Probiotic vs. Prebiotic

“Prebiotic” and “probiotic” may only differ by a letter, but they have very different jobs within the body. Prebiotics are indigestible carbohydrates, while probiotics are gut-friendly bacteria. Here’s a look at what probiotics and prebiotics are, how they can help you, and how to find them.

What are Probiotics?

Probiotics are a delicate form of bacteria that provide major health benefits to the gastrointestinal system. They aren’t an essential nutrient, but they can be a great complementary treatment for some GI issues. Probiotics occur naturally in the stomach, where they help maintain your natural flora and fauna.

We don’t all have the same probiotics in our systems, and we won’t all benefit from every kind of probiotic supplement. Even different strains help different areas in the GI. For example, streptococcus thermophilus is thought to be great for the small intestine’s tissue, while lactobacillus acidophilus is better for digestion and the immune system.

What are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are probiotic food. Think of it like fertilizer: you don’t put fertilizer in the soil for the dirt, you put it in the soil for the plants that grow there. Likewise, prebiotics go into the gastrointestinal system not for the GI tract, but for the probiotics that live there. Eating probiotics leaves them susceptible to the heat and acid in your stomach, which could potentially destroy the helpful bacteria. Nourishing them with prebiotics can help keep them stronger.

Essentially, the prebiotics job is to keep probiotics healthy. Then the probiotics can thrive and keep your digestive system healthy too. Together, probiotics and prebiotics form synbiotics. That’s the true goal when you’re trying to improve gut health. Because even if you get plenty of probiotics, without enough prebiotics, the balance between good and bad bacteria in your stomach may teeter in the wrong direction. The effects of that vary between every individual.

What Do Probiotics Help?

Generally, probiotics (and thus prebiotics) are most helpful for digestive issues. There is some evidence that probiotics (specifically acidophilus) may be quite beneficial recovering from or even preventing urinary tract infections and vaginal yeast infections. Further, eating plain yogurt may provide some symptomatic relief from thrush or oral candidiasis.

Specifically the digestive issues that may benefit from a healthy helping of probiotics include diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you develop a gastrointestinal infection, probiotics can help bring back the natural balance of bacteria in your gut. It may even help relieve some symptoms. Since some of them promote immune system health, you may even find yourself getting sick less often if you take them regularly.
Your doctor may also prescribe probiotics with antibiotics. Antibiotics are indiscriminate, in that they kill off all bacteria, even the good kind. Taking probiotics in tandem can help prevent stomach issues, particularly if you are taking antibiotics long term. Probiotics are not a replacement for traditional medication.

Where Can I Find Them?

Unfortunately, probiotics and prebiotics do not tend to appear together naturally. Yogurt that contains live, active cultures is a great source of probiotics. Unfortunately, if you are lactose intolerant or just do not eat dairy, it becomes hard to find them. According to the Mayo Clinic, foods that contain prebiotics include honey, kefir, artichokes, bananas, whole grains, onions, and garlic.

If onion flavored yogurt doesn’t appeal to you, a mixture or specific strain of probiotics, with or without prebiotics, is available in the pharmacy section of most stores. Most people don’t experience issues when they start taking probiotics. However, it doesn’t hurt to talk to your doctor before starting them, particularly if you have a chronic gastrointestinal issue.