Prebiotic vs Probiotic: Key Differences, Benefits, and Foods

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Healthy young woman sitting on her bed using a laptop to research the difference between prebiotics and probiotics.

Probiotics are bacteria that live in the human gut and benefit the entire body. They are found in fermented foods and in supplements.

Prebiotics are specialized types of fiber that probiotics need to survive and thrive in the intestines. Prebiotics can be found in foods like beans, leafy vegetables, grains, and oats.

Somewhere along the way, the lovely little bacteria we call probiotics discovered that they could live off the excess fiber in our intestines. But they didn’t just come for a free ride.

Probiotics provide us with so many health benefits that we cannot live without them—at least not in a healthy way. Both probiotics and prebiotics are essential to a healthy body and mind. We need the right balance of each one in order to ensure the gut can function optimally.

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How are Gut Bacteria Beneficial?

Gut bacteria are essential to human health in several vitally important ways. They are integral to helping your digestive system form properly in the womb. Scientists that studied germ-free animals showed they developed malformed intestines, and bacterial byproducts were shown to direct lymphoid organ development.

Gut Bacteria then aid in proper gut function by maintaining barriers on the gut walls. They also play a key role throughout your life in the body’s immune response against harmful pathogens, viruses and fungi.

Incredibly, beneficial bacteria in the gut interact with the immune system and even direct its function.

Bifidobacterium infantis and Faecalibacterium prausnitzii can induce regulatory cells to produce interleukin, an anti-inflammatory cytokine (a protein which signals the immune system).

Other beneficial bacteria may promote the development of T-helper cells, which results in a low-grade inflammatory response that readies the immune system to deal with pathogens. They can also upregulate the expression of cytoprotective genes, which create proteins that eat or kill environmental toxins.

One common fungi our good bacteria help protect us from is Candida albicans. Candida can be life-threatening when overgrown. A healthy microbiome prevents this from occurring by assisting the immune system, of course, and by limiting the ability for fungi to adhere to the walls of the gut, which suppresses their growth and colonization.

When the microbiota is altered, limited in number, or the immune system is suppressed, Candida–or any other virus or fungi we’re exposed to–may take over. That’s why it is so important to take probiotics and prebiotics after a course of antibiotic treatment.

These are just a few of the major ways that gut bacteria interact with our system. And there are so many more, indirect ways that gut bacteria affect us and our overall health.

Healthy green vegetables including artichokes, avocados, broccoli, kale, and bell peppers in a bowl. Some of these vegetables are excellent sources of prebiotic fiber which are helpful for the good bacteria in the gut.

How Does Food Affect the Gut Microbiota?

Diet has a major influence on health. It can make or break you! What you eat will either fuel you with the clean energy that you and your gut bacteria need or deprive you of vital nutrients, trigger inflammation, and slow you down.

Eating nutritious foods high in probiotics and prebiotics, as opposed to unhealthy foods full of short-chain carbohydrates, sugars, and fats, will dramatically improve your gut health.

By supporting the probiotics in your system with nutritious food and prebiotics, and starving harmful bacteria by depriving them of sugars, you can drive away pathogens and bring your gut microbiota back to its natural state of harmony.

Studies show that when the human gut has a 1:1 ratio of gut-beneficial Bacteroidetes to gut-harmful Firmicutes, a person is more likely to shed weight and less likely to have chronic disease.

When a diet contains high quantities of fat and sugar, the reverse occurs and gut-harmful bacteria increase. These bacteria are ones that have the ability to harvest larger amounts of energy from food and take advantage of the sugar-and-fat-rich environment in the gut.

High-fat diets also increase the gut wall’s permeability, which stresses the immune system and causes low-grade chronic inflammation throughout the body. This can lead to Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and potentially other autoimmune diseases like diabetes, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.

The Benefits of Prebiotics and Probiotics

On their own, pre- and probiotics offer different benefits for both general and digestive health.

Prebiotic fibers are a food source for the probiotic bacteria that are already in your gut, allowing them to colonize the gut microbiome. Probiotic microorganisms fight off bad bacteria, viruses, and fungi to help maintain a healthy, balanced gut.

