Probiotics & Prebiotics – What’s the Difference?


Probiotics and prebiotics have been the center of discussion for years now when we talk about a healthy digestive system. But before you jump onto the bandwagon of including probiotics or prebiotics into your regime, read on to learn more about the different roles of these two.

Having a healthy gut not only ensures a healthy digestive system but impacts physical and mental health, as many important health functions occur in the gut. The complex community of bacteria in the gut manufactures vitamins and produces short chain fatty acids which strengthen the immune system.

One key indicator of having a healthy gut is through having the right balance of good and bad bacteria. This balance is easily disturbed as the gut is highly sensitive to our lifestyle habits such as chronic stress, poor diet, long term medication usage, tobacco and alcohol consumption.

This is where probiotics and prebiotics come in handy.

1.     Probiotics

Probiotics refer to the group of “good” bacteria that provide health benefits when ingested. The most common probiotic bacteria that have been widely studied are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

Source of Probiotics

  • Fermented foods such as yogurt, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut.
  • Supplement form


Different probiotics have been found to address different health conditions, which is why most supplements combine a few species in a product. At the same time, it is essential to select the right probiotic that addresses your health concern.

  • Studies have found the beneficial effects of probiotics including:
  • Alleviating digestive disorders including bloating, constipation, diarrhea and gas
  • Reducing inflammation – the hallmark of diseases
  • Enhance immune function to protect against infections
  • Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Aid in weight management


2.     Prebiotics

On the other hand, prebiotics refer to a group of carbohydrates that the human body cannot digest. However, these non-digestible carbohydrates serve as a food source for the gut’s healthy bacteria. Prebiotics selectively stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the gut, especially the Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria group, which in turn provide the health benefits associated with these bacteria.

Source of Prebiotics

  • Fruits, vegetables and whole grains such as apples, bananas, berries, legumes, peas, flaxseed, green vegetables. 
  • Added to food products especially baby formula and yogurt. These are usually labelled as “fortified with galactooligosaccharides, fructooligosaccharides, oligofructose, chicory fiber, or inulin”. 
  • Supplement form


There are plenty of ongoing research to understand the full effects of prebiotics on gut health. Prebiotics have been shown to:

  • Support growth of probiotics
  • Improve calcium absorption
  • Fermented by gut bacteria to product short-chain fatty acids, which improves gut integrity and prevents Leaky Gut syndrome, which leads to inflammation in the body.

In summary, probiotics themselves are the “good” live bacteria, while prebiotics are the foods for these bacteria. Hence, introducing probiotics and prebiotics can help ensure that you have the right balance of microflora in the gut for optimal health.

To introduce probiotics and prebiotics, practise a balanced diet that is abundant with a variety of high fiber fruits and vegetables. Fermented foods are a great option as well. At the same time, limit foods that are high in sugar and are processed, as these stimulate growth of bad bacteria in the gut, which ultimately affects the balance, regardless of how much probiotics you’re taking,

For supplements, select a supplement that contains both probiotics and prebiotics. However, it is best to speak to your healthcare provider to guide you in selecting the right supplement that addresses your needs as not all probiotics work the same way, and certain forms may not be suitable for those who are lactose intolerant or with yeast (Candida) overgrowth.




1.      Bischoff, S. C. (2011). 'Gut health': a new objective in medicine? BMC medicine9(1), 1-14.

2.      Quigley, E. M. (2013). Gut bacteria in health and disease. Gastroenterology & hepatology9(9), 560.

3.      Whisner, C. M., & Castillo, L. F. (2018). Prebiotics, bone and mineral metabolism. Calcified Tissue International102(4), 443-479.

4.      Slavin, J. (2013). Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients5(4), 1417-1435.

5.      Esgalhado, M., Kemp, J. A., Damasceno, N. R., Fouque, D., & Mafra, D. (2017). Short-chain fatty acids: A link between prebiotics and microbiota in chronic kidney disease. Future microbiology12(15), 1413-1425.



By Nutritionist 

Anna Hoo Clinic