Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: A Comprehensive Guide

Last Update: June 3, 2024

Navigating the world of gut health can be complex. It’s a hot topic in health and wellness, and when you’re investigating how to improve your own gut health, you’ll very quickly come across recommendations for prebiotics and probiotics

Though the two sound similar, prebiotics and probiotics serve different purposes in our bodies. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the differences between prebiotics and probiotics, best practices for incorporating them into your daily routine, and answer some of the most common questions surrounding prebiotics and probiotics. 



Table of Contents

What’s the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

Probiotics: What They Do and Best Practices for Consumption

Prebiotics: What They Do and Best Practices

Best Prebiotic and Probiotic Combination: Synbiotic Products and Foods

Probiotics for Kids: Supporting Children’s Gut Health and Immunity

Baby Probiotics: Supporting Your Infant’s Gut Health and Development

Frequently Asked Questions About Prebiotics and Probiotics



What’s the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria found in certain foods and supplements that can offer health benefits when consumed, primarily by enhancing or restoring gut flora, or the diverse array of bacteria and microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. 

Prebiotics are substances that come from types of carbohydrates (mostly fiber) that humans cannot digest. The beneficial bacteria in your gut eat this fiber.

Though their names are similar, probiotics and prebiotics serve distinct functions:

  • Probiotics: Because these live bacteria can help to improve or restore gut flora, they offer numerous health benefits, primarily related to digestive and immune system health.
  • Prebiotics: Because the beneficial bacteria in your gut consume this fiber, it aids their growth and activity.

Probiotics: What They Do and Best Practices

Probiotics are recognized for their role in maintaining a healthy gut, but their benefits extend beyond digestion. They can enhance immune function, protect against hostile bacteria, and improve gut health

Best Food Sources of Probiotics

Best Practices for Taking Probiotics

Always consult with your doctor before incorporating any new supplements into your wellness routine. Once you get the go-ahead, here are some best practices for taking probiotics:

  • For optimal results, the best time to take probiotics is either first thing in the morning or right before bedtime, as the stomach’s acidity is lower, allowing more probiotics to survive the journey to the intestines.
  • While probiotics are generally safe and beneficial, they can cause mild side effects like diarrhea, especially when first starting. 
  • When choosing a probiotic supplement, opt for high-quality brands and consider specialized options for women, men, or kids, depending on your needs. 

Signs Probiotics Are Working

When you start taking probiotics, you might wonder how you’ll know if they’re making a positive difference. Keep in mind that individual responses can vary, and some people might experience different signs or take longer to notice changes. With that in mind, here are some common signs that probiotics are working*:

  • Improved digestion: One of the first signs is better digestion, with reduced bloating, gas, and constipation. You might also notice more regular bowel movements.
  • Increased energy levels: A balanced gut can lead to improved nutrient absorption, resulting in higher energy levels throughout the day.
  • Boosted immune system: Probiotics can strengthen your immune system, helping to fight off illness.
  • Reduced inflammation: You may notice a decrease in symptoms related to inflammation with consistent probiotic use.
  • Better skin health: Since gut health is linked to skin health, clearer skin or a healthier complexion can indicate that probiotics are working.
  • Improved vaginal health. Probiotics help to maintain the natural balance of bacteria and yeast in the vaginal flora, which could help prevent yeast infections. 

Best Probiotic for Gut Health

When you’re seeking “good” gut health, you’re actually looking for a balanced gut microbiota (the wide variety of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that live in your digestive tract). Probiotics can help achieve this balance by introducing beneficial bacteria that support digestion and other vital functions. When looking for the best probiotic for gut health, consider those with strains known to offer specific benefits for digestion and overall well-being. Here are some strains to look for in a high-quality probiotic:

  • Lactobacillus acidophilus: This strain is known for its role in promoting a balanced gut microbiota, aiding digestion, and reducing symptoms of bloating and constipation. It can also produce lactase, making it easier for those with lactose intolerance to digest dairy products.
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum: This probiotic strain supports digestion by breaking down complex carbohydrates and other substances. It’s also known for boosting the immune system and reducing the risk of infections.
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus: This strain can support a healthy gut and immune system.

Prebiotics: What They Do and Best Practices

Prebiotics may not get as much limelight as probiotics, but they are just as crucial, as they act as fuel for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. The best time to take a prebiotic is at the same time as your probiotics (either through diet or supplements) to maximize the gut health benefits.

Best Food Sources of Prebiotics

Prebiotics occur naturally in certain foods, primarily those with dietary fiber. Here are some of the best sources of prebiotic fibers:

  • Garlic 
  • Onions 
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus 
  • Bananas
  • Chicory root 
  • Sunchokes
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Apples

Best Practices for Taking Prebiotics

Always consult with your doctor before incorporating any new supplements into your wellness routine. Once you get the go-ahead, here are some best practices for taking prebiotics:

  • Add prebiotic-rich foods, such as garlic and onions, in your cooking to increase your prebiotic intake.
  • Choose prebiotic snacks, like bananas, apples, or a chicory root coffee alternative, to help up your prebiotics throughout the day. 
  • If you still feel like you’re not getting enough prebiotics, add a prebiotic supplement to your daily routine in combination with your probiotic.
  • Be aware that supplementing with prebiotics can sometimes lead to increased bowel movements, which is a normal part of the digestive process adjusting to higher fiber intake. 

Best Prebiotic and Probiotic Combination: Synbiotic Products and Foods

Combining prebiotics and probiotics into supplements known as synbiotics can offer enhanced benefits for gut health. Prebiotics serve as food for probiotics, allowing them to work more effectively in your gut. By combining both in your diet, you can optimize your digestive health and support a balanced gut microbiota. 

