Prebiotics vs probiotics: What's the difference?

Everything you need to know about prebiotic and probiotic foods and supplements.
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Tori Crowther
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July 7, 2023
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Probiotics were once an unsexy term used when talking about yoghurt and breakfast drinks. Fast forward to now, probiotics and prebiotics are the wellness must-haves for overall health. 

As the saying goes: happy gut, happy life. OK, maybe not, but that’s exactly what probiotics help achieve. The gut is a super complicated system where bacteria live, which is filled with microbes that impact multiple functions in the body. 

Research over the last few years has revealed that the gut microbiome (home to trillions of microbes in the intestines) not only keeps your digestion function working as it should, but it might also be the key to a long, healthy life [1].

Although bacteria are something we think of as needing to kill or get rid of, not all bacteria are inherently “bad” and the body actually needs them to function correctly. 

That’s why the microbiome is often referred to as home to “good bacteria” when speaking about consuming probiotics. The gut is full of microbes that contain both good and bad bacteria, the role of probiotics is to get more of the good in and help keep your body working in tip-top shape. 

Here’s everything you need to know about prebiotic and probiotic foods and supplements when it comes to gut bacteria.

Prebiotic vs probiotic

It’s not all about probiotics though — prebiotics deserves just as much attention. They both sound very similar, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the same thing, but they do have differences. Let’s take a look. 

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are essentially high-fibre foods that feed your “good bacteria”. Foods that are naturally high in prebiotics include chicory, artichokes, bananas and green vegetables [2].

Probiotics

A probiotic can be defined as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host,” according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) [3].

Probiotics are fermented foods (more on the science of that later). Some of the most commonly found fermented foods rich in probiotics include yoghurt, kefir, kimchi and miso.

Prebiotics and probiotics work together to support and feed the body’s microbiome to increase good bacteria and promote gut health.

A supplement with both pre and probiotics like Kin's Daily Digest supports a healthy gut and mind. Our 4-in-1 supplement helps promote and restore digestive health thanks to the addition of pre and probiotics, fibre and digestive enzymes in an easy-to-drink formula.

Our patented probiotic formula can help debloat and relieve indigestion, constipation and gas, while also improving the absorption of vitamins and minerals from food.

What are sources of probiotics?

As well as smart supplements, there are plenty of sources of probiotics through delicious foods. If you’re a fan of fermented foods especially, you’re in luck. 

Fermentation is the oldest way to preserve foods and it’s something that’s been done for thousands of years — and it just so happens that it’s an excellent source of good bacteria [4].

This happens through a process called lacto-fermentation, which is where food is broken down into lactic acid. This lacto-fermentation results in foods that are rich in good bacteria. 

In addition to naturally-fermented foods, you can also kickstart this process at home with other foods like cucumber or cabbage by putting them in a brine. Pickled vegetables are easy to incorporate into your diet to promote good bacteria and overall digestive health.

Not all fermented foods contain probiotics, though. For instance, a lot of canned foods go through a heat treatment which subsequently kills the “good bacteria”. 

 Here are some of the most popular and common probiotic foods that help gut bacteria:  

  • Yoghurt — Check for labelling with "live and active cultures" as well as helping "gut flora". Be sure to look for those that aren't high in sugar as not all yoghurts contain lots of good bacteria. 
  • Kefir — If you’re unfamiliar, think of this as an in-between yoghurt and milk. 
  • Sauerkraut — Turns out, this hotdog addition has excellent nutritional benefits.  
  • Kimchi — This delicious Korean side dish is made of fermented vegetables is packed full of good bacteria.
  • Kombucha — A sweetened, fermented black tea that comes in all kinds of flavours. It’s a great replacement for sugary soda drinks. 
  • Miso — This is a seasoning paste made from fermented soybeans and just so happens to be delicious and versatile. 
  • Pickles — Pickle lovers, rejoice! Your favourite snack is also one of the more gut-loving so keep up the good work. 

What are the best sources of prebiotics?

As mentioned previously, prebiotics are high-fibre foods that aren’t digestible by your body, but (and that’s a big but) they do encourage the healthy growth of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. For that reason, they’re really important to add to your daily meals. 

The good news is there are plenty of foods that contain prebiotics. Here are some of the most common prebiotic foods:

  • Chicory root — This comes from a blue flowering plant and has a coffee-type flavour. It is a great source of insulin and makes an excellent alternative to sugar. 
  • Asparagus — The delicious vegetable naturally contains inulin. 
  • Onions — Onions are a good source of prebiotics, both raw and cooked. 
  • Garlic — Garlic is a tricky one, although it is a source of prebiotics, the more you cook it, the more it loses its goodness so raw is best. 
  • Jerusalem artichokes — Sometimes called sunchokes, this vegetable is high in insulin and is delicious in a variety of dishes. 
  • Bananas — The greener, the more prebiotic-rich because ripe bananas are easier to digest, so grab those green bananas and add them to your breakfast. 
  • Cocoa — Saving the best for last, it’s said that cocoa enhances the growth of beneficial gut bacteria [5].

Do you need prebiotics if you take probiotics?

These both work in harmony together so it has added benefits if you take them both. Think of prebiotics as giving the probiotics a little nudge to work to its full potential. Supplements that contain both of these are called synbiotics. 

Having said that, they don’t both need to be taken together. They can absolutely be taken alone and still get excellent benefits.

Who should not take a probiotic?

There is still lots of research to be done about probiotics, which is exciting because there’s still a lot to learn about good bacteria, the digestive system and what makes a healthy gut. 

People who should take probiotic supplements

If you’re otherwise healthy and are looking to step your nutrition game and digestive health up a notch, probiotics are a great addition to your diet or supplements thanks to the beneficial bacteria they give your body. 

They’re said to be particularly good if you’re taking antibiotics to ensure your body has enough good bacteria [6]. In addition to this, probiotics, especially found in foods, are great to amp up if you’re suffering from diarrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

A study from 2016 even found that in mild to moderate cases, probiotics could speed recovery up to one day [7].

People who shouldn't take probiotic supplements

Although probiotics sound great, there are a few people who need to be careful. A 2017 study found that although no serious adverse reactions are likely, adults and children with compromised immune systems should avoid probiotics until more research is conducted [8].

When should I take prebiotics?

The debate of when to take your prebiotic or probiotic supplements is a debated one. Some say in the morning and others at night time. 

Generally speaking, it’s ideal to take your probiotic supplements first thing in the morning after waking up and before eating breakfast. This is because it helps to get the good bacteria to your stomach faster so the supplement can begin working quicker

If you find that mornings just don’t work for you or you constantly forget, then switch it to nighttime. The main objective is to take it!

Photo credit: Getty Images

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