them in some fortified foods and supplements.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are nutrients that nourish the friendly bacteria in your body. Soluble dietary fiber tops the list.  A naturally sweet, indigestible fiber derived from chicory roots, FOS (fructooligosaccharides) is one of the best-documented natural nutrients for improving the healthy balance of bacteria in intestines and stimulating the growth of the beneficial bifidobacteria—also called “friendly flora”—that reside in the colon.

What They May Help

Besides promoting overall health, certain strains of probiotics have been shown to be effective for specific conditions.

  • Antibiotic-associated diarrhea. It’s an unwelcome side effect of taking these medicines, but there’s strong clinical evidence that probiotics can help, says Gary Huffnagle, Ph.D., professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center and author of The Probiotics Revolution (Bantam Books). “I also have so many anecdotal stories of physicians telling their patients that, yeah, when you’re on this antibiotic, you might get diarrhea. And so you may want to eat some yogurt,” Huffnagle says.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In an Irish study, IBS patients consumed a probiotic supplement for eight weeks and saw marked improvement in their symptoms versus the control groups (Gastroenterology). It’s not a cure for IBS, says Mary Ellen Sanders, Ph.D., probiotics industry consultant and executive director of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics. “But probiotics seem to provide a means to manage — through diet — the onset of symptoms of IBS.”
  • Immune support. There’s also scientific support for a link between our immune system and the microorganisms in our digestive tract. In a recent study young children who consumed a daily yogurt beverage showed, on average, a 19 percent reduction in common infections (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010). “Another way to look at it is that probiotics can help you not get sick or not get as sick,” Sanders says.

As for prebiotics, their claim to fame is that they nourish the body’s probiotics. Boosting probiotic populations decreases disease-causing bacteria, and that may help you fight off illness.

What’s Ahead

Some researchers believe that probiotics and prebiotics might someday be shown to help with colorectal cancer, insulin resistance, allergies, chronic fatigue syndrome and obesity. Until science gives us more answers, Huffnagle sees no reason not to enjoy probiotics and prebiotics for the many benefits we already know about. “Probiotics have an amazingly awesome safety record. How many adverse reactions do people have to yogurt?”