The difference between prebiotics and probiotics, and how to consume both in the diet to improve gut health

  • Prebiotics are a type of plant fiber that feeds the good bacteria in our intestines.
  • Probiotics are foods and supplements that contain live strains of healthy bacteria and yeast.
  • Both prebiotics and probiotics are essential for the gut Health and it can improve digestive problems such as constipation or diarrhea.

While probiotics and prebiotics are only a small portion of our incredibly complex gastrointestinal system, they are very important to our health. Here’s what you need to know about prebiotics and probiotics and how they benefit our bodies.

Why probiotics and prebiotics are important to your health

Trillions of tiny bacteria, along with viruses, fungi, and yeasts, cover every corner of our body and form a miniature ecosystem, known as our microbiome. In our gastrointestinal system alone, there are about 1,000 species of bacteria, all of which can affect our health.

Prebiotics and probiotics are important for the health of our gut microbiome, which helps digest certain nutrients and protects it from infection. On the other hand, imbalances in gut bacteria, known as intestinal dysbiosis, can increase the risk of diseases such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and cancer. Intestinal dysbiosis can occur due to:

  • Poor diet
  • Disease
  • Stress
  • Old age
  • Use of antibiotics

“If you have any kind of chronic health problem, the symptoms might be slightly reduced if we could add to your intestinal health and shift your gut microbiome to a more health-promoting microbiome, “says Terry Wahls, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver School of Medicine.

To do this, it is important to understand the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, and how to incorporate both into a healthy diet.


What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that the human body cannot digest, but which can become food for the good bacteria in the gut. These fibers help the healthy growth of gut bacteria and can be found in the foods we eat, such as raw vegetables, beans, and bananas, especially when they are not ripe.

There can be many benefits to consuming prebiotics, such as:
Increase calcium absorption. Taking prebiotics can increase the absorption of calcium in the small intestine. Calcium is important for bone health and building bone density, especially for those at risk for osteoporosis, says Gail Cresci, PhD, RD, doctor of gastroenterology, hepatology and pediatrics. nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic.

Processing food quickly. The fiber found in prebiotics is important for normal bowel movements. A 2013 review found that fiber’s bulk and water-holding capacity can decrease the time it takes to digest in the digestive tract.

Controller blood sugar levels. Numerous studies have found that the fiber in prebiotics can reduce the rate of glucose absorption, which can prevent spikes in blood sugar, prevent weight gain, and lower the risk of diabetes.

A large 2010 study of Caucasians, Japanese Americans, and Native Hawaiians between the ages of 45 and 75 found that high fiber intake significantly lowered the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Prebiotic foods

Most people should get between 25 and 38 grams of fiber a day. Foods rich in prebiotic fibers include:

  • Barley
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Beans
  • Raw vegetables and fruits like apples, onions, or asparagus

You can also take prebiotic supplements like psyllium or methylcellulose, but Wahls says it’s important to eat more vegetables and other fibrous foods first. This is because supplements do not provide the important vitamins and minerals found in high-fiber foods.

“Each person’s needs will be unique, depending on the microbes that live in their gut,” Wahl says. “For example, if you have more blue stools, perhaps due to inflammatory bowel disease, your fiber intake will be lower. But if you are constipated, you will have a much higher need for fiber.” A doctor may recommend a diet low in fiber or less prebiotics because of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or if you recently had bowel surgery or a gut-related problem.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics contain live yeast strains and beneficial gut bacteria. They maintain a healthy balance in your gut by increasing the amount of good bacteria in the body and fighting bad bacteria.

There are many types of probiotics, and each one benefits the body in different ways. The most common species are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, which break down food and fight harmful bacteria.

The health benefits of probiotics include:

Strengthening digestive health. Probiotics can benefit people with digestive problems, such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers. A large review from 2019 evaluated children under the age of 18 who were taking antibiotics. It found that those who took probiotics along with antibiotics were less likely to experience diarrhea.

Meanwhile, a 2014 review of probiotics and irritable bowel disease (IBD) found that probiotics can help in the remission of ulcerative colitis, a form of IBD, and pouchitis, an inflammation after surgery of the IBD. But there is little evidence that probiotics can help treat Crohn’s disease.

Improved mental health. Research has found that the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system communicate, more commonly known as the “brain-gut axis.” A 2016 review found that supplementing probiotics for four weeks was effective in improving behaviors related to psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Similarly, a 2017 review found positive results when treating depressive symptoms with probiotics, but probiotic strains and dosages varied, and more research is needed. It’s always smart to talk to your doctor about improving mental health before trying to treat it on your own.

Probiotic foods

You can get probiotics by eating fermented foods like:

  • Yoghurt
  • kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha

While some people may prefer a supplement, according to Cresci, it is best to consume probiotics through food.

“Yogurt contains your probiotic, but then you have these beneficial metabolites that you will also consume at the same time,” says Cresci. The amount of probiotics you should consume daily varies greatly. Since there is a great diversity of probiotics, the amount is not established and can often depend on the daily changes in your intestinal condition and the needs of your body.

According to Cresci, people who shouldn’t take probiotics without a doctor’s approval include:

  • Immunodeficiency diseases such as AIDS or leukemia.
  • Receive immunosuppressive drugs such as chemotherapy and other immunosuppressive drugs

That’s because these people shouldn’t introduce new microbes into their diet, Cresci says. But everyone should check with their doctor or dietitian before starting new supplements or considering different strains of probiotics.

Takeaway from insider information

What we eat is incredibly important, both for our body and for our body’s microbiome. Prebiotics and probiotics are important to keep our gut balanced and healthy. The difference between the two is that prebiotics feed the live bacteria in the gut, while probiotics are the live bacteria in the gut.

“We want to be good stewards of our microbiome,” Wahls says. “And that’s having enough veggies, having enough fermented foods to get enough prebiotics and probiotics, and then when needed, taking supplements to further support restoration.”