All About Gut Health: Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

Health begins in our guts. About 70% of our immune system is located in our digestive system. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we take good care of our gut health! By consuming a more whole foods diet combined with both prebiotic and probiotic rich foods, the beneficial bacteria residing in our guts can help defend infections and support our immune system. Let’s dive a little deeper to see the role prebiotics and probiotics have in our microbiome.

What is the Microbiome?

The human gut microbiome is a community of microorganisms (a.k.a. microbes) such as bacteria, fungi, and virus that live together in and on our bodies. There are over 100 trillion of these microbes residing in the mouth, gut, vagina and skin. The majority of these microbes, both good and bad, live in our gut, particularly our large intestines. 

What is a Prebiotic?

Prebiotics are plant fibers that our bodies cannot digest. They go through the small intestines and is fermented once it reaches the large intestines. There, the beneficial bacterias (a.k.a. probiotics) feeds on them. In other words, they are food for the probiotics. They help increase the number of beneficial bacterias living in our guts. Vegetables rich in inulin are high in prebiotic fibres.

If you are just starting out with consuming more prebiotic-rich foods, it is important to note that it can possibly increase bloating and gas. Start by introducing prebiotic foods to your diet in small amounts, this will help your body ease into digesting it. This is particularly important for individuals who has any inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). As with any food, continued intake will build up tolerance.

What is a Probiotic?

Probiotics literally means “FOR LIFE” (“pro” – for and “bio” life). Probiotics are microorganisms of over 500 varieties that promote life. In other words, they are live, beneficial bacteria that live in our gut microbiome. They hold the key to better overall health by regulating our immune system, reducing inflammation and improving digestive and mental health. 

Top Probiotic Rich Foods

Fermented foods are high in probiotics. Fermentation can be defined as “the transformative action of microorganisms.” Fermented foods are alive with flavour and nutrition. The fermentation process produces alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid that preserves nutrients, breaks down food into easier digestible form, eliminates toxins, and creates new nutrients such as B vitamins (for energy and protein synthesis) and vitamin K (needed for blood coagulation). Keep your gut healthy by consuming more of these fermented foods! 

  1. Sauerkraut – a.k.a. “sour cabbage” is simply just that! It is shredded cabbage and salt that is allowed to ferment over a period of time. Most store-bough sauerkraut are pasteurized and this process kills the probiotics. Some even contain preservatives like sodium benzoate. Be sure to buy the sauerkraut that are in the refrigerated section at the supermarket as this means there are still living cultures in there. The best sauerkraut is always homemade! My recommended brand is Bubbies.
  2. Kimchi – is a traditional Korean side dish made with salt and fermented vegetables such as napa cabbage and radish. If you are local in Vancouver, I highly suggest the brand Salty Cabbage Kimchi, they are made with no MSG, additives or preservatives and are made with traditional Korean techniques. You can taste the difference!
  3. Miso Paste – a Japanese traditional paste produced by fermenting soybean with fungus Aspergillus oryzae and salt, and sometimes with rice, barley or oats. I personally only really like one brand and that is Amano Foods. I love the Shiro Miso Paste the best as it is the least salty of them all. It is also made with rice so it is gluten-free and vegan-friendly.
  4. Tempeh – is a traditional Indonesian fermented soybean made by fermenting partially cooked soybeans with fungus Rhizopus oligosporus that are then formed into cakes. Some versions contain beans, grains and other falvourings. I personally only like one local brand as well for tempeh and that is Tempea. Other brands that I’ve tried don’t taste as good.
  5. Yogurt – fermented milk with live bacterial cultures. Milk is heated and mixed with two types of beneficial bacteria strains: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Beware, not all store-bought yogurt are created equal. Some are heavy ladened with sugar that you’re practically better off eating sugary treats. For this reason, the best yogurt would be homemade. But if you must buy it, I recommend Tree Island Yogurt.
  6. Kefir – a cultured fermented drink similar to yogurt. It is made using starter grains, a combination of bacteria, yeast and milk proteins. I’m personally not a big fan but I’ve heard many stories of how others feel good when they added more kefir in their morning routine. Because I don’t really consume it myself, I don’t have a brand I would recommend. Homemade is also the best for kefir. You would need to purchase kefir grains or get some from a friend. 
  7. Natto – a traditional Japanese dish made made with fermented steamed soybeans with Bacillus subtilis bacteria. It has a sticky texture and a very pungent smell. It is best served cold or at room temperature with rice and soy sauce. Some would say it is an acquired taste but I have yet to try it! Have you tried it?
  8. Pickled Veggies – fermented veggies such as pickles are great for digestion. They are stored in brine (salt water) instead of being steeped in vinegar. Fermented pickles are unpasteurized and would be found in the refrigerated section at the grocery store. This means that they have live bacterial cultures living in them. Bubbies is the brand that I would recommend if you don’t want to make your own.
  9. Apple Cider Vinegar – are apples that have been crushed, distilled and then fermented. The best apple cider vinegar (ACV) brand is Braggs, their ACV is organic, raw, unfiltered and consists of a “mother,” which consists of protein, enzymes and friendly bacteria. The longer it sits in your cupboard, the darker it gets, this is normal! I have yet to try to make my own ACV.
  10. Kombucha – is a fermented drink made with tea (caffeinated is best), sugar and SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). The best is homemade! I usually have a batch going in my house! If you must buy it, I would recommend a local Vancouver brand called Hoochy ‘Booch
  11. Sourdough Bread – is made by fermenting dough with naturally occurring yeast and lactobacilli. The lactobacilli produces lactic acid which gives sourdough a more sour taste. Best is homemade! I was gluten-free for a very long time so I still don’t eat much bread until now. However, when I do crave bread, I choose to eat sourdough bread as they are the easiest to digest due to the fermentation process. A Bread Affair, a non-GMO artisan Vancouver bakery, has a good sourdough bread that they call “cheeky.”
  12. Olives – are often cured or pickled in oil, water or brine. Green olives are first soaked in a lye solution before brining while black olives are soaked in brine right away. Brine-cured olives undergo fermentation wherein its sugar content is broken down into acetic acid and oleuropein. During the brine-curing process, the flavours and phytonutrients composition changes.

