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Ke'Ala Akau

Ke'Ala Akau is an MPH Candidate at the Yale School of Public Health.

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Intestine decorative model with various nutritional supplements Nechaeva

What You Need to Know About Probiotics and Prebiotics

It’s complicated. Here’s what you should know about probiotics and prebiotics and their role in your overall health.

Your Health

If you’ve ever strolled through the pharmacy section of your local grocery store, chances are you’ve seen bottles of supplements and other products advertising “probiotics” and “prebiotics.” So what exactly are they? And what can they do for you?

Before diving into the specifics, we must first appreciate the role microorganisms play in our bodies. Microorganisms, also called microbes, are tiny living things like bacteria and viruses that are naturally inside and outside your body. Many of us were taught at an early age to fear these organisms because they would make you sick. But there are trillions of “good” microorganisms — especially in the gut — that help us digest food, protect us from disease, produce vitamins and much more. We call this group of microorganisms the microbiome.

When the microbiome in the gut is imbalanced, your risk for diseases can go up. This is when probiotics and prebiotics may be an option to help certain health conditions.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that are found in certain foods, supplements and even beauty products. Probiotics contain a variety of microorganisms similar to the ones that are already living in your body. They can help with digestion and maintain or improve good bacteria in the body.

Probiotics are usually in fermented foods, such as:

  • Yogurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Kombucha

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are nondigestible types of fiber that are food for the probiotics. They help improve the balance between microorganisms in your body. They can also provide energy to cells, reduce inflammation and boost immunity, among other possible benefits.

Some examples of natural foods with prebiotics include:

  • Whole grains
  • Asparagus
  • Artichokes
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Lentils
  • Bananas

What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?

They may sound similar, but prebiotics and probiotics are very different. Basically, probiotics are the live helpful microorganisms that improve gut health. Prebiotics are the food for the probiotics so the microogranisms can thrive and grow.

Can you take prebiotics and probiotics together?

You can take probiotics and prebiotics together. In fact, some foods such as cheese offer both probiotics and prebiotics. Certain supplements may also contain both (check the label). Supplements may be more potent, with higher concentrations of probiotics/prebiotics than food. When it comes to cost, combination supplements and other products may cost more than a wheel of cheese at your local pharmacy. But you can eat natural foods to add prebiotics and probiotics to your diet.

Should you take probiotic and prebiotic supplements?

Research is mixed on the health benefits of taking probiotic and prebiotic supplements. Why? In healthy people, probiotics are naturally doing their thing and balancing your gut microbiome. In fact, recent research found that even supplements with "good" bacteria can disrupt the diversity of the microbiome and cause inflammation and other health problems.

But some studies also show that probiotics can help with certain digestive problems and health problems. These conditions include:

Research connecting these conditions and probiotics/prebiotics supplements is still ongoing.

It’s also important to note that most supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so it’s a good idea to consult with your HCP and do your research before buying any products.

Not all supplements are created equal

Not all probiotics or prebiotics (in supplement or food form) behave in the same way. This is because different types of probiotics perform different functions in the body and may have different results. The most common types of probiotics are lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium. Similarly, certain prebiotics may fuel the growth of specific micoorganisms.

What works for one person may not help someone else. There’s no one “best” probiotic for women or one “best” prebiotic and probiotic combination, because microbiomes are unique to each person.

Editor’s Note: If you’re thinking about adding prebiotics and/or probiotics to your diet, or are having digestion issues, talk to your healthcare provider.

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