Why prebiotics are probably more important than probiotics

November 11, 2023 7 min read

Why prebiotics are probably more important than probiotics

The gut health market is huge, not only in revenue but also in choice. Whether you scroll the internet or pace the aisles of your local health food shop, you’ll notice there is no shortage of options when it comes to looking after your gut. But which is better prebiotics or probiotics?

That sounds very much like a chicken and egg scenario, doesn’t it? In this article, we’ll give you the lowdown on why we believe prebiotics may have a slight advantage over probiotics when it comes to nurturing your microbiota.

What are prebiotics and how are they different from probiotics?

Prebiotics are the indigestible fibre you consume that nourishes your microbiome. It’s indigestible because your body is not equipped with the tools it needs to break it down, like enzymes. So, various members of your gut microbiota do it for you.

The gut microbiome consists of a conglomerate of different bacterial genera, who mostly live in harmony with you and each other, as well as viruses, fungi and protozoa. Prebiotics help to feed the good or probiotic bacteria living within your colon, which in turn increases their numbers and activity levels, protecting you from harmful bacteria by keeping their levels low. You could think of them like your bacterial Department of Defence.

Probiotics on the other hand are the good, friendly, and health-promoting bacteria that reside in your gut, contributing to the intestinal ecosystem. The major difference between packaged probiotics, like supplements and fermented foods, and prebiotics is the latter is a little more robust than the former. That’s because there is no real guarantee that the probiotics will reach your gut alive, don’t forget they have to pass through the hostile, acidic environment of your stomach before reaching their intended destination, the colon. And even if they do, you’ll be limited to the strains within the product, most often Bifidobacteriaand Lactobacilli.

Benefits of prebiotics

Because the primary function of prebiotic fibre is to feed the good bacteria in your gut, increasing your consumption of them will only benefit you further. When our microbiota is happy, then so are we.

Good gut health is paramount for many different aspects of our health and functioning. For example, it can help to:

  •  absorb nutrients
  • protect us from invading pathogens
  • regulate our appetite
  • boost mood and cognition
  • strengthen the gut lining

Prebiotics are one part of this positive feedback loop, so how can we conclude that they’re probably (slightly) more important than probiotics?

Prebiotics feed probiotics

Perhaps the chief benefit of prebiotics is their ability to feed an array of different probiotic bacteria in your gut. For example, prebiotic foods and fibres provide sustenance for species such as Bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus,and Akkermansia.

Prebiotics not only do this directly but also indirectly. So, for example, although a microbe may ferment a prebiotic, the process may also yield substrates that other bacteria can use, called cross-feeding. A well-known example of this is the ability of Bifidobacteriabeing able to break down prebiotics like inulin-type fructans, to produce compounds known to feed butyrate producers such as Faecalibacterium prausnitzii[i].

But prebiotics also help to regulate the acidic gut environments, known to help deter opportunistic pathogens from setting up camp and providing the optimal environment to enable certain species to thrive, particularly those that produce butyrate[ii].

All of these activities demonstrate why prebiotics are so valuable in modulating the gut microbiome environments, and the wider benefits this has for human health. Let’s take a more in-depth look at how prebiotics interact with certain probiotics.

Prebiotics and Bifidobacteria

Bifidobacteriaare normal, healthy residents of the human gut microbiome and are amongst the first microbes to colonise the colon as infants[iii]. Like other probiotics, they help to break down the fibre you eat to produce important compounds like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and vitamins.

A low abundance of Bifidobacteriain the gut is associated with several diseases,  including Helicobacter pyloriinfections[iv],asthma[v], and inflammatory bowel disease[vi]. That’s why it is important to promote the diversity of your microbiome because without it you are at risk of dysbiosis (an imbalanced gut). Dysbiosis is associated with many uncomfortable symptoms like stomach cramps, excessive wind, diarrhoea, and low-grade chronic inflammation which is linked to the development of many diseases outside of the gut.

Bifidobacteriaare known for their health-promoting benefits, particularly providing stability to the microbiome. To do this though, they need nourishment in the form of prebiotics. Research shows that Bifidobacteriacan thrive on various prebiotic fibres, like galacto-oligosachharides (GOS), fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), resistant starches[vii], and of course, human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs).

By nourishing Bifidobacteria, prebiotics stimulate their growth and increase their activity or the production of beneficial metabolites which promote balance, and health, and protect our bodies from infection and disease.  

Prebiotics and Lactobacillus

Another resident gut genus that thrives on prebiotics is Lactobacillus.These little blighters are known to transform prebiotic fibres into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), lactate and acetate which have important roles in regulating the pH of the gut. This helps to keep it slightly acidic to encourage health-promoting species to grow but also to keep pathogens out. 

Acetate, produced by Lactobacillus, also feeds other members of the microbiota, which in turn, strengthens the integrity of the gut barrier and reduces the presence of inflammation, both are major contributors to adverse health events.

Prebiotics and Akkermansia

Akkermansia muciniphila is another resident gut microbe that’s renowned for its ability to strengthen the integrity of the gut barrier through its love of mucin. Akkermansia doesn’t rely solely on you to feed it, it dines out on the mucous lining your gut, transforming the protein mucin into numerous beneficial compounds including SCFAs.