As with anything, homemade is always the best choice. The brands I recommend above would be your second best choice if you don’t want to make it yourself. 

Is Supplementation Needed?

As much as I love getting nutrients from whole foods, I also find the importance of taking supplements when needed. As we can get most of our prebiotics in the foods we eat, I don’t recommend consuming extra prebiotic supplements unless it is already mixed in with your probiotic supplement.

Depending on the Nutritionist, Dietician, Naturopath or Holistic Doctor that you ask, some will say that you should always be taking probiotic supplements. I, on the other hand, would recommend taking it on and off depending on your life situation. If you have just been on a round of antibiotics or are currently taking antibiotics then I highly recommend taking a probiotic supplement to re-populate your gut with beneficial bacteria. A few other situations in which you should take probiotics in supplement form is when there’s a big change in your life such as moving out on your own or moving in with someone for the first time, starting a new job or project, having your first child or anything that may cause stress (whether emotional, mental or physical). Another great time to take probiotics is when you are about to travel as consuming foods that your stomach is not accustomed to can disturb your microbiome. On the contrary, if you have been living a pretty healthy lifestyle and consuming a wide range of nourishing whole foods and fermented foods then I would suggest taking a break from probiotics (and save some cash). Pay attention to your body, after awhile, you will start to notice if you need to supplement with probiotics or not.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, whether you feel stressed or not, I believe we all should be taking probiotics at this time. Our bodies are going through some changes as most of us are now working from home and aren’t able to do our normal activities. So even if you are not feeling emotionally stressed, these changes are hard on our bodies mentally and physically. Consuming more probiotic rich foods and supplementing would help support our gut microbiome so we can live happy balanced lives even through this pandemic. This is just my opinion, please seek advise from your health care provider.

Which Probiotic Brands do you Recommend?

Probiotics are considered a dietary supplement, not a drug. Therefore, the FDA does not monitor the manufacturing of probiotics. Not all probiotics are created equal. It is good to do your own research or ask the health care worker where you purchase your supplements. Below are the top quality probiotic brands (in no particular order) that I have used myself and have recommended to clients, family and friends.

Garden of Life  – I love their RAW Primal Defense Probiotics, it is their original probiotic and now they have a lot more varieties to choose from.