Prebiotic Benefits

The main function of prebiotics is to support and feed probiotics – but they have a lot of separate effects on our bodies, too.

To list just a few of their benefits, they improve gut wall health, promote regular bowel function, fuel the brain, help reduce cholesterol, increase calcium absorption, regulate blood sugar levels, and assist in weight loss.

For a more detailed discussion of the many ways they affect us, check out our detailed guide on prebiotics.

Probiotic Benefits

Taking a probiotic supplement helps to restore and maintain a healthy gut microbiome. From there, they help keep our entire system in balance and support critical functions in the body.

Some benefits of probiotics include:

Probiotic bacteria may also help with gas and bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and more.

Two athletes high five as they stretch. Having a good balance of probiotics supported by prebiotics along with regular exercise can help support a healthy gut.

How Prebiotics and Probiotics Work Together

Probiotic bacteria depend on our food intake for their survival and function. Without the proper substrate, they cannot multiply and lose out to other bacterial populations in the fight for space in the intestine.

When combined, prebiotics and probiotics form something called “synbiotics”, a product that enhances the ability of the live beneficial bacteria to survive in the gastrointestinal tract.

One of the reasons to take a prebiotic is that synbiotics include prebiotics that stimulate the growth of the probiotics, rather than the growth of pathogens. Any benefit you can receive by taking a probiotic will be magnified by adding the right prebiotic. For the best effects, be sure to take prebiotics at the right time.

List of Probiotic Foods vs Prebiotic Foods

A salad bowl containing probiotic and prebiotic foods such as kale and cheese.

Probiotic Foods

Live probiotics are found in many fermented foods, with sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and yogurt containing the highest amount. Other sources include cheese, buttermilk, miso, tempeh, pickles and kombucha. Of course, the easiest and most dependable way to consume the necessary amount is by taking a supplemental probiotic.

Prebiotic Foods

Foods with a high prebiotic content include many different root vegetables, stems & greens, fruits, whole grains, seeds, and legumes.

The most common and popular sources are:

  • chicory root coffee
  • bananas
  • apples
  • beans
  • onions
  • oats
  • Jerusalem artichoke

For a complete list of prebiotic foods, see our Guide to Prebiotics.

The indigestible prebiotic fibers and carbs that these foods contain are broken down by live bacteria in your digestive tract into short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids are one of the main nutrient sources for the cells that line the gut walls.

Should I take a Prebiotic Supplement?

Taking a prebiotic supplement in addition to dietary sources of prebiotics can be very beneficial, especially if you’re trying to rebuild your gut flora.

In fact, it is estimated that less than ten percent of Americans meet their daily recommended fiber intake! If you struggle to meet the recommended amount of fiber each day, taking a prebiotic supplement can help.

It can be difficult to attain enough fiber (such as inulin) simply through dietary intake, since prebiotics are found in some rather unusual food sources. The more prebiotics you have as a base, the better your chances of activating probiotic bacteria and achieving a healthy gut.

Prebiotics are highly beneficial on the journey to health and as part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Without a sufficient amount of prebiotics in your diet, you won’t be able to maintain a healthy microbiome. That’s why it is advisable to continue with a supplemental prebiotic, especially if you don’t like the types of foods that contain prebiotics.

Getting the Most Out of Both Prebiotics and Probiotics

The best way to take prebiotics and probiotics is together. The effect they have in combination is more powerful than taking either one alone, and will improve your chances of repopulating your gut with healthy bacteria and restoring your body to optimal health.

This is especially important after experiencing any type of illness or medical treatment that destroys the bacteria in your gut, especially something like a Candida infection or a round of antibiotics.

It’s important to choose a high-quality product when consuming prebiotics or probiotics. If they aren’t properly produced and packaged, they might have no effect at all.

Probiotics especially are living organisms and must be either refrigerated or kept in an airless and inert state that can be reactivated by water. Furthermore, they have to survive the digestive tract. Omni-Biotic products have been explicitly designed to protect the organism until it gets to its home in the lower intestine, where they are most beneficial.


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