Gut Check: The Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics

Thursday, September 5, 2019

prebiotics food, like onions and garlic displayed on a table

A healthy gut makes for a healthy body. Your gut is your digestive system including your stomach and intestines.

When your gut is working properly, you're less likely to:

  • Get sick
  • Develop colon cancer
  • Become obese or develop Type 2 diabetes
  • Suffer from inflammation, which can cause arthritis and other discomfort

A healthy gut can also help you be more likely to:

  • Have a better mood
  • Have a healthy heart
  • Have a healthy metabolism, which helps you control your weight

These benefits depend on the bacteria in your gut. Bad bacteria make you sick, but good bacteria keep you healthy and your gut is naturally lined with trillions of them. When you don't have enough good bacteria in your system, you might have digestive problems. That's where prebiotics and probiotics come in. 

Prebiotics vs. probiotics

Probiotics are good bacteria that help your gut stay healthy. Prebiotics are the types of food that probiotics need to thrive. Both probiotics and prebiotics can be found in foods.


Prebiotics are plant fibers that our bodies can't digest but probiotics can use to grow and multiply. Many foods contain prebiotics, mainly fruits and vegetables. 

Familiar foods rich in prebiotics include:

  • Cocoa, garlic and onions
  • Bananas, apples and berries
  • Beans, soybeans and asparagus
  • Oats, barley, flaxseeds and wheat bran 


About 500 different types of bacteria can live in your gut. These bacteria work together to digest food and keep you healthy. Probiotics grow naturally in your body as well. Sometimes you may not have enough, though.

Things that can cause a lack of probiotics in your gut include:

  • Stress
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Infection
  • Not enough exercise
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Taking antibiotics
  • Lack of sleep 
  • Not having a balanced diet

Try adding these probiotic foods to your diet:

  • Plain yogurt that has active or live cultures
  • Cheeses that have live or active cultures 
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso soup
  • Traditional (not cultured) buttermilk
  • Non-pasteurized pickles that do not contain vinegar
  • Non-pasteurized pickled vegetables that do not contain vinegar

Pasteurizing is a process that helps foods stay fresh longer. However, the process kills the bacteria found in these foods. Check food labels for the words like "non-pasteurized" or "unpasteurized." 

Supplements are a way you can also add prebiotics and probiotics to your diet. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't oversee these so you can't always be sure you're getting what's on the label. Be sure to consult with your primary care physician before adding any supplements to your diet. 

If you want help regarding your personal digestive health, schedule an appointment with a primary care physician near you.

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