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Prebiotic vs Probiotic : What are the Differences? Which is Better?

Prebiotic vs Probiotic : What are the Differences?

Prebiotic vs Probiotic

Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that help the digestive system and combat “bad” bacteria in the gut. Since the microorganisms in probiotics are living organisms, they require food and are able to reproduce in your gut to create more healthy bacteria.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are carbohydrates that serve as food sources for probiotics, and cannot reproduce due to not being alive.1 One is not necessarily better than the other but they both work together to promote optimal gut health. Prebiotics and probiotics have a synergistic relationship.

What is the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics

Essentially, prebiotics feed your existing gut bacteria, allowing them to grow, spread, and thrive. Probiotic foods contain live cultures that add to your population. Both are invaluable to promoting healthy digestion and general wellness.

If you’re a gardener, you know you must prepare the soil with fertilizer before planting your seeds. That’s a good analogy for the differences between prebiotics and probiotics. The prebiotics are like fertilizer and topsoil so that the probiotics, the plants, can grow and flourish. Probiotics keep the “bad” bacteria,” the weeds, from overwhelming the digestive tract, making them a major factor in keeping the body healthy. Probiotics are also necessary for people taking antibiotics, as these medications kill off good bacteria in the digestive tract.

What is a Prebiotic?

Now that we know prebiotics are a food source for probiotics, we can characterize them by the following 3 characteristics:8-9

  1. Prebiotics must be non-digestible and resistant to digestive enzymes produced by the body. Prebiotics need to be non-digestible and non-absorbable by the body so that the prebiotic makes it to where the probiotics reside – the large intestine or colon.
  2. Prebiotics must be fermented by intestinal bacteria.
  3. However, prebiotics must selectively ferment good bacteria (probiotics) and not both bad and good bacteria.

Compounds that fit into this category are:

  1. Fructans
    • Fructooligosaccharides (FOS)
    • Inulin
  2. Galactooligosaccharides
  3. Digestion-resistant starch
  4. Pectin
  5. Beta-Glucans
  6. Xylooligosaccharides

The human gut is home to thousands of species of probiotics. However, most probiotics being studied are either of the genus Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria.

Lactobacillus probiotic growth is stimulated most by the following prebiotics:10

  • Inulin
  • Fructoolicosaccharides

Bifidobacteria growth is stimulated most by:10

  • Inulin
  • Fructoolicosaccharides
  • Xylooligosaccharides
  • Galactooligosaccharides

This does not mean that the other prebiotics would not stimulate growth of these probiotics. Because the growth of both Lactobacillus probiotics and Bifidobacteria probiotics are stimulated more by inulin or fructooligosaccharides it may be better to consume prebiotics consisting of inulin and/or fructooligosaccharides.

Prebiotic Foods List

It’s likely you’re already consuming prebiotics in your daily diet.

Prebiotics are foods that tend to be high in fiber and include:

  • Whole grains
  • Oatmeal
  • Soybeans
  • Peas
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Bananas
  • Radishes
  • Asparagus
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Dandelion greens

Prebiotic vs Probiotic

If you’re looking for a good prebiotic look for foods that are high in fiber. Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is found in plant-based foods, but unlike other carbs, fiber is not digestible by humans. In terms of prebiotics, this is essential. Where other foods get broken down by stomach acids, fiber can survive the rigors of the stomach and reach the large intestine where most of your microflora resides. Most fiber-rich foods also happen to contain a diverse range of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that can contribute to your health in other ways.3

Foods consumed raw will contain more prebiotics than those requiring cooking. For items like artichokes or dandelion greens, toss them in salads rather than cooking them to retain their full prebiotic strength. For foods that need cooking, light steaming retains more prebiotics than sautéing or boiling.

What are The Health Benefits of Prebiotics?

Humans can’t digest prebiotics and that’s a good thing. Prebiotic foods tend to be high in fiber which helps normalize bowel movements and act to cleanse the colon. Because our bodies can’t digest and absorb prebiotics, they end up in the colon and begin breaking down, providing nutrients to gut bacteria. The probiotics flourish and have a number of benefits for the body including reducing inflammation, a primary trigger of many gastrointestinal and other illnesses. They also strengthen the intestines’ mucosal lining, allowing the body to better absorb nutrients and metabolize fats.2 

Working in sync, prebiotics and probiotics may help those suffering from various gastrointestinal conditions. Those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and constipation can all benefit from probiotics and prebiotics, in either food or supplement form.4

Probiotics support regular bowel movements. A healthy balance of probiotics also allows for more efficient absorption of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Most prominently, probiotics can counteract digestive problems associated with antibiotics. Antibiotics are helpful in eliminating disease-causing bacteria, but kill beneficial bacteria in the process. Taking probiotics can help to replenish your gut flora.5

Prebiotics can aid digestion by feeding the good bacteria in your gut, allowing them to imbue their own benefits. As mentioned, prebiotics also tend to be high in fiber, which promotes the movement of stools and contributes to stool bulk, which can help those with constipation or otherwise irregular bowel movements.6

If you’re looking for fermented foods to maintain probiotic gut health, avoid those that have been pasteurized, as the pasteurization process eliminates the good bacteria.

How to Choose the Best Prebiotic and Probiotic Supplements

Ideally, people should consume 5 grams of prebiotics daily. If you are unable to consume this many grams of prebiotics in then consider taking a daily prebiotic supplement. Some probiotics contain prebiotics. However, they may be at an insufficient dose. In these cases it would be beneficial to take an additional prebiotic supplement.

When choosing probiotic supplements, you mainly want to look at the colony forming units (CFUs), which are a measure of the live cultures in a probiotic supplement. Some probiotic supplements will list their servings in milligrams, which is truly unhelpful. You generally want a probiotic supplement with at least 10 billion CFUs. A meta study showed that 10 billion CFUs was the amount required to effectively reduce the duration of acute infectious diarrhea in kids.7 While your personal needs may vary, supplements containing less than 10 billion CFUs will likely be less effective.

Furthermore, try to find a probiotic supplement that has a delayed release mechanism, which usually comes in the form of a special coating. Some probiotic strains can withstand digestive enzymes and caustic acids in the stomach, but most cannot. Probiotics have to reach your gut, primarily your lower intestine, in order to actually thrive and imbue their potential benefits. This means they aren’t much use if they die in the stomach or before they reach the gut. Finding a probiotic supplement that features a stomach acid resistant coating ensures that you are getting the most out of your supplement and supplying your gut flora with plenty of new bacteria.

DrFormulas® offers Nexabiotic® Advanced Probiotics and Prebiotics for Women & Men with Saccharomyces Boulardii and Lactobacillus Acidophilus. This combination prebiotic/probiotic supplement helps to supply your gut with health microorganisms and can help support your immune system.