Written by Erica Gittleson, RD; Select sections of article written by and article reviewed by Dr. Bojana Jankovic Weatherly.
With many probiotics and prebiotics being marketed for health benefits, you may wonder if and how they are relevant to your health. We share basic facts of what they are, how they may benefit us, and where to find them.
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the “good” bacteria (normal microflora) in the body. Probiotics can be taken as supplements or can be found in fermented foods.
Probiotics may contain a variety of microorganisms. The most common are bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Other bacteria may also be used as probiotics, as well as yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii. It’s important to note that different probiotics may have different effects. For example, specific types of lactobacillus may help prevent illness, whereas other types of lactobacillus might not do the same thing. There is evidence that probiotics may help prevent or treat diarrhea caused by infections and antibiotics, boost the immune system, reduce inflammation and allergies (2, 3).
Examples of Probiotic foods include: fermented foods including kefir, yogurt, kimchi, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha (1)
Prebiotics are non-digestible food components (typically high-fiber foods) that act as food for human microflora. Prebiotics are used with the intention of improving the balance of these microorganisms. In order to be considered a prebiotic, the following criteria should be met: they should be resistant to mammalian enzymes and gastric acidity, they should be susceptible to gut microbes for fermentation, and they should improve the activity and the viability of beneficial microbes (4). Different types of prebiotics show distinct health benefits. For example, FOS (Fructooligosaccharides) improve mineral absorption, decrease triglycerides, support immunity, inhibit pathogenic microorganisms, play a role in cancer risk reduction and diabetes control, whereas fructans modulate gut physiology to provide protection from pathogens and improve the level of glucose (4). Prebiotics can also be added to some foods or available as dietary supplements.
Examples of Prebiotic foods include: whole grains, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, leeks, oats, soybeans, artichokes, asparagus (1).
Most probiotics and some prebiotics are sold as dietary supplements, which don’t require FDA approval before they are marketed. It’s important to make sure you consult your qualified health care practitioner before starting a prebiotic or probiotic supplement.