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Probiotics vs Prebiotics: What’s the Difference?

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

When a person hears the word “bacteria,” they typically think of something harmful that they want to avoid, however, not all bacteria are bad. In fact, the human body is teeming with trillions of beneficial bacteria.

In the gastrointestinal tract, there are two main species of friendly bacteria, each having many strains: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Consuming prebiotics and probiotics both support those friendly bacteria, but in different ways.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics, or good bacteria, are live microorganisms found in certain foods and supplements that work to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the body.

“Bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal tracts, also known as gut microbiota, are very important for your overall health,” said Dr. John Fulginiti, a surgeon who specializes in wound care and integrative medicine. “Think of the microbiome as a diverse community of organisms, such as a forest, that work together to keep the body healthy. The more good bacteria present in your gut the better.”

Probiotic bacteria help create order in the gut microbiome by maintaining the right level of acidity and killing off bad bacteria. According to Dr. Fulginiti, they also help break down and digest food, boost the immune system, and keep inflammation at bay.

Probiotics are often praised for their ability to remedy common gut complaints such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Additionally, in fascinating recent research, studies show that probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function, as the gut and brain are intrinsically connected.

Probiotics can be found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, tempeh, and kefir, or can be consumed in the form of a supplement.

What are prebiotics?

They might sound very similar, but probiotics and prebiotics are very different. While probiotics are friendly bacteria in the gut, prebiotics are fuel that help the friendly bacteria grow.

“Think of them as food for probiotics,” said Dr. Fulginiti. “Prebiotics don’t contain any bacteria themselves—they’re actually indigestible fibers that bypass the small intestine and venture to the colon where they’re broken down, or fermented, into nutrition that helps good bacteria grow and thrive.”

Prebiotics are essential to gut health, as they encourage the growth of health-promoting bacteria and enhance their activity. Prebiotics can also help with common digestive issues like bloating and constipation, increase mineral bioavailability, and even promote satiety and weight loss. One study published in Biological Psychiatry even showed that prebiotics had an anti-depressant effect in mice.

Prebiotics naturally occur in plant foods, but they can also be consumed in supplement form. Just as with probiotics, the more the merrier!

Can prebiotics be taken without taking probiotics, and vice versa?

The short answer is yes! Prebiotics taken by themselves still provide benefits because the gut naturally contains beneficial bacteria. Taking a prebiotic supplement on its own is an effective way to nourish the trillions of good bacteria that are already present in the gastrointestinal tract.

On the flip side, taking a probiotic without a prebiotic also provides benefits, as people naturally consume prebiotics when they eat plant foods such as bananas, potatoes, asparagus, garlic, and onions.

Dr. Fulginiti notes that since prebiotics and probiotics work synergistically, it’s ideal that people make sure they’re getting adequate amounts of both, either from food sources or supplements.

The bottom line

They might only have a one-letter difference, but prebiotics and probiotics play very different roles in supporting gut health. Probiotics are the good bacteria in the gut, while prebiotics are the food that feeds the probiotics.

Having a healthy gut microbiome is crucial for overall wellness. It’s recommended that people work with an integrative doctor who can offer support and guidance in optimizing gut health.

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