Prebiotics are specific substances that promote growth of micro organisms like bacteria and fungi or make them active so that they may support the health of their hosts. One place where prebiotics are found commonly is the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, where they help to change the composition of the organisms present in the gut microbiome. Nevertheless, theoretically speaking, it is a very common example and prebiotics are also found in other parts of our body. For instance, it has been found that specific hand moisturizers work like prebiotics, thereby enhancing the composition or activity of the skin microbiota.

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As far as our diet is concerned, usually prebiotics are fiber compounds that are not digested by our system and they pass in an undigested state through the higher portion of our gastrointestinal tract, which invigorating the activity or growth of beneficial bacterial that form colonies in the large bowel by serving as a substrate for these bacteria. In 1995, Marcel Roberfroid was the first to identify as well as name them "prebiotics". Like probiotics, prebiotics are also a functional food component and theoretically they are somewhere in-between foods and drugs.

While most people are familiar with probiotics and understand their importance, prebiotics are relatively new and, hence, less familiar to the general public. However, the two - probiotics and prebiotics, are significantly different in several aspects, counting the health benefits offered by them.

For instance, probiotics are basically live bacteria present in yogurt as well as other dairy products and even in pills. Often, physicians prescribe probiotics to their patients who are already taking antibiotics with a view to combat the adverse effects of the medication on the gastrointestinal tract. It has been found that probiotics are effective in dealing with specific problems related to the gastrointestinal tract, but they are not as potent or possess the power of prebiotics.

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In the beginning, probiotics are very delicate and they can be killed by heat and the acids secreted in the stomach, which make them useless even before they can be digested. In addition, people who do not consume dairy foods either for their taste or other dietary reasons may find it very difficult, if not impossible, to ingest sufficient amounts of probiotics. Moreover, we are still not quite certain as to the specific beneficial bacteria that would prove to be useful for our body.

In case of some people, a specific beneficial bacterial strain proves to be helpful, while it may not be beneficial for others. Therefore, when we ingest probiotics, we are actually making a guess regarding which bacteria may prove to be beneficial and hope for the best to happen. At the same time, we also hope that the "good" bacteria that manage to survive the heat as well as stomach acids will eventually offer some benefits to our health.

So we at least have an understanding about probiotics and how they may be helpful for our system. But then what are prebiotics actually? Precisely speaking, a prebiotic is a specific plant fiber that provides nourishment to the good bacteria present in the colon or the large bowel. Probiotics bring in the good or beneficial bacteria into the gut, prebiotics work to nourish them - something like fertilizers to plants. Prebiotics are useful as they assist the growth and development of good bacteria in the gut and also improve the ratio of good-to-bad bacteria. It has been found that the ratio of good-to-bad bacteria present in the gut has a direct influence on our health as well as wellbeing on the whole, right from the stomach to the brain.

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Though prebiotics are helpful for our health, our body is unable to digest these specialized plant fibers. On the other hand, our body utilizes prebiotics to encourage the growth of several different good bacteria already present inside the gut. In turn, the good bacteria offer us several digestive as well as common health advantages. Findings of a number of studies conducted in recent times have revealed that the balance between prebiotics and the beneficial bacteria in our gut directly influences on our mental health. People who ingest prebiotics regularly actually suffer from lesser incidences of depression, anxiety and stress. Actually, following the test of saliva of such people, it was found that it had lower cortisol levels. Presence of this hormone in elevated levels has been directly associated with mental problems or disorders.

Different from probiotics, prebiotics are not obliterated inside the body, because heat or bacteria does not have any effect on them. Therefore, it is easy to obtain the full benefits of these specialized fibers, particularly when they are consumed in the form of a variety of supplements.

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Inulin is the most regular type of prebiotic. Several plants that contain fructan also have inulin. Moreover, several such plants are often consumed in the form of vegetables. Some of them include asparagus, artichoke, onion, leek and garlic. These vegetables are very rich sources of inulin. Nevertheless, as the requirements for functional foods increase, people are adding more and more prebiotics to several common foods like breads, biscuits, cereals, drinks, yogurts and table spreads.

