What are probiotics and prebiotics?

What are probiotics and prebiotics?

Increasingly, in special health situations, doctors advise us to provide the body with probiotics and prebiotics, whether in the form of food containing them or in the form of preparations that can be purchased at a pharmacy. What do these names mean and what do they mean for human health? Find out more.
What are probiotics?

According to the WHO definition, probiotics are preparations or food products containing single or mixed cultures of live microorganisms that have a beneficial effect on health, if administered in an appropriate amount.

Most often, bacteria of the genus Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are used for the production of probiotics. The yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae spp boulardii, certain species of Escherichia and Bacillus are also used. Importantly, for a bacterial strain to be considered probiotic, it should be clinically tested for demonstrated health benefits. This means that not every bacterium from the mentioned families must show the desired pro-health effects. Organisms that have successfully passed clinical tests, in addition to the generic and species names, have letter-numeral markings, eg Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus acidophilus LA02, Bifidobacterium breve BR03, which mark the strain facilitating their error-free identification.

Characteristics of probiotic organisms

In addition to the beneficial effects on human health, probiotic organisms should meet a number of other requirements. During the studies, the safety of their use is assessed, i.e. whether they produce potentially dangerous metabolites. Their viability and activity in the gastrointestinal tract are another evaluation criterion. Ideally, organisms should be resistant to gastric acid, digestive enzymes, and bile acids, but few of the tested organisms are so resistant. In this matter, modern methods of administering a probiotic preparation come to the rescue. Capsules resistant to e.g. low pH in the stomach and their microscale equivalent – microencapsulation – are methods used in modern preparations. Further characteristics of the organisms tested for probiotic suitability are affinity for the intestinal epithelium or intestinal viability if no colonization ability is demonstrated. For example, yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae spp boulardii) used in probiotic preparations do not show the ability to colonize the intestine. However, appropriate supplementation, maintaining a constant concentration in the gastrointestinal tract, leads to positive immunostimulatory effects.

Probiotic and human microbiota

Microbiota in relation to the human body consists of all microorganisms inhabiting the human body. They are found in the digestive tract, but also in the respiratory system, vagina and on the skin surface. It is estimated that in a healthy adult human, the microbiota can reach a mass of up to 2 kg and consist of 1000 species of microorganisms.
If the balance of the functioning of the natural microbiota is disturbed, probiotics come to the rescue. Introduced into the body, they compete with pathogens, preventing them from colonization.

Although our bacterial flora is extremely rich, only a few microorganisms are used in the production of probiotic preparations. Their common feature is the safety of use – e.g. some bacteria have a positive effect in the intestines, while in other parts of the digestive system they can be poisonous. Probiotic preparations will not use any that may hurt us if they are administered incorrectly.

What are the benefits of using probiotics?

These bacteria bring us many benefits:

facilitate the digestive process,
increase the absorption of vitamins and minerals,
with antibiotic treatments they protect our intestinal microflora,
affect the immune system increasing resistance to infections,
some strains have antiallergic and anti-cancer properties,
lower cholesterol,
alleviate the symptoms of lactose intolerance,
have the ability to synthesize some B vitamins, vit. K, folic acid.

There are studies showing that the administration of probiotics reduces the incidence of atopic dermatitis in infants, alleviates the symptoms of asthma in children, lowers the incidence of diseases of the upper respiratory tract and the administration of antibiotics in children. Probiotics are also effective in treating acute infectious diarrhea and diarrhea after antibiotic therapy.

Natural probiotics

Examples of probiotic foods are fermented milk products: yoghurts, kefirs, acidophilic milk, buttermilk. Often in their name there is the prefix bio-.

In addition to the presence of lactic acid bacteria, probiotics have many other advantages in human nutrition – they provide wholesome protein, contain a lot of calcium, vitamins B, A, D. Lactic bacteria are also found in widely available cheap pickles (cabbage, cucumbers).
What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible ingredients that promote the growth or activity of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. They come from plants that are everyday food (e.g. onions and bananas), as well as acacia, which is used to obtain fiber (Fibrogenium) that positively affects the function of the intestines.

Prebiotics can be: non-digestible starch, polysaccharides (pectins, guar and oat gum) and oligosaccharides. The most attention is paid to saccharides from the inulin group and fructosooligosaccharides, which occur, among others, in in wheat, onion, garlic, bananas, chicory, leeks, asparagus. They are selectively digested by bifidobacteria and cause a significant growth in the intestine. Products and preparations that contain prebiotics and probiotics side by side are synbiotics.

Supplements and medications

In addition to food, prebiotics and probiotics can be purchased at the pharmacy in the form of capsules, powder in sachets or suspensions. In the past, preparations of this type had to be stored in a refrigerator to maintain the appropriate properties, now they are more stable and often there is no need for this. Each time you should read the leaflet, in which you will find information on how to store the preparation.

There are probiotics registered as drugs and dietary supplements on the market. The former have been thoroughly tested and contain the exact concentration of live bacteria that is stated on the packaging throughout the shelf-life. In the case of dietary supplements, we do not have such certainty, but it is not a reason to discredit such preparations. Increasingly, manufacturers register their products as dietary supplements, because it is much cheaper than drug registration. On the packaging of drugs, we most often find the names of the strains used in production with the appropriate letter-numeral designation and the concentration expressed in CFU (Colony Forming Unit). On the other hand, dietary supplements, instead of such names as appearing on drugs, may have only the names of the genus and species or the commercial names of the appropriate strains of bacteria.

Probiotics and prebiotics are recommended especially during and after infectious diarrhea, as well as in the case of using antibiotics – in order to rebuild the bacterial flora. There are preparations on the market that contain at least one strain of bacteria.

When choosing a preparation, remember that it is good to use multi-strain probiotics that will diversify our bacterial flora.

Synbiotics are also often available in pharmacies. The most commonly used prebiotic in them is the most popular and best-studied inulin, as well as acacia fiber and fluctooligosaccharides.

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