Although their names are similar and they are both important for digestion and overall health, prebiotics and probiotics play different roles in the body. For optimal gut health, here is a breakdown of prebiotics vs. probiotics.
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What are they?
Prebiotics are a special form of indigestible plant fiber found in fiber-rich carbohydrate foods such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Prebiotic fiber is able to pass through the digestive tract untouched until it reaches the colon, where it is used as a source of food to encourage the growth of the friendly bacteria in our gut, also known as probiotics.
Probiotics are tiny microorganisms, including live bacteria and yeast, that live in our gut and are beneficial for health. The different strains of probiotic bacteria support the diverse population of healthy microbes in our gut. Probiotics occur naturally in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and miso, and can also be found in supplement form.
Together, prebiotics and probiotics build and maintain a healthy colony of bacteria in our gut, which supports our overall health.
Benefits of Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics play an integral role in digestion and gut health. There are trillions of bacteria and microorganisms, including probiotics, that live in our gut and are collectively referred to as the gut flora or gut microbiota and play vital functions in the body and influence our overall health. Research shows that probiotics promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria and have been shown to benefit a wide range of health issues including digestive disorders such as diarrhea, constipation, IBS and IBD, immune health, mental health, skin conditions, allergies, and weight loss. (1) Given that prebiotics are the natural food for probiotics, consumption of prebiotics can help to contribute to a healthy balance of probiotic bacteria in our gut. Prebiotic foods are good sources of nutrients and fiber, which themselves have numerous health benefits.
What foods contain prebiotics and probiotics?
Common forms of prebiotics include fructooligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides, which are found in certain fiber-rich carbohydrate foods. Inulin is the most common fructooligosaccharide and is found in a wide variety of plant foods. Prebiotics-rich foods include specific vegetables, fruits, grains, and roots:
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Chicory root
- Dandelion root
Probiotic foods are made via fermentation; a natural method of food preservation that was used by various cultures for centuries. The process of fermentation allows bacteria, yeast, or fungi to convert the natural sugars found in foods (glucose, fructose, and sucrose) into lactic acid, which creates beneficial bacteria, probiotics, in the process. Some fermented probiotic-rich foods include:
Prebiotic vs. Probiotic Supplements
In addition to foods, both prebiotics and probiotics can be found in supplement form. Probiotics supplements can be found in pill or powder form at major grocery stores, health food stores, and pharmacies. Although they are readily available, not all brands and formats are created equal so it is important you do your research or speak to a health professional to determine what type of bacteria will work best for you. Prebiotics can also be found in supplement form, however, prebiotic fiber is much more readily available in food than probiotic bacteria through a conventional diet.
The Bottom Line
Probiotics are living strains of bacteria that populate the beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract, while prebiotics are a special form of indigestible plant fiber that act as food for probiotics. Maintaining a good balance of gut bacteria, or a healthy microbiome, is essential for overall health and has been shown to have numerous health benefits. For optimal gut health, is it important to consume prebiotics and probiotics, both of which can be found in food and supplement form.