Prebiotics Versus Probotics

By Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, CDN

Prebiotics Versus Probotics

Melissa Rifkin is a Connecticut-based Registered Dietitian with over 15 years of experience working in the clinical setting and running the popular, nutrition-education Instagram account, @confessionofadietitian. Melissa hopes to show that healthy meals and snacks do not have to be time consuming and can be made to work for the whole family. Melissa is mom to Max, 4, and Leo, 2, and uses her platform to share practical tips for managing motherhood and feeding kiddos. 

Relative to other areas of digestive health, the understanding of the role of gut bacteria in our digestive systems is relatively new. Biologists have long known the primary functions of our digestive organs, such as your large intestine, along with the enzymes and various compounds that assist digestion. However, the surge of research on the “microbiome” in recent years has opened up a new area of exploration for the medical community. Some scientists have even referred to the microbiome as “the most important organ you’ve never heard of.” 


A microbiome is the compilation of bacteria that inhabit your gut. Harvard Medical School says about “100 trillion bacteria live in your digestive system.”! We each have a unique make up of bacteria that is comprised of billions of microbes. Not all gut bacteria are created equally, and the types and amounts play a significant role in health outcomes. For example, an overgrowth of some bacteria may have a negative impact on digestion and health, while the “good” bacteria in your gut serves many important functions. From aiding in digestion to supporting your gut’s role in immunity, mental health and heart health, healthy probiotic bacteria are an incredibly important portion of your microbiome. Here’s what you need to know about probiotics, the beneficial bacteria in your gut, the prebiotics that support them, and how gut health supports your overall well-being.  


Probiotics vs. Prebiotics 


Referred to as “gut bugs,” “healthy bacteria” and “gut microbes,” probiotics are, put simply, the healthy bacteria in your gut. These microorganisms can be consumed via food, drinks and supplements. Your overall diet, digestive health and medications used can impact the specific compositions of probiotics in your gut. Since probiotics research is so new, we are still learning exactly how probiotics influence our health. However, we do know they aid in the proper digestion of food, and support the gut in serving its vast functions, including roles in the immune system, mental health, heart health and more. An imbalance in the good and bad bacteria in your gut could lead to uncomfortable symptoms, like constipation and diarrhea, and may even lead to allergies and eczema, according to data. For these reasons, consuming probiotics and supporting them with the tools they need to flourish is essential.  

One of these probiotic-supportive tools is prebiotics… 


While probiotics are the actual living bacteria in your gut, prebiotics are the “food” that feed these functional, “good” bacteria. Prebiotics are a form of fiber that can be consumed through food, drinks or supplemental sources. For probiotics to live their best bacterial life, they have to eat good food. Prebiotic fiber is that food and is a necessary component for a healthy microbiome!  Without adequate prebiotics, you risk “dysbiosis,” which is an imbalance in the beneficial and harmful bacteria in your gut. Consuming a variety of fiber-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes can support your microbiome. If you find that you don’t consume regular amounts of these foods, you may consider manufactured food or supplements that provide a source of fiber. 


When did science discover the microbiome and its relationship to gut health & immunity? 

The concept of a microbiome and your gut containing various types of bacteria goes back to the 1800’s. While this revelation dates back centuries, it wasn’t until the 21st century that scientists began using modern methods to learn about the gut-brain axis, and how the microbiota impacts other body systems. The 19th and 20th centuries lent their own discoveries. For example, one scientist coined the term “neglected human organ” in describing the importance of the microbiota. In the 90’s, this same scientist discovered how certain bacteria can activate the immune system. This is one of the first documented indications of how probiotics influence immunity. Since then, vast research has been done to discover the far researching impact of probiotics and overall gut health. While we are still learning the complexity of its role, we know gut health is important at all stages of life 


Is gut health also important for kids? 

You may think of a healthy microbiome as an adult health issue, but a healthy gut in kids is just as important. Similar to adults, kids can ingest probiotics and prebiotics from foods and supplements. Yogurt is a kid-friendly food that contains probiotics, and you may explore packaged foods that are enriched with probiotics, too. Kombucha and kefir are other examples of items that contain probiotics that kids may also enjoy. 

We have learned so much about the microbiome in recent years, and there is no doubt more for us to learn. As research continues to roll out regarding the health impact of probiotics, and how prebiotics influence these healthy bacteria, we will better understand this complex system. In the meantime, we know enough to consider our tiny friends in our tummies and the foods they need to thrive.