Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What’s the Difference?
Medically reviewed by Alan Carter, Pharm.D. — Written by Kathryn Watson — Updated on May 23, 2017
Prebiotics and probiotics
Probiotics are bacteria that live in your body naturally and help your intestines break down food. Probiotics that are the same or very similar to the ones that your body makes can be taken to supplement healthy digestion. In recent years, a new class of supplements called prebiotics has been advertised as a companion to a probiotic regimen.
Prebiotics are made up of carbohydrates that your body can’t digest. They exist as food for the probiotic bacteria that you’re putting into your body. The use of prebiotics and probiotics together is called microbiome therapy. You don’t need to take a prebiotic for probiotics to work, but taking them might make your probiotics more effective.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics don’t actually contain bacteria. They are fuel to help bacteria grow. All prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber. The fiber inulin, which is found in chicory rootTrusted Source, bananasTrusted Source, and asparagusTrusted Source, is a prebiotic that can be used as food for gut bacteria. Onions, garlic, artichokes, and legumes are also prebiotic sources.
When a food source contains both prebiotics and probiotics, the combination is called a synbiotic. Foods that are synbiotics include cheese, kefir, and certain types of yogurt. Prebiotics can also be purchased as a commercial food additive or capsule supplement. They come in both liquid and powdered forms.
Prebiotics by themselves haven’t been found to be of much use. Recently, prebiotics added to infant formula were found to make the formula more closely resemble the health content of breastmilk. It’s only when used in conjunction that probiotics and prebiotics seem to have an effect.
What are probiotics?
When people talk about probiotic bacteria, they’re generally referring to two families of bacteria. Strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are both associated with probiotic formulas. Many slightly fermented food products contain natural probiotics. Examples include sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt. PicklesTrusted Source are also a source of natural probiotics. Probiotics can be purchased as a food-grade health supplement. They come in a powder or liquid form. Probiotics usually need to be stored in the refrigerator to keep the bacteria contained in them alive and ready to reproduce.
Health benefits of prebiotics and probiotics
In 2012, a studyTrusted Source revealed that almost 4 million adults used probiotics for health. There is still more research needed to definitively identify the benefits of supplementing gut bacteria. However, research suggests that probiotics offer significant health benefits.
Some researchTrusted Source indicates that prebiotics and probiotics are effective for treating diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, allergic disorders, and even the common cold. Prebiotics and probiotics have been suggestedTrusted Source as treatments for obesity. They are being explored as a way to prevent the spread of cancer. Promising research has shownTrusted Sourceprobiotics to be an effective treatment for inflammatory arthritis.
Risks and side effects of prebiotics and probiotics
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) point out that the use of commercial prebiotics and probiotics is generally safe for healthy people. But there are rare instances where a healthy person becomes sick after ingesting certain types of bacteria contained in probiotics. Probiotics aren’t regulated according to “drug” standards by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that some of the live bacteria being used in probiotics hasn’t been evaluated according to strict safety measures. That’s something important to keep in mind when considering prebiotics and probiotics.
When you start a synbiotic regimen, there are some common side effects. Gas, constipation, loose stool, and loss of appetite sometimes happen, especially at the beginning of the regimen. Bloating and acid reflux have also been reportedTrusted Source.
There is one side effect of probiotics that is known to be dangerous: having an allergic reaction to the bacteria that are being added to your body. If you break out in hives or experience extreme stomach pain after ingesting a prebiotic or probiotic, stop taking the supplement. Contact a doctor to determine if you’re having a reaction.
Sometimes probiotics are recommended for children that are taking antibiotics. But you should talk to your child’s doctor before you give probiotics to a child under the age of 12. Probiotics and prebiotics are also believed to be generally safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Get the all-clear from your doctor before beginning any new supplement during pregnancy and postpartum.
Every probiotic is different because of the variations in bacteria strains. Not all probiotics will work the same way for you, and not everyone needs to take a probiotic. If you are lactose intolerant, make sure you look for a dairy-free probiotic. If you have a yeast (Candida) overgrowth, you may want to be mindful of this and select a probiotic that doesn’t contain Candida.
People that are currently on antibiotic medication seem to benefit the most from a prebiotic and probiotic combination. The synbiotic effect helps combat the healthy bacteria that are being killed off while you take antibiotics.
Last medically reviewed on May 22, 2017
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