What’s the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

bacteria up close under microscopeIf you are a health-minded person who’s been crafting a diet to optimize gut health, chances are you’ve heard the words “prebiotic” and “probiotic” quite a bit. Indeed, as we begin to better understand the complex process of digestion, science is discovering the importance of a  healthy bacterial environment in the gut, also known as the microbiome.

Serving different functions, both prebiotics and probiotics are vital to strong gut health, and both should be included in an optimal diet.

How can prebiotics and probiotics improve health? What is the difference between prebiotics vs. probiotics? Can you take prebiotics and probiotics together? Here, we answer these questions and take a deep dive into one of the biggest topics in nutrition.

What Is a Prebiotic?

Prebiotics are high-fiber foods that feed the stomach’s microflora, strengthening and balancing the gut’s natural good bacteria, also known as microflora, to optimize digestive function.

Examples of Prebiotics in Food

One of the central distinctions between prebiotics vs. probiotics is where they are found. However, for those looking for a diet rich in prebiotics, there’s good news: many foods found in a typical diet already contain them. Some of the top foods containing prebiotics are the following:

  • Apples
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Garlic
  • Green vegetables
  • Tomatoes
  • Raspberries
  • Wheat

These are just a few of the most commonly found foods that contain prebiotics, though there are many other fruits, vegetables, and wheat products where they can be found.

Benefits

Though improving digestive function may be reason enough to seek out probiotics in food, the additional health benefits of prebiotics are numerous.

Gastro and Digestive Health

First and foremost, prebiotics boost one’s digestive health. By feeding the microflora in the stomach, prebiotics help absorption of important nutrients like calcium, expedite the amount of time foods spend in the digestive system (which prevents constipation), and keep the gut lining healthy.

Overall Health

More and more, doctors are understanding the intimate relationship between gastrointestinal health and overall wellness. As a recent report from Johns Hopkins explains, “There is a lot of interaction between the body’s immune system and bacteria in the gut.” This means that maintaining a healthy digestive system can actually help the body fend off illness.

Mental Health

best sources of probioticsScientists are currently studying how prebiotics affect mental health, with a focus on disorders including depression, anxiety, alzheimer and autism spectrum diseases. A 2020 article for Current Pharmacy Biotechnology finds evidence to suggest that prebiotics can support strong mental health, going so far as to propose that they be used as a form of medicine.

What Is a Probiotic

Probiotics are live organisms (bacteria) that can be consumed to increase the amount of good bacteria in the gut.

Examples of Probiotics in Food

Probiotics are found in many of the foods you likely already eat, including the following:

  • Yogurt
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Sauerkraut
  • Sourdough bread
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh
  • Miso soup

Incorporating these into your diet will help increase the amount of good bacteria in the gut. It is important to keep track of the foods containing prebiotics vs. probiotics so that your diet includes both.

Benefits

Like prebiotics, probiotics contain benefits beyond digestive support.

Gastro and Digestive Health

Probiotics are most famous as a treatment for diarrhea. They have been shown to be effective in helping the digestive system fight conditions including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, and viruses that cause diarrhea.

Overall Health

Beyond their benefits to the digestive system, probiotics have also been found to benefit the body in numerous other ways. This includes improved heart function, easing allergy symptoms and eczema, and weight loss assistance, among others. Like prebiotics, they have also been shown to support overall immune health.

Mental Health

Many of the studies that have linked prebiotics to improved mental health have found the same for probiotics, seeing a positive correlation between stable mood and a healthy microbiome.

What Is the Difference Between a Prebiotic and a Probiotic?

It can be difficult to keep track of prebiotics vs. probiotics. To summarize the information given above, prebiotics are food for the gut’s microflora. They are carbohydrates that your body can’t digest, leaving them for the bacteria living in your digestive system. Meanwhile, probiotics are living organisms that become part of the microbiome, living in your body.

Can You Take Prebiotics and Probiotics Together?

In short, yes. In fact, not only can you take prebiotics and probiotics together, but doing so is thought to maximize their effects, as prebiotics help probiotics make their way through the body into the gut. Though prebiotics and probiotics are often distinguished from each other (as prebiotics vs. probiotics), in fact they can and should be incorporated into the same harmonious diet.

Incorporating Prebiotics and Probiotics into a Gut-Healthy Diet

Now that you can answer the question of what is the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, it’s time to plan a dietary regimen that will incorporate both. The first step in adding more prebiotics and probiotics to your diet is by adding the foods listed above to your daily diet. As you look at the list, ask yourself if it is possible to combine any of the ingredients for a meal or snack that is rich in both prebiotics and probiotics. Yogurt with raspberries is one great example of an easy and delicious breakfast that will provide you with both.

Supplements

Though it is optimal to design a diet that will provide you with healthy amounts of prebiotics and probiotics, there are prebiotic, probiotic, and 2-in-1 combination supplements available to help provide what your diet might be missing.

Talking to a Dietitian

If you are struggling to devise your own gut-healthy diet, a dietitian can be tremendously helpful in figuring out a regimen that is not just beneficial but sustainable. Gut health requires regular maintenance, so it is crucial that your diet be one that you can keep up in the long term.

Learning More About Nutrition and the Path to Becoming a Dietitian

If you understand the difference between prebiotics vs. probiotics and are fascinated by gut health and digestion’s relationship to holistic health, you may be interested in pursuing a degree in nutrition. This can lead to a career as a dietitian, helping others design diets to improve their overall health and well-being. To learn more about nutrition degree programs, read our guide here.

The following bachelors and Master’s programs offer career-focused instruction delivered by trained nutritionists with experience in the field. Find out more what each individual course of study offers through the locations below.

Featured Nutritionist Programs