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Probiotic v's Prebiotic What Are the Differences?

Posted on 04 August 2016 by Leonie Satori

Good bugs, probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics - it all sounds like gobbledygook! Hopefully this article will clear up some confusion, perhaps ..

So what are these bacteria or good bugs in the gut?

Beneficial bacteria in the large intestine are called commensal or symbiotic, they live as part of our healthy body, they make up what is termed as the microbiome or the community of microorganisms in our body. While some medical research is focusing on developing stronger and more robust antibiotics, there is a whole other field of research going into understanding this symbiotic relationship that we have with bacteria both in and on our bodies and in our environment.

Probiotic v's Prebiotic What Are the Differences?

So, then what is a probiotic?

The literal translation of 'probiotic' comes from Greek, meaning 'for life', it was first coined in the 1960s, however the current understanding of probiotic and how we use the term today was not established until the 1970s, so it can be considered to be in it's infancy in terms of current vocabulary. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as 'live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host'. Essentially, this refers to the consumption of live bacteria and microorganisms in the way of fermented foods or oral supplements to aid with overall health.

Where do I find probiotics?

For those who indulge in the glory of commercial television, they would have come across many advertisements for probiotics, containing good bugs. I tend to suggest that anything with commercial advertising should be cautioned before use. Yes, there are many wonderful probiotic supplements on the market, some in a capsule, some in a powder and also the occasional tablet. At our health centre in Lismore, we stock only high quality probiotic supplements with therapeutic value.

Probiotic foods can be included in the diet on a daily basis, and when you study many ancient healthful cultures, fermented foods have always played a role in the diet. Fermented foods such as natural yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kim chi contain natural probiotics. The fermentation process involved in making these foods allows for the good bugs, essential for our good health to grow. Eating these kinds of fermented foods, containing naturally cultured probiotics, encourages a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut.

When would I use a probiotic supplement?

For maintenance of good overall, digestive and immune health, it has been known for some time by nature care practitioners, naturopaths and nutritionists that our gut flora or the balance of bacteria in our large intestine plays an integral role. There are many factors influencing this balance of good bugs in our gut, with foods and pharmaceutical medicines being the most obvious influences. Essentially for good health, it is now understood that we require a multicultural society of bacteria in our gut to maintain good health, and achieving this balance of microorganisms does sometimes require supplementation with what I refer to as 'pioneer' bacteria to establish a community of good bugs. 

With their influence on the immune system, digestion and overall health, probiotic supplements are often used after or during any kind of infections, after courses of antibiotics, after surgery, with digestive or mal-absorption issues and many other health issues. I suggest consulting with a whole health professional or a naturopath to discuss your specific health concerns.

What is a prebiotic?

The term prebiotic is defined as 'a non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon' (phew!). Ok, so in English ... a prebiotic is a substance that provides food and nutrition for the good bugs that live in our gut. Prebiotics in food are often polysaccharides or carbohydrates that cannot be broken down fully with digestion (hence the definition as a non-digestible food ingredient). When we think about components of food that cannot be fully broken down, our first inclination may be to think that these parts of food are useless in the diet, however this is not true for these beneficial nutrients. More than just providing food, prebiotics play an important role in creating a healthier environment or ecosystem of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

So what kinds of food contain these beneficial prebiotics?

As mentioned earlier, it is non-digestible carbohydrates of certain foods that often have the prebiotic qualities, that being said, any of you reading this may have realised that many prebiotic foods can produce wind in some people, and yes, by wind I am referring to gas! Some of your best prebiotic foods include Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, garlic, onions, burdock root and asparagus.

Foods such as slippery elm, spirulina and psyllium husks also provide good food for the bacteria in the gut, however purists will term these foods as synergistic nutrients or as 'colonic foods' as they do not contain the specific carbohydrates to encourage good bacteria growth. I do suggest that these foods play an important role in feeding the good bugs in our gut and promoting healthy digestion.

Prebiotics and probiotics, clearing up the confusion

It is easy to understand the confusion with prebiotics and probiotics and sometimes manufacturers of health supplements will use these terms interchangeably. Oh, another term to get confused about is synbiotic (with an 'n'). Actually, this is simply a product that contains both probiotics and prebiotics, many product manufacturers will develop and promote these kinds of combination products to aid digestion.

Essentially, a probiotic is a bacteria or microorganism that you consume via fermented food or supplement to recolonise the good bugs in our large intestine. Whereas a prebiotic provides food for these probiotics and good bugs and helps to create an environment for them to multiply and confer health benefits to the host or person consuming them. Including a good mix of prebiotic and probiotic foods in the diet and using quality supplements when required can promote good health and vitality.




Leonie Satori Herbalist Naturopath Lismore

About the Author

Leonie is a Naturopath & Medical Herbalist with a passion for good food, healthy living and of course, herbal medicine. When she is not consulting in her wellness clinic in Lismore or blogging about nutrition, Ayurvedic Medicine or natural health, she is studying yoga, growing her own herbs and vegetables or quietly walking in the natural bush land in Northern Rivers NSW.

Contact our health centre in Lismore to book an appointment with Leonie in our naturopathic clinic.


The content of this website and any provided materials, research, or communications are for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your qualified health practitioner with any questions you may have regarding your health condition.

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