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The difference between prebiotics and probiotics

Jessica Sepel

Do you know the difference between the two?

A woman studies a food label at the grocery store
A woman studies a food label at the grocery store

When it comes to health and superfoods, there’s always a new and exciting trend, but the rising interest in the gut microbiome looks like it’s here to stay.

Your gut microbiome is made of trillions of microorganisms and hundreds of species of bacteria which are all living in your intestinal tract. Not only do these bacteria help you digest food and absorb nutrients, but they play a big part in stabilising your immune system, metabolism, fat storage and intake of vitamins – they can even influence your behaviour.

So now that we’re paying more attention to the bacteria in our gut, we’re also looking for ways to fuel the good bacteria. Prebiotics and probiotics are the most commonly used supplements that are consumed to help support and enhance a healthy microbiome, or to restore balance when the gut bacteria has been disrupted by things like antibiotics, illness or an unhealthy diet.

But do you really know the difference between the two?

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres which help with the growth of bacteria in your colon. They are resistant to the acids in your stomach and once they reach your intestinal tract, they’re fermented by the beneficial gut bacteria. This fermentation process leads to the production of different short-chain fatty acids (which help to improve the gut barrier function), increased stool mass, a decrease in the acidity of the colon and improved immune function.

What are the health benefits of prebiotics?

Some types of prebiotics have a variety of health benefits, such as reducing diarrhoea and other symptoms associated with irritable bowels. Other types can rapidly increase the common probiotic strains of bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

What foods are naturally high in prebiotics?

Garlic, onion, beetroot, snow peas, sweetcorn, chickpeas, watermelon, grapefruit, white peaches, oats, barley, rye bread, cashews and pistachios.

Infographic explaining the list of foods naturally high in probiotics, including garlic, onion, beetroot, snow peas, sweetcorn, chickpeas, watermelon, grapefruit, white peaches, oats and barley, rye bread, cashews, and pistachios

What are probiotics?

Probiotics contain strains of bacteria that replenish and rebalance the gut flora. Most of us don’t have an adequate balance between good and harmful bacteria because of things like poor diet, stress and the environment, which is why probiotics are so important.

When it comes to consuming probiotic foods or supplements, they may have either one strain of bacteria, or a mix of two or more. Different strains of probiotics provide different benefits and can be used on their own, or in combination with other strains. However, probiotics only provide benefits when they can survive through the barriers in our digestive systems. This means probiotics must stick to the tissues in our guts in order to deliver their benefits.

What are the health benefits of probiotics?

Probiotics have an abundance of benefits for humans. Their main influence is on the development of the gut microbiome, to ensure there is an adequate balance between harmful pathogens and beneficial bacteria – essential for a healthy, functioning gut. We also know that our gut health is linked to immunity, mental health, skin and energy; so it’s especially important that we look after our gut. For more, check out the article The ground-breaking link between food and your mood.

What foods are naturally high in probiotics?

Fermented foods contain live microorganisms that can boost our gut health. They can survive the digestive process and offer similar health advantages to probiotics. These include sauerkraut, kimchi, Greek yoghurt, miso and tempeh. Try adding these foods to your diet gradually, as it can take time for the gut to adapt to these new strains of bacteria.

The bottom line

Prebiotics help feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut that can reduce the risk of disease and improve general health and wellbeing. By boosting your daily fibre intake, you’ll naturally increase the prebiotic fibres, helping to nourish probiotic strains in the gut. Probiotics, on the other hand, help make sure your body has a balance of good bacteria in your gut.

Ready to take the next step? Check out my 10 easy tips to improve your gut health.

An infographic showing probiotics found in sauerkraut, kimchi, Greek yoghurt, miso and tempeh
Jessica Sepel smiling in front of vases of greenery

Jessica Sepel

Founder of JSHealth, author of two best-selling books and accredited nutritionist, Jessica Sepel is passionate about taking a balanced approach when it comes to food. Jess believes we need to give up diets to overhaul our relationship with food and advocates for moderation, mindfulness at meals and healthy body image.

Check out more articles by Jess, including the delicious and healthy recipes she’s created exclusively for nib.