It seems like you can’t read about gut health without mention of probiotics and the role they play in balancing your microbiome. The wellness world is obsessed with probiotics, whether in the form of supplements or fermented eats. But probiotics actually don’t even give you any of the amazing benefits without prebiotics. If you’re left wondering, “What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?” or “Should I take probiotics or prebiotics?” you’re not alone. I asked experts to break down how probiotics and prebiotics differ and whether we truly need both for optimal digestive health (because we’re all about a routine that’s as simple as possible). Read on to get the 411 on prebiotics.
What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?
First, what exactly are prebiotics? “Despite the similar name, prebiotics are more like food for the probiotics or other good organisms of the gut,” explained Sunny Jain, a microbiologist, gut health expert, and founder of Sun Genomics. “They are fibers, oligosaccharides, resistant starches, or compounds that promote the growth or stimulation of the beneficial bacteria already in the gut. Prebiotics can be further categorized by insoluble or soluble fibers, and getting a mix of both in your diet or supplementation is healthy.” Once prebiotics bypass digestion and make it to your colon, the gut bacteria metabolize and ferment the prebiotics to survive, producing short-chain fatty acids that provide energy to your colon cells, help with mucus production, and assist in inflammation and immunity.
According to Jain, the main difference between a probiotic and a prebiotic lies in their function and purpose in the gut. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help restore and maintain a healthy gut flora balance. “Prebiotics, conversely, provide nourishment for the existing beneficial bacteria in the gut, supporting their growth and activity,” Jain conveyed. “They help create an environment where the beneficial bacteria can thrive and exert their health-promoting effects.” But they need one another to cultivate a healthy gut. “Probiotics and prebiotics work together synergistically,” Jain emphasized. “Probiotics introduce beneficial bacteria, and prebiotics act as their ‘food’ to support their colonization and functionality.”
Do we need one or both for optimal gut health?
The short answer is both. Melanie Murphy Richter, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and instructor of Nutrition Physiology at University of California Irvine, illustrated that probiotics and prebiotics complement each other: “Your gut is like a garden. If we plant a seed (probiotic) but do not water it or give it sun (prebiotic), it will eventually die. We need the seed and the food together in order to maximize our gut health. Neither is better than the other. They work in synergy together.” If you’re taking a probiotic every day, it’s just as imperative to get enough prebiotics in tandem, otherwise the probiotics won’t survive to actually benefit the gut.
“We need to populate our gut with the actual living organisms themselves,” Richter said. “But as with any living organism, they need to eat to survive.” Consuming prebiotics ensures you’re lending the good bacteria a helping hand to grow and replicate, strengthening gut health. If you consume foods that are high in other things–say, sugar–you’re feeding problematic bacteria that can cause digestive woes and other gut problems (hi, dreaded bloat).
How can we get more prebiotics?
Just like you can get probiotics from food sources (kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, fermented foods, yogurt, etc.), you can get prebiotics from your diet by consuming foods that are rich in non-digestible fibers and compounds. Jain provided common sources of prebiotics below:
- Fruits: Bananas, apples, berries, and kiwi
- Vegetables: Onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and artichokes
- Whole Grains: Barley, oats, wheat, and flaxseed
- Legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, and kidney beans
- Nuts: Especially almonds
- Other: Chicory root (used in coffee alternatives) and dandelion greens
“The soluble and insoluble fiber in these foods not only aid in feeding the good bacteria that we want to keep alive, but also adding volume and bulk to our bowel movements to help pass and eliminate them more easily, helping to remove toxins from the body,” Richter expressed. Raw foods contain more prebiotic fibers than cooked foods, so making overnight oats, adding a banana to your smoothie, or topping off your avocado toast with raw onions and dandelion greens is *chef’s kiss*. And when you combine prebiotic-rich foods with probiotic-packed foods in your diet, you create an environment that promotes the growth and activity of beneficial gut bacteria, which can positively impact digestion, nutrient absorption, and overall gut health.
While Richter cited that the best prebiotic sources are whole foods because they also contain certain vitamins and minerals that support a strong environment for these probiotics to grow, life happens. So if you’re looking to fill in gaps in your diet, prebiotics in supplement form FTW. Richter recommended reaching for greens powders that easily mix with water or that can be taken as a capsule to provide healthy fiber from veggies, or other supplements like inulin fiber or psyllium husk to deliver high doses of prebiotic fiber to your diet. That said, beware prebiotics are not one-size-fits-all, and they may worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) since rapid fermentation can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation in patients who are sensitive.
Please consult a doctor or other health professional before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.