Genuine Health – these delayed-released Probiotics come in 30 or 60 capsules and in 5 varieties: regular, extra strength, for women, UTI and for kids. Perfect for travelling as they are shelf-stable! 

Genestra HMF – this is the brand that is most recommended by naturopaths as far as I have noticed being in the industry. Fun fact: way before I became a holistic nutritionist, this was the first brand of probiotics that I ever tried


Living Alchemy – a Canadian company that uses a unique kefir-kombucha fermentation process of organic whole foods to create a variety of beneficial and strong microorganisms. Their line of Your Flora Probiotics are made with 35 strains of microorganisms.
New Roots
– a Canadian company that has a wide range of probiotics that are clearly labelled in each packaging for all your needs! For maintenance, I suggest the Acidophilus Ultra with 11 Billion+ CFUs.

When is the best time to take Probiotic Supplements?

Again, depending on the health care practitioner that you ask, the answer will always differ. I usually recommend my clients to take their probiotics at night right before bed. This is so the body can digest and absorb the probiotic better as it is not trying to digest or do anything else while in repair mode. This is also when I take probiotics and I find it works best for me. There are a few exceptions such as the Genestra HMF brand (best taken with food at anytime of the day) and the Genuine Health shelf-stable brand (good to take at any time of day as they are time-released). With that said, if you are a person who forgets to take supplements right before bed, the next best time to take it is in the morning before you eat breakfast. The next option would be any time you remember! Because consuming it and absorbing some is still better than not consuming any at all!

In short, it is best to take probiotics in supplement form at night right before bed or after your last meal of the day. The second best time is first thing in the morning and lastly, any time that you remember to take it!

Good to Know:

What does CFU mean?
CFU stands for Colony Forming Units and it basically just means how many cultures of beneficial bacteria can colonize or make a home in your microbiome. The higher the number, the more beneficial bacteria are available to form colonies in your gut! 

My main recommendation for a healthy individual is 15-25 billion CFUs and for those who have gastrointestinal disorders, are taking antibiotics (or have recently taken it), and those about to travel, 50 billion CFUs or higher would be best. 

What are Probiotic Strains?
They are genetic subtypes of microorganisms. Many types of bacteria are classified as probiotics but there are two main groups: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. From these groups, there are over 400 more strains that can live in our guts.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t be taking probiotic supplements?
Those who take immunosuppresant drugs or have a venous catheter may be at a risk of becoming ill from the live bacteria or yeast found in probiotic supplements. A person sensitive to yeast or has small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) should make sure that they talk to their health care provider (Doctor, Naturopath, Dietitian, Holistic Nutritionist) prior to taking probiotics.

Probiotics are generally safe. However, sometimes, we can feel “worse” before we feel better when a drastic change is made to our diet and lifestyle. If any symptom is causing any concern, please be sure to talk to your health care provider. As with any supplement, before using probiotics, read the instructions carefully and follow the recommended dosage. Those with allergies should be particularly careful about checking labels.

How do we take care of our Microbiome?

The microbiome of the mother can affect the child’s microbiome. It has now been well studied that a vaginal birth transfers more of the mother’s beneficial bacteria to the baby as opposed to a caesarean birth. Drinking the mother’s milk versus a formula also affects the microbiome. As the child grows into adulthood, factors that affect the microbiome are diet, lifestyle, stress, pharmaceutical drugs and location.

By consuming prebiotic and probiotic rich foods as well as having a healthy lifestyle and a well balanced diet filled with whole foods and a variety of colours, we are supporting the healthy colonization of these beneficial bacteria. Having a diverse microbiome is vital for optimal health to ensure that food is properly digested and absorbed in order for the body to utilize the nutrients.

I hope this has helped clarify a few things about gut health for you! There are many factors that should be considered when adding in new foods and supplements into your diet, I highly suggest talking it over with a holistic nutritionist or a naturopath. 

I wish you a happy & healthy day!

Ana Bella

 

 

 

*I highlighted certain brands above that I recommend, I am not sponsored by any of these companies, I truly just like them!

Disclaimer: 
The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and do not render medical advice, opinion, diagnosis, or treatment. The information provided through this website should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a medical problem, you should consult your appropriate health care provider.