Probiotics VS. Prebiotics: Which is Better For Gut Health?

Plus, healthy probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods to add to your diet.

By: Lauren Panoff MPH, RD

While it may feel like gut health has become trendier over the last few years, the fact is that it’s always been important. In your gut reside trillions of microbes, which are mainly bacteria with some viruses and fungi. This is called your gut microbiome. It’s a bustling community that works to support your immune function, brain health, and so much more. 

But in this community, there’s a battle to maintain an optimal ratio of good versus bad bacteria. Seeing as your gut health is intertwined with the health of the rest of your body and your disease risk, it’s crucial to care for your microbiome well. One way to do this is with a regular supply of prebiotics and probiotics that help good bacteria thrive. 

But what’s the difference between probiotics vs. prebiotics, and how does each benefit the gut microbiome? The first step to caring for your microbiome well is understanding how these compounds work to support your gut health and how to include them. 

What are Probiotics?

Probiotics are a combination of beneficial microbes that work for the overall health of your body. They’re naturally located throughout your body, like in your skin, urinary tract, mouth, and gut. 

Probiotics work by helping to keep your microbiome in a healthy balance. For example, when you get sick or are otherwise exposed to harmful germs, this causes an imbalance. Your diet and lifestyle also impact the balance of bacteria. Good probiotics work to fight off harmful microbes in order to get things back in order. 

You can help boost the presence of probiotics in your body through foods and supplements, in order to help increase the ratio of good to bad bacteria. 

The most common types of probiotics include strains of the bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, as well as Saccharomyces boulardii yeast.

While you can use probiotics at any time, additional probiotics may be particularly useful for: 

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Stomach bug recovery
  • Yeast infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Gum disease
  • Skin conditions like eczema

RELATED: The Healthiest Probiotic-Rich Foods You Can Eat 

What are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are compounds that stimulate the growth and activity of certain microbes. They’re essentially food for probiotics to do their job well and thrive. For this purpose, prebiotics are sometimes referred to as fertilizers for the microbiome. 

According to the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics, a true prebiotic has to meet the following criteria

  • They must be able to be fermented by intestinal microbes
  • They must resist stomach acid and digestive enzymes
  • They must stimulate the growth or activity of intestinal bacteria to improve health 

Most prebiotics are considered to be carbohydrates or fibers. They are fermented by bacteria in your lower digestive tract, producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that offer other health perks. One of these SCFAs is called butyrate, which may help support immunity and benefit the intestinal barrier.

Probiotics VS Prebiotics

For a long time, the conversation about gut health was focused on probiotics. But then we learned more about prebiotics and realized that both are important for maintaining a healthy microbial balance. 

The main differences between probiotics and prebiotics have to do with their primary role in the digestive tract as well as where they come from. 

Probiotics refer to the strains of good bacteria that reside in the body, whereas prebiotics are fertilizers that help probiotics do their job well. They work together to achieve and maintain an optimal balance of beneficial and harmful microbes, with the goal of improving gut health and overall wellness. 

How to Incorporate Probiotics and Prebiotics into Your Diet

There are plenty of prebiotic and probiotic supplements on the market, whether you’re looking for individual strains, a combination, or a product that specifically targets one microbiome — like your gut, skin, or oral health. 

When choosing a probiotic supplement, look for one that has been third-party tested for quality, safety, and purity. These will bear a mark from an independent organization like NSF International, Consumer Lab, or USP. 

A good rule of thumb is to choose a probiotic that contains at least 1 million colony-forming units (CFUs). Additionally, read the ingredient list to ensure that it is free from unnecessary fillers and artificial additives. 

You can also find probiotics and prebiotics in a variety of foods. Incorporating natural sources of these is another easy way to help support your microbial health. 

The best sources of probiotics are fermented foods, such as: 

  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Natto
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir

Fermented foods can take a little bit of time to adjust to if you’re not used to eating them. Tempeh can be crumbled and used in place of ground beef in sloppy joes, tacos, or chili. Miso can be added to the base of soups and dips. Sauerkraut and kimchi can work well on sandwiches, hot dogs, salads, and grain bowls. You might enjoy kefir with your breakfast. 

You can generally get enough prebiotics from your diet as long as you’re meeting your daily recommended fiber needs. This falls between 25-38 grams per day for adults. Incorporate a variety of fiber-rich prebiotic-containing foods into your diet, like:

  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Oats
  • Tomatoes
  • Garlic
  • Bananas
  • Legumes
  • Asparagus
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Chia seeds
  • Seaweed
  • Chicory 
  • Dandelion greens

Consider some ways that you can add these foods to your everyday diet. Perhaps you could have oatmeal with chia seeds and bananas for breakfast some days, or enjoy cooked asparagus with dinner. Onions and garlic work well in soups and stir-fries. Tomatoes can be layered in sandwiches, sauteed, or seasoned and roasted. 

Both Probiotics & Prebiotics Are Essential For Gut Health 

Prebiotics and probiotics have unique benefits to offer. But at the end of the day, getting a combination of both is important for supporting your gut health. While probiotics are good bacteria that live in your digestive tract and work to maintain a healthy microbial balance, prebiotics help provide them with the right fuel to get the job done. 

You can find probiotics and prebiotics in supplements and food. Consider how you can incorporate them into your everyday health routine to support your digestive health and overall well-being.