Prebiotics and probiotics

Prebiotic vs. Probiotic: What’s the Difference?

Your gut microbiome is a collection of bacteria in your stomach, intestines, and colon. Both prebiotics and probiotics help balance this ecosystem. This helps improve digestion, immunity, and vitamin production. Research shows a link between a healthy gut microbiome and a lower risk of certain digestive diseases, skin conditions, and inflammation.

Read on to learn about prebiotics and probiotics.

The Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics

Probiotics are microorganisms that help keep your gut healthy. Prebiotics are food for the probiotics living in your gut. You can get both through the food you eat or as supplements.

While probiotic foods are naturally fermented, foods that contain prebiotics often are raw.

What Is a Prebiotic?

Prebiotics are certain types of carbs, fibers, and sugars that humans can’t digest. Instead, the bacteria living in your gut break them down for you.

By feeding for your good bacteria, prebiotics help boost the health benefits of probiotics.

Prebiotics also have health benefits of their own. Some of these include:

  • Keeping your gut healthy.
  • Improving calcium absorption in your body.
  • Supporting a healthier immune system.
  • Reducing your risk of heart disease.
  • Reducing or improving eczema.

Many whole plant foods are natural sources of prebiotics. Sometimes manufacturers add prebiotics to foods like snack bars, yogurt, or baby formula. You might see these listed on an ingredients label as:

  • Inulin
  • Chicory fiber
  • Fructooligosaccharides (FOS)
  • Oligofructose
  • Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)

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What Are Examples of Prebiotics?

Most plant foods have prebiotics but some have more than others. Some of the best sources include:

  • Asparagus.
  • Sugar beet.
  • Garlic, onions, and leeks.
  • Jicama.
  • Chicory.
  • Tomatoes.
  • Under-ripe bananas.
  • Berries.
  • Agave and raw honey. (Find out what else honey can do for your health.)
  • Jerusalem artichokes.
  • Barley, rye, wheat, and oats.
  • Quinoa.
  • Flax.
  • Yams.

A diet rich in plant-based foods, starches, and soluble and insoluble fibers provides the prebiotics you need.

What Is a Probiotic?

Probiotics contain live organisms that add to the good bacteria population in your gut and help create a healthy environment.

Probiotics can help prevent  antibiotic-related diarrhea and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, hay fever, and eczema. They also can help reduce colic in infants, lower cholesterol, and improve many other conditions. Find out more about probiotic safety.

What to look for in a probiotic supplement

If you choose to take a probiotic supplement, look for ones that contain different types of probiotic bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Supplements also should list the number of colony-forming units (CFUs) in each dose. More isn’t always better, so make sure you follow the dosing directions on the label.

Talk with your doctor about which supplement is right for you.

What are Probiotic Foods?

Fermented and cultured foods have some of the same healthy bacteria found in your gut and in probiotic supplements. They provide an easy way to get probiotics along with other important nutrients. Common probiotic foods include:

  • Yogurt.
  • Kefir – Cultured milk.
  • Kombucha – A fizzy, fermented tea.
  • Kimchi – Korean fermented vegetables.
  • Sauerkraut – Fermented cabbage.
  • Some types of fermented pickles.
  • Miso – A paste made from fermented soybeans.
  • Unfiltered apple cider vinegar.

Not all types and brands of these foods have probiotics, so it’s important to check the food label. Look for words like “live and active cultures” or “probiotics” on the food label.

It’s also important to read food labels for other undesirable ingredients. For example, even though kombucha is a source of healthy probiotic bacteria, it comes with added sugar. If you’re limiting sugar, other probiotic foods are a better option.

Prebiotic vs Probiotic: Which is Better?

Prebiotics feed the microbes living in your gut, while probiotics actively add more of those healthy microbes to your gut ecosystem — so which is better?

Prebiotics are mostly plant fibers; that means they can be found in all sorts of vegetables. Probiotics come mostly from fermented products where living microbes are left in the food. Both are essential to a healthy gut; one is not more vital than the other. It is important to have a balance of both prebiotics and probiotics in your diet.

What Happens When You Start Taking Probiotics?

Probiotics can help keep your gut healthy. Once you start taking them or eating probiotic foods regularly, you might notice improvements in your digestion. They might reduce constipation and some types of diarrhea.

It’s thought that healthy bacteria also play a role in supporting immune health. So you might also notice fewer colds or allergies.

Side effects are uncommon, but you might experience some gas and bloating when you start taking probiotics. While experts consider probiotics to be safe for healthy people to use, if you have a compromised immune system, ask your doctor before taking any.

Improving Your Health With Probiotics

Prebiotics and probiotics are not interchangeable: you should be getting both regularly. They help populate and multiply the good bacteria in your gut and improve your health in many ways.

Remember, probiotics can work better when you eat prebiotic foods. The two are best when consumed together, working hand in hand to help boost your immunity and gut health.

hand in hand to help boost your immunity and gut health.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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