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Prebiotics vs. Probiotics
Updated on October 3, 2022
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Microbiome
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

Millions of microorganisms inhabit your gut. These include good and bad bacteria. The different microbes in your digestive tract make up your gut flora.

The gut microbiome plays an essential role in digestion. For example, they help break down complex sugars in fruits and vegetables.1

Gut bacteria also produce nutrients, including fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin K.2

Your gut microbiome or gut microbiota affects your overall health. With the help of prebiotics and probiotics, you can support the helpful bacteria in your gut.

“A healthy balance of good and bad bacteria can make the stomach, small intestines, and large intestines resistant to infection,” says Dr. Rizza Mira.

We asked Dr. Mira to help us explain the differences between prebiotics and prebiotics. She is a licensed medical doctor and an expert in diet and nutrition.

Prebiotics vs. Probiotics 2

What Are Prebiotics and Probiotics?

Prebiotics are special fibers that serve as your gut microbiome’s food. They promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut.3

“Essentially, prebiotics are carbs from food that the body can't digest. They can serve as nourishment for gut fungi and bacteria,” explains Dr. Mira.

Probiotics are live strains of good gut bacteria. They help maintain or boost their population in your digestive system.2

Both prebiotics and probiotics keep your gut microbiota healthy. 

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What Are Sources of Prebiotics?

Here are some food sources where you can get the most prebiotics:

Prebiotic Foods

Prebiotics are often fiber-rich foods. But there are other types of food that you can add to your diet. Among the most common are foods rich in inulin, pectin, and resistant starches. 

1. Fiber-Rich Foods

Most prebiotics are rich in fiber. But not all dietary fibers are prebiotics. 

Soluble fibers are the ones that support the beneficial bacteria in your gut. You can find them in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

2. Foods High in Inulin

Inulin is a soluble fiber that naturally occurs in many plants. Dr. Mira says that inulin specifically induces the growth of Bifidobacteria – one of the most abundant species of good bacteria in the stomach.

Some sources of inulin are:

  • Asparagus
  • Burdock root
  • Chicory root
  • Dandelion greens
  • Garlic
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Soybeans
  • Wild yams

Inulin can help you avoid overeating by making you feel full for longer periods.

It can regulate your blood lipid levels and lower bad cholesterol. It also keeps your blood sugar levels under control and decreases your risk for diabetes.

Dr. Mira says you should be careful when eating inulin-rich foods:

“Some people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) may experience worse symptoms from them. They should take these foods with caution."

3. Foods with Pectin

Pectin is a gel-like starch mainly found in the pulp of raw apples. You can also get it from many fruits and vegetables, such as:

  • Apricots
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Peaches
  • Raspberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes

Pectin has antioxidant and anti-tumor qualities. It can lower your risk for several life-threatening diseases.

“Studies also support the role of pectin in relieving constipation, lowering cholesterol, and promoting healthy weight,” adds Dr. Mira.

4. Resistant Starches

Resistant starches are the non-digestible portion of starch. Like prebiotic fibers, they do not break down with digestion. 

They can reach the colon undigested and become a food source for your gut microbiome. Resistant starches are found in:

  • Boiled and chilled potatoes
  • Green bananas
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Rice
  • Beans
  • Legumes

When the digestive system breaks down resistant starches, it produces a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) called butyrate. 

Butyrate helps your body absorb water and electrolytes. It also has anti-inflammatory effects, which can be good for your gut health.

Prebiotic Supplements

Besides food, you can also get prebiotics from dietary supplements. 

Prebiotics are sometimes added to probiotics and other digestive health supplements. But some only contain prebiotics.

Keep in mind: Added prebiotics are different from fiber supplements. 

While dietary fibers can benefit your gut bacteria, they primarily aid bowel movement and help improve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms.

Health Benefits of Prebiotics

Prebiotics skip digestion and reach your colon so they can become food sources for your gut microbiome. Your gut microbes metabolize and ferment prebiotics to thrive.

As your microbiome digests and ferments food, they produce beneficial byproducts that promote gastrointestinal health.

“Many studies show that probiotics can be helpful for preventing colorectal cancer, boosting the immune system, and relieving symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease,” Dr. Mira explains.

The many strains of microorganisms in your gut may use different prebiotics. So you may not have the same reaction from every prebiotic. 

Here are a few health benefits of prebiotics we know about:4

  • Improve digestive health
  • Enhances your mood and mental health
  • Stimulates hormones that promote a healthy appetite
  • Help your bones absorb calcium and phosphorus
  • Boost your immune system
  • Enhance your body’s anti-inflammatory response
  • Build up beneficial bacteria and reduce bad bacteria.

What Are Sources of Probiotics?

Probiotic-rich foods carry live microorganisms that are good for your gut. 

Some specific strains of bacteria and yeasts that give you a healthy gut are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces boulardii.

Dr. Mira says these are the most well-studied strains. "Products containing different species may not be as safe for consumption," she adds.

You can consume probiotics by eating fermented foods and taking supplements.

Probiotic Foods

Probiotic foods are usually derived from meat, milk, and plant products. Examples are:

  • Kombucha
  • Yogurt
  • Tempeh
  • Miso

Probiotic Supplements

Probiotic supplements may contain multiple strains or a single strain of live bacteria. Most of which are ready-made blends you can buy off-the-counter.

You may also opt for a custom probiotics blend and have it personalized to your needs. These supplements are usually offered when you get an at-home test microbiome test

Health Benefits of Probiotics

After consuming probiotic-rich foods, the live bacteria must make it to your colon. The beneficial bacteria also need to survive and thrive in this environment. 

Having some variety in bacteria gives you a diverse microbiome and a healthy gut. Research shows that probiotics have promising benefits for improving digestive health. 

They can potentially treat or prevent diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and other gut problems.5

Improving Gut Health With Prebiotics & Probiotics

Both prebiotics and probiotics help good bacteria thrive in the human gut microbiota. These friendly bacteria offer many health benefits.

When it comes to digestion, they help break down food, absorb nutrients, and produce other byproducts that are essential to your overall health.

Health Tips For Promoting Good Gut Health

A diet rich in prebiotics and probiotics is the best and most natural way to keep the balance in your gut flora. So you must try to eat more of these gut-healthy foods.

However, you can also take prebiotic or probiotic supplements if you feel you’re not getting enough from dietary sources.

Whether you want to correct specific imbalances or are experiencing digestive symptoms, such as a leaky gut, talk to your doctor about taking prebiotics and probiotics.

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Resources

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  1. Exploring the role of gut bacteria in digestion.” Argonne National Laboratory. 
  2. The Microbiome.” Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health
  3. Prebiotics, probiotics and your health.” Mayo Clinic
  4. What Are Prebiotics and What Do They Do?” Cleveland Clinic.
  5. Health benefits of taking probiotics.” Harvard Medical School.
  6. Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Dr. Rizza Mira
Dr. Rizza Mira
Medical Reviewer
Dr. Rizza Mira is a medical doctor and a general practitioner who specializes in pediatrics, nutrition, dietetics, and public health.

As a pediatrician, she is dedicated to the general health and well-being of children and expecting parents. She believes that good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, and prevention of illness are key to ensuring the health of children and their families.

When she’s not in the hospital, Rizza advocates and mobilizes causes like breastfeeding, vaccination drives, and initiatives to prevent illness in the community.
Cristine Santander
Cristine Santander
Content Contributor
Cristine Santander is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. She has a B.S. in Psychology and enjoys writing about health and wellness.
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