What's the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?
Written By Ana Aleksic, MSc Pharm

What's the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

You know they’re good for your gut. You’ve heard that both may have benefits. They’re in healthy foods, and they’re in various supplements. But how exactly are they different? What should you be on the lookout for? If you ever wanted to get to the bottom of prebiotics vs. probiotics, this article is for you—read on! 

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Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. Please consult your doctor about your health-related concerns before taking any supplements. 

Prebiotics vs Probiotics

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are indigestible food ingredients that feed your good gut bacteria. While indigestible for you, the good bacteria in your colon can digest and ferment prebiotics. In turn, prebiotics boost the number or activity of your good gut bacteria (R). 

Although prebiotics are usually a specialized type of fiber (such as fructooligosaccharides or oligofructose, beta-glucans, and resistant starch), that isn’t always the case. For example, scientists discovered that some non-fiber antioxidants from cocoa also act as prebiotics (R, R). 

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are good bacteria. They’re living microorganisms that normally reside in your body. Their diversity and number can have a large impact on your health (R). 

So, probiotics and prebiotics only sound similar enough—and that’s only because both terms refer back to the gut microbiome. The “biotic” part comes from Greek and means “life.” In modern science, your gut’s “biota” or “biome” is its entire living network of microbes (R). 

To sum it up, probiotics boost your gut microbiome by supplying living bacteria, whereas prebiotics are what your gut bacteria use as fuel. 

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Which Is Better?

Here’s a breakdown of the main benefits prebiotics and probiotics have been linked to (R, R, R, R, R, R, R). 

Benefits of Prebiotics

  • Increase beneficial Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria
  • Reduce the number of disease-causing gut bacteria
  • Improve bloating and constipation
  • Enhance calcium absorption
  • Improve gut barrier integrity 
  • Help reduce inflammation
  • May decrease the risk of allergies
  • Help support a strong immune response

Prebiotics help reshape your gut microbiome. Your gut bacteria break them down to various short-chain fatty acids. This lowers your colon’s pH, making it a more friendly environment for specific beneficial bacteria. Some of these bacteria can produce butyrate, an anti-inflammatory fat that boosts antioxidant levels (R, R).

Benefits of Probiotics

It’s important to remember that probiotic effects are very strain-specific and cannot be generalized. Just because one strain carries certain benefits doesn’t mean another similar-sounding strain will have the same effect. 

For example, L. reuteri NCIMB 30242 supports cholesterol balance, based on clinical studies. But L. reuteri DSM 17938 hasn’t been researched for this purpose. 

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The Bottom Line

More clinical studies are needed to confirm many of the potential health benefits of both probiotics and prebiotics. All in all, probiotics are better researched than prebiotics (R). 

Studies reveal it’s likely best to take certain probiotics and prebiotics together. They can act in synergy—one enhancing the effect of the other (R). 

Combinations of prebiotics and probiotics that act in synergy are called synbiotics. An effective synbiotic should contain a prebiotic that selectively increases the growth or activity of a beneficial probiotic strain (R).

Which Foods Help Boost Prebiotics and Probiotics?

If you’re eating a balanced, healthy, and diverse diet on a daily basis, you’re probably getting plenty of prebiotics and probiotics. 

Here are some good sources of each (R, R, R):

Prebiotic Foods

  • Asparagus
  • Sugar beet
  • Garlic
  • Chicory
  • Onion
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Honey
  • Bananas
  • Oats 
  • Barley
  • Tomatoes
  • Rye
  • Legumes (such as soybean, peas, and beans)
  • Seaweeds and microalgae

Probiotic Foods

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Cultured Buttermilk
  • Fermented Milk
  • Cheese (such as blue cheese, camembert, and asiago)
  • Kimchi
  • Pickles
  • Olives
  • Sauerkraut
  • Fermented fish
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Fermented cereals
  • Fermented meats (such as dry fermented sausage and salami)
  • Kombucha 

Should I Take Probiotics? 

In case you're struggling to get enough fermented and fiber-rich foods in your diet, adding supplements to your regimen might be a good idea.

Have in mind that there are countless probiotic and prebiotic supplements on the market. You can choose from many probiotic strains, formulations, and dosages. However, some products lack proof of efficacy. 

For a supplement to be beneficial, it needs to contain a well-researched synbiotic combination at the correct dosage. It’s also important to find a product that reaches the large intestine before getting broken down by stomach acid. 

As always, consult your healthcare provider first if you’re considering supplementation.

Microbiome Plus+ has research-based synbiotic supplements that combine L. reuteri NCIMB 30242 with short-chain fructooligosaccharides (scFOS) prebiotic fiber.   

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These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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Written by:

Ana Aleksic Headshot | Microbiome Plus+

Ana Aleksic

Ana received her MS in Pharmacy from the University of Belgrade.
Ana has many years of experience in clinical research and health advising. She loves communicating science and empowering people to achieve their optimal health. Ana spent years working with patients who suffer from various mental health issues and chronic health problems. She is a strong advocate of integrating scientific knowledge and holistic medicine.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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Ana Aleksic

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