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Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: How To Optimize Gut Health

By Hilary Sheinbaum

Between yogurt, supplements, and even skincare, the word ‘probiotic’ has been boasted across packaging, signaling gut benefits. But after years and years in the spotlight and headlines, now ‘prebiotics’ are starting to garner the limelight on shelves and attention among consumers.

This had us thinking — are prebiotics the new probiotics? But, before deciding to replace one with the other, first, we did some digging for information. 

Not only did we uncover their differences (and similarities!) but we also found why both are important for maintaining health. In short: one is not replacing the other. Here’s what the experts have to say about prebiotics and probiotics, including why it’s beneficial to consume both.

What is a probiotic?

Often taken in the form of capsules, “a probiotic is a living microorganism (most commonly bacteria) that contains a health benefit when taken sufficiently”, says Santosh Sanagapalli, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine at The University of New South Wales. Perks of these non-digestible fiber compounds include balancing the good bacteria in your gut, helping with digestion and more. Dr. Sanagapalli notes that some fermented foods are naturally high in probiotics, including yogurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kombucha (which is often advertised on labels).

What is a prebiotic?

According to the Global Prebiotic Association, a prebiotic is a nutritional product and/or ingredient selectively utilized in the microbiome producing health benefits. The most common example is in the gastrointestinal tract, where prebiotics can alter the composition of organisms in the gut microbiome. Like probiotics, prebiotics can be found in supplement form as well as naturally, in foods. “Many of the richest sources of prebiotics are in foods such as chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, green bananas and resistant potato starch,” says Kara Landau, RD, and Founder of Uplift Food. “They are also found in smaller amounts inside many plant-based foods such as onions, garlic, asparagus, jicama, cooked and then cooled potatoes or pasta, legumes and lentils, raw oats, cashew nuts and tigernuts.” 

What similarities do probiotics and prebiotics have?

While they are not the same — there is some overlap when it comes to benefits. “Probiotics and prebiotics are similar in the sense that both ultimately aim to improve health by improving the composition of the gut microbiome (a.k.a bacteria in the intestines)”, says Dr. Sanagapalli.

“They try to tip the balance in favor of more ‘good’ bacteria and less ‘bad’ bacteria, however, they achieve this goal in different ways.”

(Spoiler alert: you can take them together! We’ll get to that soon…)

What is the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?

While the two sound the same — they are dissimilar by nature. “Probiotics are live microorganisms, whereas prebiotics are not live, they are the energy source for the probiotics,” says Landau. “The majority of probiotics can not be heated, except those classified as spore formers, whereas many prebiotics can be utilized within heated/baked items.” 

Can you take the two together?

Yes, yes you can. Landau says the two work together to achieve optimal gut health, and probiotics need prebiotics in order to thrive and impart their benefits. “Prebiotics can enhance probiotic effectiveness both by supporting the transfer of the probiotics through the digestive tract, together with acting as their energy source within the gut,” Landau says. 

Of course, it’s important to listen to your gut. “Being mindful of how your body responds to both individually, and assessing your tolerance level for not just prebiotics and probiotics as a whole, but rather individual types of prebiotics — and individual strains of probiotics — will lead to the greatest chance of successful and beneficial outcomes without negative side effects of incorporating both these nutrient sources into your diet,” she says.

With this info in mind, speak with your healthcare provider before starting a new probiotic and/or prebiotic regimen to see what route is best for you and your unique needs.

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