Here’s a look at why synbiotics are important and how to incorporate them into your routine.

Why Synbiotics Are Beneficial

Synbiotics provide a synergistic effect by combining the growth-promoting properties of prebiotics with the beneficial bacteria of probiotics. This combination can offer several benefits:

  • Enhanced probiotic function: Prebiotics help probiotics survive and thrive, improving their effectiveness in supporting gut health.
  • Improved digestive health: Synbiotics can lead to a more balanced gut microbiota, promoting better digestion and nutrient absorption.
  • Immune system support: A healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, and synbiotics can help maintain this balance.

Probiotics for Kids: Supporting Children’s Gut Health and Immunity

Probiotics aren’t just for adults; kids can benefit from them, too. Given that a child’s gut health can affect their overall well-being, you may consider incorporating probiotics into their diet. While you should always consult with a pediatrician before incorporating any new supplements into your child’s routine, here’s what you need to know about probiotics for kids.

Why Probiotics Are Important for Kids

Children’s bodies are constantly growing and developing, and a healthy gut microbiota can contribute to this process. Probiotics for kids offer several benefits:

  • Digestive health: Probiotics help maintain a balanced gut, which can improve digestion and reduce common issues like constipation and diarrhea.
  • Immune support: A robust gut microbiota can help to strengthen a child’s immune system.
  • Allergy reduction: Some studies suggest that probiotics may reduce the risk of allergies in children by supporting a balanced immune response.

When To Consider Probiotics for Kids

Once you get the go-ahead from your child’s doctor, probiotics for kids can be beneficial in several situations*, such as:

  • After taking antibiotics: If your child has been on antibiotics, probiotics can help restore the natural balance of gut bacteria.
  • Digestive upset: Probiotics can be helpful if your child experiences occasional digestive issues.
  • Seasonal changes: During times when immunity is critical, probiotics can provide added support.

How to Include Probiotics in a Child’s Diet

Introducing probiotics to a child’s diet can be as easy as making a few smart, gut supportive snack swaps. Here are a few ways to incorporate them:

Baby Probiotics: Supporting Your Infant’s Gut Health and Development

Probiotics can benefit even the youngest members of your family. “Baby probiotics” refer to probiotics specifically formulated for infants to support gut health and early development. You should always consult with your baby’s pediatrician before incorporating any new supplements into their routine, but if you get the okay, baby probiotics can be an important addition to an infant’s health regimen.

Benefits of Baby Probiotics

Infants’ bodies are still developing, and maintaining a healthy gut microbiota is crucial. Here are some of the key benefits baby probiotics can offer*:

  • Digestive health: Probiotics for babies can support a balanced gut microbiota, aiding digestion and soothing symptoms related to issues like colic and constipation.
  • Immune system support: A healthy gut can help boost an infant’s immune system.
  • Reduced allergies: Some studies suggest that introducing probiotics early in life can reduce the risk of developing certain allergies and atopic conditions.

When to Consider Baby Probiotics

Baby probiotics can be helpful in various situations, such as:

  • Colic and digestive discomfort: If your baby experiences colic or other digestive discomfort, probiotics can help soothe the gut.
  • After antibiotics: If your infant has taken antibiotics, probiotics can help restore the natural balance of gut bacteria.
  • When you’re concerned about contagious illness:  Introducing probiotics early can help strengthen your baby’s immune response.

How to Incorporate Baby Probiotics

Before introducing baby probiotics, consult with your pediatrician to ensure they’re appropriate for your child’s specific needs. With the right approach, baby probiotics can play an essential role in supporting your infant’s gut health and immune system as they grow and develop.

To introduce baby probiotics, consider the following methods:

  • Probiotic drops. These are easy to administer and can be added to a bottle or directly into the baby’s mouth.
  • Probiotic-enhanced baby foods. Some baby foods contain added probiotics, making it easy to incorporate them into your infant’s diet.

Frequently Asked Questions About Prebiotics and Probiotics

What do probiotics do?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. They help maintain the natural balance of organisms in the intestines and boost the immune system. Probiotics can also aid in digesting food or producing vitamins.

Best time to take probiotics?

The optimal time to take probiotics is when the stomach’s acidity is lower, which is typically on an empty stomach either first thing in the morning or just before bedtime. This timing helps more of the bacteria survive the harsh acidic environment of the stomach, allowing them to reach the intestines effectively.

Do probiotics make you poop?

Probiotics can influence bowel movements by improving your gut’s microbial balance, which can help regulate bowel movements. For some people, this can mean more regular bowel movements, and for others, it may stabilize a system that is frequently in flux.

What are probiotics good for?

Probiotics are beneficial for various reasons. They improve digestive health, boost the immune system, and can reduce the severity and frequency of illness. Additionally, they’re known for their role in soothing gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and antibiotic-related diarrhea.

Can probiotics cause diarrhea?

In some cases, starting probiotics can lead to mild diarrhea. This usually occurs as the gut microbiota adjusts to the new balance of bacteria and is typically temporary. If diarrhea persists, it is recommended to consult a healthcare provider.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are compounds in food that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. They are usually non-digestible fibers that act as food for the gut microbiota. Essentially, prebiotics help beneficial bacteria grow and flourish.

When to take prebiotics?

Prebiotics can be taken at any time of day but are most effective when taken simultaneously as probiotics. Taking them together helps ensure that the live bacteria (probiotics) have the necessary nutrients (prebiotics) to thrive in your gut.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

This article is related to:

Gut Health

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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