How do prebiotics benefit and feed Akkermansia?

Even though mucins are Akkermansia’sfavourite food to munch on, there are also many foods that this microbe feeds on to help encourage its growth and stimulate its activity levels, such as:

  •  apple peels
  • beans
  • beetroot
  • green tea
  • oats
  • olives
  • onions
  • pomegranate
  • strawberries

These natural foods are rich in polyphenols, compounds that are present in many plant-based foods which have potent antioxidant benefits. This is great for strains like Akkermansia muciniphilawhich thrive in oxygen-free environments and are at risk from free oxygen radicals.

Some research has shown that polyphenols, like those present in cranberries, have been associated with positive metabolic effects, such as an improvement in insulin sensitivity and weight reduction. At the same time, these effects were observed alongside an increased abundance of Akkermansiain the gut[viii].

HMOs, one of the most abundant components of human breast milk and a prolific prebiotic, may also increase the abundance of microbes like Akkermansia.That’s because HMOs are structurally similar to the sugars (oligosaccharides) that make up mucin, Akkermansia’spreferred choice of food.

Interestingly, some research has demonstrated that certain Akkermansiastrains can break down HMOs, releasing their sugars and producing beneficial compounds that can help other members of the gut microbiota to thrive, an activity commonly referred to as cross-feeding.

When to take probiotics

Although prebiotics are considered more robust than probiotics, if you have an imbalanced gut microbiome, you should consider seeding your gut with these beneficial bacterial species.

This will help the healthy colonies to establish themselves, grow in abundance and provide a stable community that you can then support with prebiotic consumption. Prebiotics will then help to bolster the probiotic numbers by increasing their growth and activity.

The most common ways to do this are through probiotic supplementation and introducing fermented foods into your diet. At Layer Origin we produce our PureHMO® range including the PureHMO® Synbiotic which includes 10 healthy bacteria strains and 2000mg of 2’FL.

Fermented food examples

apple cider vinegar

aged cheese

kefir

kombucha

kimchi

Miso

tempeh

natto

sourdough bread

 

Summary

Prebiotics are more robust than probiotics because they can reach the gut intact, whereas there is no real guarantee that probiotics will. The take home message being that if you are looking to support the health of your gut microbiome you should reach for the prebiotics first.

Prebiotics will nourish the beneficial microbes that make up the microbiota. However, if you are aware that your gut may be imbalanced, probiotics can help to seed your gut to provide a base for prebiotics to help nourish and grow your colonic community.

Written byLeanne Edermaniger, M.Sc. Leanne is a professional science writer who specializes in human health and enjoys writing about all things related to the gut microbiome. 

Sources

[i] Rivière A, Selak M, Lantin D, Leroy F, De Vuyst L. Bifidobacteria and butyrate-producing colon bacteria: Importance and strategies for their stimulation in the human gut. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2016;7. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2016.00979

[ii] Davani-Davari D, Negahdaripour M, Karimzadeh I, Seifan M, Mohkam M, Masoumi SJ, Berenjian A, Ghasemi Y. Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications. Foods. 2019 Mar 9;8(3):92. doi: 10.3390/foods8030092. PMID: 30857316; PMCID: PMC6463098.

[iii] O’Callaghan A, van Sinderen D. Bifidobacteria and their role as members of the human gut microbiota. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2016;7. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2016.00925

[iv] Devi TB, Devadas K, George M, Gandhimathi A, Chouhan D, Retnakumar RJ, et al. Low bifidobacterium abundance in the lower gut microbiota is associated with helicobacter pylori-related gastric ulcer and gastric cancer. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2021;12. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2021.631140

[v] Liwen Z, Yu W, Liang M, Kaihong X, Baojin C. A low abundance of Bifidobacterium but not lactobacillius in the feces of Chinese children with wheezing diseases. Medicine. 2018;97(40). doi:10.1097/md.0000000000012745

[vi] Hu Y, Chen Z, Xu C, Kan S, Chen D. Disturbances of the Gut Microbiota and Microbiota-Derived Metabolites in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Nutrients. 2022 Dec 2;14(23):5140. doi: 10.3390/nu14235140. PMID: 36501169; PMCID: PMC9735443.

[vii] Davani-Davari D, Negahdaripour M, Karimzadeh I, Seifan M, Mohkam M, Masoumi SJ, Berenjian A, Ghasemi Y. Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications. Foods. 2019 Mar 9;8(3):92. doi: 10.3390/foods8030092. PMID: 30857316; PMCID: PMC6463098.

[viii] Anhê FF, Roy D, Pilon G, Dudonné S, Matamoros S, Varin TV, Garofalo C, Moine Q, Desjardins Y, Levy E, Marette A. A polyphenol-rich cranberry extract protects from diet-induced obesity, insulin resistance and intestinal inflammation in association with increased Akkermansia spp. population in the gut microbiota of mice. Gut. 2015 Jun;64(6):872-83. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2014-307142. Epub 2014 Jul 30. PMID: 25080446.


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