Probiotics vs. prebiotics: What’s the difference?

ProMedica Wellness Team

        Bacteria is a normal part of our bodies that plays an important role in our health. Your gut has “good bacteria” called microflora that may help improve digestive health, aid in immune system function, and possibly even improve mental health. Sometimes, these bacteria are diminished due to antibiotic use, poor diet, inactivity or disease.
        Probiotics and prebiotics are foods or supplements that may help restore or maintain these bacteria in the gut. But how do they work?
        Probiotics vs. prebiotics
        “It is estimated that there are about as many bacteria in the body as the number of human cells, and possibly even more,” says Chloe Plummer, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian with the ProMedica Food Clinic. Probiotics contain this “good bacteria,” while prebiotics feed and support the development of probiotics in the body.
        Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms. These microorganisms are thought to maintain or improve the normal microflora (good bacteria) in our gut. Probiotics are naturally found in yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, pickles and other fermented foods.
        Prebiotics are foods or supplements that serve as food to probiotics. They are thought to support and increase the number of healthy bacteria in the gut. Prebiotics are naturally found in high-fiber foods such as whole grains, greens, onions, garlic, soybeans, artichokes and bananas.
        “I recommend you try eating meals that include both probiotics and prebiotics, such as a yogurt parfait with banana or apple,” shares Plummer.
        The bottom line
        The health benefits of specific types of probiotics and prebiotics are not fully understood, and research is ongoing.
        “Probiotic foods are not new, but we are just starting to understand the many health benefits,” Plummer shares. “There are many different types of probiotics, and the exact type and amount of bacteria that are most helpful for different health benefits is still being researched.”
        We do know that the best way to get probiotics and prebiotics is through foods in which they are naturally occurring. If you are concerned about consuming enough probiotics and prebiotics, consume foods that contain them before turning to a supplement. Talk to your primary care provider to make sure that you are consuming the right amount of nutrients for your body and to determine if a supplement might be right for you.


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