Probiotics vs. Prebiotics. vs. Synbiotics: Differences and Benefits

Jun 6, 2022 3:03:07 PM

Written By:
DaVinci Healthcare Expert


Everyone has heard of probiotics, but prebiotics and synbiotics are equally important for optimal health.

Simply put: probiotics are microorganisms in the gut that play a significant role in digestion, immune health, cognitive health, mood, and more. Prebiotics are substances in fiber that feed probiotics, and synbiotics are a combination of prebiotics and probiotics.

All can come in food or supplement form and should be part of your daily diet or supplement regimen.

what are probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that occur naturally in the gut and play many vital roles in maintaining homeostasis and overall health. They are available in whole-food form and as supplements.

The digestive tract is teeming with trillions of diverse bacteria, some more beneficial than others. Due to multiple realities of modern-day living, this bacterial balance is prone to damage and can lead to an array of health issues and discomforts.

It’s common to hear the terms “good” and “bad” bacteria, which can be confusing. More accurately, some of those trillions of gut bacteria are critical to good health, while others are pathogenic and potentially damaging to health. A skewed balance of “good” versus “bad” bacteria can impact bodily processes such as detoxification, immune response, and hormonal balance.

While probiotic supplements might be beneficial to support your body on a more therapeutic level, naturally fermented foods have been used in cultures throughout history for their impressive health benefits.

Want to learn more about healthy skin, hair, and nails? Click food sources of probiotics:

  • Raw sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha tea
  • Kefir
  • Miso
  • Nato
  • Plain yogurt

what are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates naturally present in many high-fiber foods. Like other types of fiber, they pass through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract without being digested, then move on to the small intestines, where they are fermented in the colon by gut bacteria. You can think of prebiotics as food for the good bacteria (probiotics) living in your gut.

One of the better-known prebiotics is a compound called an oligosaccharide, which comes in several forms. Other prebiotics include inulin and oligofructose. Again, just like dietary fiber, prebiotics are naturally occurring and can be included in your daily diet.

best food sources of prebiotics:

  • Garlic
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Green bananas
  • Green plantains

Understanding prebiotics vs. probiotics is actually pretty simple, as they need each other and function synergistically to support the gut. Probiotics and prebiotics work hand in hand to maintain a healthy microbiome, which plays a crucial role in overall health. Getting plenty of probiotics replenishes the gut with beneficial bacteria; since prebiotics are the food those bacteria feed on, it’s important to make sure you eat enough to sustain the good bacteria in your gut.

what are synbiotics?

The term “synbiotics” refers to supplements that contain a blend of both probiotics and prebiotics, and they are a relatively new concept. The idea was introduced in research from 1995, which identified synergistic or complementary synbiotics. Complementary contain both pre- and probiotics chosen independently for their overall positive impact on health. In contrast, synergic synbiotics typically choose certain prebiotics to complement the specific probiotics in a supplement.[1]

As we continue to better understand the foundational relationship between pre- and probiotics, synbiotic products can both increase the gut’s beneficial bacteria and the fuel they need to thrive.

Because synbiotics offer this complete package, studies show promising health results, such as significant improvement in digestive health, immune function, mental and emotional wellbeing, weight management, heart health, improved lipid profile, and a normal inflammatory response.[2][3]

how to choose between supplements

As with all supplements, there are several factors to consider with gut-supporting probiotics, prebiotics, or synbiotics.*

First and foremost, for daily maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome, eating a variety of prebiotic and probiotic foods is optimal. Make a stir-fry of foods containing both, a miso soup with prebiotic-containing vegetables, or overnight oats prepared with kefir and fruit.

Probiotic, prebiotic, and synbiotic supplements provide a higher dose. They might be necessary for some instances when health concerns are being addressed with your provider for either a short or long-term duration. Most practitioners will recommend a synbiotic with a high CFU probiotic count and a good probiotic strain diversity.

Certain strains might be more effective than others, depending on why you are taking probiotics or synbiotics. For example, the probiotic Lactobacillus gasseri strain could support a healthy metabolism and weight management.[4]* Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains have shown promise in supporting concentration, memory, anxiousness, and other mental and emotional health issues.[5]*

As with all supplements, finding a high-quality product from a trusted and reputable brand is critical to your health and safety.

related content: the four best supplements for gut health

are there risks of taking probiotics, prebiotics, or synbiotics?

While generally considered safe, it’s always wise to speak with your integrative provider before starting a new supplement. With all three, some people experience digestive upset or discomfort at first, so starting with 1/4-1/2 of the recommended dose can help your body adjust. Drinking plenty of water is also crucial, especially when increasing your intake of high-fiber prebiotics that absorb water in the colon. This can slow digestion and contribute to hard and infrequent stools if you’re not adequately hydrating.

wrap-up: integrative gut health

Along with a balanced diet consisting mainly of whole foods, consuming foods and supplements that provide prebiotics and probiotics is essential to gut and overall health.* Synbiotics contain both in supplement form, but you can also create your own synbiotics by eating a wide variety of pre and probiotic foods.

**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

gut and brain health

[1] Gibson GR, Roberfroid MB. Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr. 1995 Jun;125(6):1401-12. doi: 10.1093/jn/125.6.1401. PMID: 7782892.

[2] Pandey, K. R., Naik, S. R., & Vakil, B. V. (2015). Probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics- a review. Journal of food science and technology, 52(12), 7577–7587.

[3] Tajabadi-Ebrahimi M, Sharifi N, Farrokhian A, Raygan F, Karamali F, Razzaghi R, Taheri S, Asemi Z. A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial Investigating the Effect of Synbiotic Administration . . .. Exp Clin Endocrinol Diabetes. 2017 Jan;125(1):21-27. doi: 10.1055/s-0042-105441. Epub 2016 May 24. PMID: 27219886

[4] Kadooka Y, Sato M, Ogawa A, Miyoshi M, Uenishi H, Ogawa H, Ikuyama K, Kagoshima M, Tsuchida T. Effect of Lactobacillus gasseri SBT2055 in fermented milk on abdominal adiposity in adults in a randomised controlled trial. Br J Nutr. 2013 Nov 14;110(9):1696-703. doi: 10.1017/S0007114513001037. Epub 2013 Apr 25. PMID: 23614897.

[5] Wang H, Lee IS, Braun C, Enck P. Effect of Probiotics on Central Nervous System Functions in Animals and Humans: A Systematic Review. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2016 Oct 30;22(4):589-605. doi: 10.5056/jnm16018. PMID: 27413138; PMCID: PMC5056568.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.