Health benefits

During the last decade, there has been enough proof that the prebiotic agents are very effective in lessening incidences of allergic reactions in atopic children. Nevertheless, there is a need for more randomized controlled experiments in order to corroborate the above claim. During experiments, it has been found that adding dietary fiber to your meals has helped to improve diarrheal stools, especially when prebiotics are included in infant food.

Probiotics and prebiotics have a close relationship, as prebiotics not only serve as "food" for probiotics, but also help to nourish the good bacteria in the gut. In turn, probiotics assist in maintaining a healthy bacterial balance in our digestive system. Consuming foods containing prebiotics regularly help us to intake dietary fiber as well as other nutriments. Studies undertaken thus far with prebiotics have proved to be encouraging. However, more in-depth studies are necessary to find whether or not prebiotics are associated to various other explicit health benefits. It has been found that even if one does not consume foods containing prebiotics, they can remain healthy and have robust digestive system by consuming a healthy diet regularly.

Prebiotics have several different applications to improve the immune system as well as to facilitate regulating conditions related to Syndrome X, which augment the chances of developing diabetes and heart disease. Prebiotics help to enhance the intensity or amount of the good bacteria in the gut, while reducing the levels of harmful bacteria. At the same time, these specialized dietary fibers help to prevent or check sporadic diarrhea. They also help to relieve irregular constipation, especially among elderly people.

Benefits of consuming prebiotics with a view to support the functioning of the immune system have been studied as well as published extensively. In fact, the immune enhancing properties of prebiotics are beneficial for people of all age groups, right from the infants to aged people suffering from Clostridium difficile. Aside from this, increasing evidences are accumulating that show that prebiotics have a potent protective effect against colon cancer. At the same time, in several instances, prebiotics also reduce one's exposure to the risk factors related to tumour cells. As far as colitis is concerned, findings of some studies have revealed the manner in which ingestion of prebiotics enhance the gut mucosal barrier, while modulating the micro flora. In this way, prebiotics can be helpful in preventing the occurrence of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD).

One of the significant practical applications for this specialized dietary fiber is providing relief from constipation. In addition to this, prebiotics also help to augment the absorption of many essential minerals, mainly magnesium and calcium. These two minerals have positive effects on bone formation, particularly during the growth in pubertal stage. Prebiotics also have a number of other important applications vis-à-vis improving our health. They deserve much clinical interest as prebiotics are helpful in alleviating liver steatosis, which includes a considerable reduction of serum transaminases. This is especially one good reason for using prebiotics in dealing with liver disorders related to anomalous accumulation of lipids in humans.

One of the main interests for prebiotics possibly is their ability to encourage a feeling of fullness and, at the same time, lessen the assimilation of macronutrients, thereby aiding in putting off obesity. What's more, ingestion of dietary fiber may help in modulating the limitations related to controlling the metabolic syndrome, such as intake of food as well as maintaining ideal body weight, preventing glycemia and insulinemia and keeping blood pressure and level of blood lipids in check.

Prebiotics help to lessen the average daily intake of energy primarily via gastrointestinal peptide modulation. In fact, gastrointestinal peptides are an assortment of hormones which regulate our desire for food as well as sense of fullness. In addition, these hormones also stimulate the secretion of peptide-1 (GLP-1), which is similar to glucagon, and peptide YY (PYY). These are two important peptides that are secreted by the colon and are responsible for satiety or giving us a sense of fullness. Peptide-1 and peptide YY work to decrease ghrelin and orexigenic production. Orexigenic is another peptide secreted in the stomach and improves appetite. The first pilot study undertaken on humans explores the justification of recommending prebiotic supplements as a part of food management, especially for people who are obese. Prebiotics are, however, useful for everyone and contribute to improving our overall health.


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