Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: How These Foods & Supplements Work Together

Posted by Ethan Boldt on

By Jill Levy

By now, most people are aware that taking a good-quality probiotic supplement can offer many benefits, such as helping to support healthy digestion and immune system function. However, the debate over prebiotics vs. probiotics still confuses many people. So which one is better?

When it comes to probiotics vs. prebiotics, the truth is that you don’t necessarily have to choose just one. In fact, it’s best to consume both, since they work in conjunction to maintain healthy gut microflora.

In this article, we’ll look more closely at what differentiates prebiotics from probiotics (and from postbiotics, too) and offer tips for consuming more of both from foods as well as supplements.

Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

Which is better, prebiotics or probiotics? One is not necessarily better than the other, they just work in different ways and have unique roles. This is precisely why the best probiotic supplements usually contain both.

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates. They are found naturally in certain high-fiber foods, such as under-ripe bananas and onions, as well as in some supplements.

Examples of prebiotics are polysaccharides, fructooligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides. Once eaten, prebiotics travel through the small intestine without being digested, then they are fermented in the large colon by gut bacteria.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms (mainly bacteria) that live inside the gut and, along with yeast, fungi and other microbes, form the microbiome.

Having higher levels of probiotics in the gut, especially those in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families, is associated with a range of health benefits, since they generally help to maintain a healthy balance of gut flora, support nutrient absorption, play a role in immune function, and much more.

What's Optimal for the Microbiome?

A healthy microbiome — an internal complex ecosystem of bacteria located within our bodies — depends on interactions between the three main categories of components that help contribute to gastrointestinal balance: prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics.

When prebiotics go through a fermentation process in the colon, they wind up “feeding” beneficial probiotic bacteria. Essentially probiotics use prebiotics as fuel or “fertilizer," so it’s important to consume enough of them in order to increase the number of desirable bacteria in our microbiomes. This process then creates postbiotics, which in turn help regulate the composition of the microbiome.

When consumed together, or at least when both are regularly included in your diet and supplement routine, pre-, pro- and postbiotics can all work together to generally help to maintain healthy digestion, reduce occasional constipation and diarrhea, and support a healthy immune system.

Prebiotic Foods

Prebiotic foods are those that are high in fiber, which means they contain certain types of carbohydrates that the body cannot fully digest. As mentioned above, instead of being absorbed as usable energy/calories, prebiotics fibers help healthy microbes in the gut to reproduce, flourish and thrive.

Prebiotic foods include the following:

  • Acacia gum (or gum arabic): 4 grams fiber per tablespoon
  • Raw chicory root: 1 gram of fiber per 60 grams
  • Raw Jerusalem artichoke: 2 grams fiber per ½ cup
  • Raw dandelion greens: about 4 grams fiber per ½ cup
  • Raw garlic: 0 to 1 gram per clove
  • Raw leeks: 2 grams per cup
  • Raw or cooked onions: about 2 grams fiber per ½ cup
  • Raw jicama: 6 grams per cup
  • Raw asparagus: 6 grams fiber per cup
  • Under-ripe bananas: 3 grams per banana
  • Apples with skin: about 4 to 5 grams fiber per apple
  • Psyllium husk: 7 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Whole-grain wheat, barley, oatmeal: about 4 grams fiber per cup
  • Many beans and legumes: about 6 to 8 grams fiber per ½ cup
  • Whole-grain corn: 6 grams fiber per ½ cup

In addition to consuming prebiotics from foods, you can also obtain them in pill form, or as supplements that are added to water or other liquids (such as psyllium husk and chicory root that are stirred into water or tea).

What is the best prebiotic to take in supplement form? Chicory root is a popular prebiotic in supplement form since it’s concentrated in fiber. But there isn’t one specific type that is most recommended, rather the goal is usually to increase your total daily fiber consumption, including from food sources.

Most prebiotics seem to work similarly among different people (whereas probiotics tend to have varying effects). Generally speaking, consuming a variety of types seems to be the best approach, so aim for a mix of raw vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes and seeds.

