- Prebiotics are a type of plant fiber that feeds the good bacteria in our gut.
- Probiotics are foods and supplements that contain live strains of healthy bacteria and yeasts.
- Both prebiotics and probiotics are essential for gut health and can improve digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
While probiotics and prebiotics are just a small slice of our incredibly complex gastrointestinal system, they are very important for our health. Here’s what you need to know about prebiotics and probiotics and how they benefit our body.
Why probiotics and prebiotics are important for your health
Trillions of little bacteria, along with viruses, fungi, and yeast, line every corner of our body and make up a miniature ecosystem, known as our microbiome. In our gastrointestinal system alone, there are around 1,000 species of bacteria, all of which can affect our health.
Prebiotics and probiotics are both important to the health of our gut microbiome, which helps digest certain nutrients and protect you from infection.
On the other hand, imbalances in gut bacteria – known as gut dysbiosis – can increase your risk of diseases like diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and cancer. Gut dysbiosis can occur due to:
- Poor diet
- Old age
- Antibiotic use
“If you have any kind of chronic health problem, symptoms could be slightly reduced if we could add to your gut health and shift your gut microbiome to a more health-promoting microbiome,” says Terry Wahls, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
To do so, it’s important to understand the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, and how to get both into a healthy diet.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that the human body cannot digest, but can become food for the good bacteria in your gut. These fibers aid in the healthy growth of gut bacteria, and can be found in the food we eat such as raw vegetables, beans, and bananas — especially when they aren’t ripe.
There can be many benefits to consuming prebiotics, like:
Increasing calcium absorption. Ingesting prebiotics may increase calcium absorption in the lower intestines. Calcium is important for bone health and building bone density, especially for those at risk for osteoporosis, says Gail Cresci, PhD, RD, a doctor of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic.
Processing food quickly. The fiber found in prebiotics is important for normal bowel movements. A 2013 review found fiber’s bulk and water retaining abilities can decrease the time it takes to digest in the digestive tract.
Controlling blood sugar levels. Numerous studies have found fiber from prebiotics can reduce your glucose absorption rate, which can prevent spikes in…