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Probiotics and Prebiotics: What’s The Difference?

Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria and yeast and Prebiotics are food for these bacteria. Both prebiotics and probiotics are important for human health. Eating balanced amounts of both pro- and prebiotics can help ensure that you have the right balance of these bacteria, which should improve your health.


Probiotics: These are live bacteria and yeast found in certain foods or supplements that can provide numerous health benefits.

1) The good bacteria in your digestive tract help protect you from harmful bacteria and fungi.

2) They send signals to your immune system and help regulate inflammation.

3) Some of your gut bacteria form vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids.

4) Short-chain fatty acids are the main nutrient source of the cells lining the colon, promoting a strong gut barrier to keep out harmful substances, viruses and bacteria, and may reduce the risk of cancer.

The following probiotic foods naturally contain helpful bacteria:

1) yogurt

2) fermented foods including: Sauerkraut,  Kimchi, miso (fermented soy) Kombucha tea, Kefir (dairy and non-dairy). Some types of pickles (non-pasteurized).Other pickled vegetables (non-pasteurized).


Prebiotics: These are carbohydrates (mostly fiber) that humans can’t digest.

The beneficial bacteria in your gut eat this fiber. Foods that are high in prebiotic fiber include:  Legumes, the skin of Apples, Wheat bran, Barley, Beans, Peas, Oats,  Bananas,  Berries, Dandelion greens, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Asparagus.

Prebiotic fiber goes through the small intestine undigested and is fermented when it reaches the large colon.  Some of those foods can also be considered symbiotic, because they contain both beneficial bacteria and a prebiotic source of fiber for the bacteria to feed on.  One example of a symbiotic food is sauerkraut.


Benefits: Research on the effects of probiotics is inconclusive, but it suggests that they may be beneficial in the following areas:


Digestive health: Numerous studies have found that probiotics may improve digestive health in some people.Taking probiotics while using antibiotics reduced the risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea by 60 percent.  24 trials found that probiotics could help prevent the life-threatening disease necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants.


Mental health: A smaller body of research suggests that probiotics may improve mental health.  Probiotics may alleviate the symptoms of depression, but the authors note that additional studies are necessary to confirm this. It is possible that probiotics have this effect because there is a link between gut and brain health.


General health: Probiotics may decrease:

  • The need for antibiotics
  • School absences from colds
  • The incidence of ventilator-assisted pneumonia
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Vaginal infections, such as yeast infections
  • Eczema


However, the review did not find high-quality evidence that probiotics can prevent illness, and the authors conclude that more trials are necessary.


A  word of caution about side effects:  According to the same review above, people with Crohn’s disease had a higher risk of adverse events when they took a specific probiotic.  People with weakened immune systems were also more vulnerable to side effects.  A 2018 analysis of probiotic trials warns that many studies do not report safety data, including information on adverse events, even when they claim to prove that probiotics work.


There is less research on prebiotics than on probiotics. As a result, the extent to which prebiotics improve health is unclear. Scientists are not yet entirely sure that they can strengthen the purported benefits of probiotics.



Update 6/15/20:

AuthorProbiotics and Prebiotics: What’s The Difference?