Probiotic Foods

In addition to getting probiotics from supplements, you can obtain them by eating foods that have been fermented.

Fermented foods tend to contain a wide range of healthy microbes. For example, kefir is considered one of the richest natural sources since it typically contains more than 50 types of beneficial bacteria.

Probiotic foods include the following:

  • Kefir
  • Yogurt
  • Cultured vegetables like sauerkraut, real pickles and kimchi
  • Miso
  • Natto
  • Annatto
  • Kvass
  • Kombucha

In addition to benefiting from pre- and probiotics, postbiotics are also a good addition to gut-supporting supplements.

Postbiotics are “byproducts” (or metabolite compounds) produced by the fermentation process carried out by probiotic microorganisms in the gut. They help to ensure the growth and survival of good bacteria in the gut and contribute to homeostasis (or balance). Examples of postbiotics include: organic acids, vitamins, short chain fatty acids, lipopolysaccharides, and others.

When to Take Prebiotics and Prebiotics

Should you take prebiotics and probiotics together? Ideally, you’ll take a daily supplement that includes both prebiotics and probiotics together, in combination with postbiotics, which can be done with Ancient Nutrition's unique line of SBO Probiotics. These supplements are often called “synbiotics” because they contain all three types of compounds needed to support gut health.

When prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics are combined, we refer to this as the “trifecta approach,” which describes how all three work together to offer you even more powerful benefits. Together they help to balance the organisms residing within the gastrointestinal tract that can contribute to overall gut health.

What’s the best prebiotic and probiotic combination to look for?

First and foremost, you want to focus on choosing a supplement that contains survivable microbes, meaning the healthy bacteria actually make it to parts of your gut where they can go to work. Certain kinds of probiotic bacteria can be fragile and can easily be diminished by stomach acid and high body temperatures; however, certain types such as soil-based organisms (SBOs) tend to be hardier and more durable.

Ancient Nutrition’s SBO Probiotics combine beneficial microbial strains with prebiotic compounds found naturally in organic seeds and mushrooms, which can help to support proper absorption and utilization of healthy microbes. Additionally, postbiotics including polysaccharides, enzymes and organic acids are added to maintain gut homeostasis.

Here are some key features of our different SBO probiotics formulas:

  • SBO Probiotics Ultimate — Features 50 billion shelf-stable CFUs of SBOs per serving, intended to help support healthy bowel transit time and digestive function, healthy immune system function and gut flora, normal nutrient absorption, and more.
  • SBO Probiotics Gut Restore — Provides a powerful combination of 25 billion SBOs plus prebiotics, postbiotics, organic licorice, marshmallow, zinc and magnesium to support overall healthy gut function, normal bowel transit time, and digestive health.
  • SBO Probiotics Women’s — Features a blend of 25 CFUs of SBOs per serving in combination with organic fermented blend of superfoods such as chasteberry and ashwagandha, formulated specifically to help support women’s health. A SBO Probiotics Women's Once Daily is also available.
  • SBO Probiotic Men’s — Supplies men with 25 CFUs of SBOs per serving, in combination with an organic fermented blend of ashwagandha, fenugreek, ginger and fo-ti root to help boost muscle mass, strength, serum testosterone levels and exercise recovery. A SBO Probiotics Men's Once Daily is also available. 

We recommend taking a high-quality probiotic supplement that also contains prebiotics and postbiotics on an empty stomach. Many people choose to take theirs first thing in the morning, about 30 to 60 minutes before eating.

However, you should always read and follow label directions for suggested use. Likewise, you should always consult your healthcare professional prior to starting any new dietary or lifestyle regimen, including dietary supplements.

Jill Levy has been with the Dr. Axe and Ancient Nutrition team for five years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Fairfield University, followed by a certification as a Holistic Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Jill takes a “non-diet” approach to health and really enjoys teaching others about mindful eating, intuitive eating and the benefits of eating real foods.