The terms “prebiotics” and “probiotics” have become fairly common in the healthcare world over the past few years. You’ve likely seen them advertised in the media as well as in supermarkets and on drugstore shelves. Yet there is understandably some confusion about what exactly they are, what they do and how you can get them.
Probiotics are the more widely talked about of the two, and refer to live bacteria that reside in your digestive tract(1). They are often referred to as “friendly” or beneficial bacteria because they serve many important purposes, and unlike harmful bacteria, probiotics don’t cause us to become sick.
Instead, probiotics help to balance out the mix between helpful and harmful bacteria in the body and create a favorable environment for the digestive system. This mixture of bacteria is referred to as the gut microbiome (2). While these bacteria mostly reside in the large intestine, they are also found in other places in the body like the skin and mouth.
Prebiotics,on the other hand, are not bacteria at all, but rather a form of fuel for probiotics(3). They are a type of indigestible carbohydrates, otherwise known as fiber. Keep in mind, though, that while all prebiotics are a type of fiber, not all dietary sources of fiber are prebiotics.
When both pre and probiotics are present in a food or supplement, the combination is called a synbiotic (4).It is this combination that is often believed to provide the most benefit to human health.
Pre and probiotics work together to create a beneficial microbial environment in the human body which has a variety of health benefits. People mostly think of gut health when they think of probiotics, but the functions extend way beyond that.
Some important functions of probiotics include(5):
In order for probiotics to serve all of these functions, however, they need support from prebiotics, which help “feed” them and allow them to do their job properly. Without prebiotics, the effectiveness of probiotics would be significantly limited, which is why it is important to consume a combination of the two.
Both pre and probiotics are naturally occurring in food, and can also be taken as dietary supplements.
Probiotics primarily come from fermented foods, such as:
Food sources of prebiotics include(3):
Taking pre and probiotics in supplement form is another way to reap the many health benefits and therapeutic effects. Supplementation can be especially effective as it generally contains a much larger quantity of the bacteria and can ensure daily use, rather than being limited to dietary intake.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when choosing a supplement:
Both prebiotics and probiotics serve a variety of important functions in the body, and are not limited to only gut health benefits. While many people focus solely on the intake of probiotics, prebiotics are often the missing piece that are needed to achieve maximum effectiveness. There is a lot of variety when it comes to both pre and probiotics, and not all will be equally effective. It is always a good idea to do your research, purchase from areputable brand, and consult with your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns before starting a new supplement regimen.
Joanna Foley - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice