Today at work a question was brought up and the explanation was so remarkable and in depth that I figured I’d share with all of you. Hope you find it helpful!

Can you decipher the differences between pre-biotics, pro-biotics, and digestive enzymes and when to use/recc each?   I have a client that has some questions regarding these.  I’ll be seeing them again in about a week. 

Pre-biotics (Eaten Daily): Pre-biotics are substances from food that feed the good bacteria (probiotics). “Fiber” is the most well-known prebiotic. Prebiotics also include resistant starch and I would also argue phytonutrients.

  • Most Americans do not eat enough vegetables and fruit – a primary source of fiber. Life Time’s recommendation of 9-11 servings of fruits and veggies/day will help a coachee achieve daily fiber recommendations. Many foods in the Paleo diet are great sources of both soluble and insoluble fiber, such as yams and sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables, carrots and other root vegetables, fruits with an edible peel (like apples and pears), berries, seeds, and nuts.Recommendations: Dr. Mercola recommends at least 50 grams of fiber/day, The Institute of Medicine 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women and lastly, the USDA 20-30 grams/day. Most people aren’t even close to the USDA’s recommendations. Increasing fiber intake over time will allow the GI tract adjust to the changing amounts and lead to less bloating.
  • Resistant starch is also a fiber, found in many carb-rich foods like potatoes, rice, green bananas, and beans, but it increases after these foods are cooked and then cooled. Cooking triggers starch to absorb water and swell, and as it slowly cools, portions of the starch become crystallized into the form that resists  These compounds end up getting fermented in the large intestine, thus feeding the bacteria found there.
  • Phytonutrients/Phytochemicals: Research is still emerging on these guys, but there is a lot of excitement around their potential effects as antioxidants, antiestrogenics, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, and anticarcinogenics. However, the bioavailability and effects of polyphenols greatly depend on their transformation by components of the gut microbiota. Phytochemicals and their metabolic products may also inhibit pathogenic bacteria while stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria, exerting prebiotic-like effects AKA they selectively increase the proliferation of good guy bacteria. Mike Mutzel explains it this way: “So, just by eating a diet that’s rich in polyphenols – the greens and spinach and kale, the oranges and bell peppers, and so forth, the purples and blueberries, and the purple kale – all these things – they can only be broken down by good guy bacteria. The bad guy bacteria literally do not have the enzymatic capacity to break them down. So, just by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and polyphenols, and drinking tea, looking at herbs and spices, you’re not going to affect your metabolism and your so-called increased antioxidants in your body, but you’re going to selectively proliferate good bacteria; they’re almost like prebiotics in that sense. That’s huge, and it makes a lot of sense. We need to really change the way that we look at diet and think about the gut first, think about the bacteria that reside between them.”


Probiotics (Eaten Daily): Probiotics are the good bacteria that reside in the large intestine. The most common strains are bifidobacteria and lactobacillus, however the human gastrointestinal tract contains over 1,000 different types of bacteria. Even though most people have roughly the same number as bacteria, kids raised on farms had more bacterial diversity vs city kids = stronger immune systems.  This means variety is key. FYI – Probiotics aren’t just limited to the gut, they are also all over our skin and topical probiotics have been used to treat skin conditions, even probiotic cosmetics/lotions are starting to come out! Back to the gut… we are seeing a lot of gut issues crop up from a number of things, including lack of fiber + lack of probiotics in the diet. In other cultures, eating fermented food with meals is commonplace. Think: sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kvass, kombucha. Fermentation was the primary way of preserving food before modern canning and even more modern refrigeration, as the lactic acid bacteria (from dairy, whey fermentation) and soil-based bacteria (from fermentation of like sauerkraut) create preservation + provide a probiotic dose. Getting back to ancestral eating could be the key to better digestion. In addition to that being said, if buying organically, perhaps not scrubbing your produce to squeaky clean perfection can also provide more soil-based bacteria in the diet.


Digestive Enzymes (Take Maybe): Digestive enzymes are secreted by the pancreas or taken orally to supplement/provide additional support for the pancreas if there is insufficiency. People who have digestive problems may benefit from taking digestive enzymes, though stool testing can provide more information on how well the pancreas is working. Most importantly, eating correctly influences digestive capability. Eating while multi-taking, stressed, unaware or fast all diminish digestive ability (which is basically most people). I would recommend addressing those first to see if digestion improves. I might suggest trying out digestive bitters, an apple cider vinegar tonic or even trying digestion promoting teas like ginger, fennel, burdock root or gentian root to have with or before meals. I don’t typically recommend taking a digestive enzyme long-term as it can decrease the pancreas’ enzyme output, but again, people with IBS or other disruptive digestive concerns could benefit from supplementation.



Resources I like: Chris Kresser, Josh Axe, Healevate, Mercola, Dr. Perlmutter, Dr. Hyman, Google Scholar + PubMed, Mike Mutzel, Mark Sisson, Dr. Terry Wahls, Dr. Amy Meyers, Dr. David Ludwig