Skip to content

What's the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

Regular intake of prebiotic and probiotic foods and supplements has the potential to increase gastrointestinal and full-body health. However, despite their related benefits, prebiotics and probiotics are two different things. Exactly what are these two categories, how do they differ, and why might it make sense to integrate probiotics and prebiotics into your diet and supplement routine?

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are compounds, most often plant fiber and complex carbohydrates, that feed probiotics (beneficial microorganisms). Because probiotics are living organisms, they require food to survive and proliferate, so providing them with prebiotics may make the gut microbiome healthier. Prebiotics are the equivalent of "fertilizer" for probiotics.

How Prebiotics Support Gut Health

Much of the carbohydrates and fiber in prebiotic foods and supplements cannot be broken down by the stomach or small intestine, so when consumed, the prebiotic compounds typically reach the colon in their unaltered form. In the colon, beneficial gut bacteria metabolize these prebiotics into various short-chain fatty acids (e.g., butyrate, propionate, and acetate) that are thought to be good for both gut health and overall health. Such fatty acids may provide the cells of the large intestine with necessary energy, reduce inflammation, and increase immunity, among other benefits.

Examples of Prebiotic Foods

Some of the best prebiotics for gut health can often include high-fiber foods such as Jerusalem artichokes, apples, asparagus, chicory root, cocoa, dandelion greens, flaxseeds, garlic, jicama root, leeks, oats, onions, and wheat bran. These foods contain potent prebiotic compounds such as inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and arabinoxylan oligosaccharides (AXOS), which in turn are thought to feed and increase the growth of beneficial bacteria, including those in the genera Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are living microorganisms (e.g., bacteria and yeasts) that may have health benefits in the digestive system and throughout the body when consumed as food or supplements.

How Probiotics Support Gut Health

Depending on the species in question, probiotics have a diverse range of mechanisms that may help to improve the health of the digestive system:

  • Outcompeting pathogenic bacteria that can cause disease.
  • Helping to strengthen the mucosal barrier of the small intestine.
  • Producing beneficial substances such as vitamins and short-chain fatty acids. 

Examples of Probiotic Foods

Some of the best probiotics for gut health can be found in foods, many of which also add a variety of unique and delicious flavors to one’s diet. Popular probiotic foods include fermented products such as yogurt, kefir, and some cheeses, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, pickles that are fermented in saltwater brine (rather than vinegar), and natto.

Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

Consuming both prebiotics and probiotics may help improve digestive system health by helping the gut microbiome flourish. Although probiotics and prebiotics can have similar end results for the body, they are very different supplements with different mechanisms of action that create their benefits.

The Critical Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics

The critical difference between pre and probiotics is that prebiotics are the "food" or "fertilizer" for beneficial microorganisms, while probiotics are the beneficial microorganisms themselves.

Complementary Relationship Between Pre- and Probiotics

Consuming both prebiotics and probiotics may increase their benefits since the two work synergistically to support the health of the gut microbiome. Foods that contain both prebiotics and probiotics, sometimes known as "synbiotics," include kefir, cheese, yogurt, and kimchi.

Benefits of Taking Pre- and Probiotics Together

The benefits of prebiotics and probiotics may be amplified by taking the two together, as doing so effectively provides fuel with which the probiotics can proliferate. Here are the most notable potential health benefits associated with taking both pre- and probiotics:

Improved Digestion 

Taking probiotics while on antibiotics may reduce the risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea by up to 60 percent. Probiotics may also relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive system illnesses and conditions.

Greater Nutrient Absorption

Some probiotics and prebiotics may also help increase nutrient absorption, reducing the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, but more research is needed to confirm these benefits.

Strengthened Immune System

Probiotics interact with and stimulate immune cells in the gut, thereby regulating immune responses. Because probiotics can have immune system-regulating (immunomodulatory) effects, taking some types of probiotics and prebiotics may help boost the immune system. Further research will continue to illuminate the complex interactions between the gut microbiome and the immune system and the varying immunological effects of different probiotic strains.

Improved Mental Health

The gut microbiome is thought to have significant effects on mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, so altering it with probiotics and prebiotics may lead to a reduction in mental health issue symptoms. A 2023 literature review of research on treating symptoms of depression and anxiety with pre- and probiotics found that such treatment could be highly effective. Still, scientists and clinicians will need more research to understand how probiotics impact and fully interact with mental health.

Incorporating Pre- and Probiotics into Your Diet

Dietary Sources

The best foods to support gut health typically contain high concentrations of prebiotics and probiotics. In a 2023 study to determine which foods have the highest concentrations of prebiotics, the top five foods were found to be dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, leeks, and onions. These foods had a prebiotic content of 79 to 243 milligrams per gram. When providing the ideal fuel for probiotics, it is typically recommended to incorporate these and other prebiotic foods regularly.

The Best Supplement for Gut Health: Body Kitchen's Gut Balance

The best gut health supplement is also among the best combinations of prebiotics and probiotics for digestion: Body Kitchen's Gut Balance

Three Strains of Probiotics

This product contains three critical strains of gut health probiotics, all of which have had positive health effects shown by rigorous research studies: Bacillus ClausiiBacillus coagulans, and Bacillus Subtilis

Also significant is the number of bacteria in the Gut Balance supplements. High-quality probiotics should contain a minimum of one billion colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria in each dose. Every two-capsule serving of Gut Balance provides six billion CFUs of probiotic bacteria, which is well above the minimum cutoff.

Combination of Clinically Proven Prebiotics

Unlike many gut-health supplements that are available on the market, Gut Balance does not only contain probiotics but also contains a blend of prebiotics to feed those beneficial microorganisms. When the three strains and six billion CFUs of Bacilli contained in each daily dose of Gut Balance arrive in the large intestine, the supplement's included prebiotics will instantly be available to feed them and encourage them to increase, likely amplifying their ability to survive in the gut as well as improving their overall benefits.

The prebiotics that are found in Gut Balance are a mixture of citrus-derived flavonoid compounds (also called "Flavobiotics®") known as MicrobiomeX®. One study showed that supplementation with 500 milligrams of MicrobiomeX® daily raised levels of butyrate-producing probiotic bacteria; butyrate may lower gut inflammation biomarkers (e.g., calprotectin levels) and strengthen the gut barrier by increasing the gut lumen's secretion of antibodies.

Speak to a Doctor Before Adding a New Supplement

Before taking a combination prebiotic/probiotic such as Gut Balance, discuss this change with a qualified medical professional and confirm that it is appropriate for your health needs. Prebiotics and probiotics are typically low risk for healthy people, but those who have been diagnosed as immunocompromised, as well as other vulnerable groups, may experience side effects.