Probiotics Or Prebiotics? An Expert Answers This Common Question Once And For All

Originally Published: 
ViDI Studio/Shutterstock

Keeping up with the wellness world can be exhausting. It seems like there's always a new supplement you should be taking, food you should be eating, workout you should be trying, and super-powered powder to add to your morning smoothie. And because there's so much information out there, a lot of questions get raised. For example, a few years ago, probiotics were all the rage. Then more recently, prebiotics became the new health buzzword. That said, it's not surprising that many people started wondering, "Should I take probiotics or prebiotics?" Unfortunately, the answer isn't exactly cut and dry.

First, it might help to examine the differences between these two, with the help of an expert, of course. "Probiotics are live microrganisms [gut bacteria] that provide health benefits when ingested, and prebiotics are carbohydrates (mostly fibers) that our bodies cannot digest but the gut bacteria can, so they act as food to keep the probiotics thriving," explains Marissa Meshulam, nutritionist and founder of MPM Nutrition. "I think about it like the prebiotics are fertilizer for our gut flora, keeping the good bacteria (aka the probiotics) alive and flourishing."

By Meshulam's definition, it would seem like the ideal usage of these two supplements is in combination with one another, but that doesn't mean that everyone is a great candidate for both. In fact, the nutritionist explains that because probiotic usage is so individualized, chatting with your doctor or healthcare professional is the best way to figure out which one will benefit you most.


However, she does say that categorically, one especially good candidate for taking probiotics is someone who has to go on an antibiotic. "Taking a probiotic during and after antibiotic use can be a good way to replenish your gut flora," she explains. Not only that, but research has shown that probiotics can also be beneficial for mental health disorders and heart health as well as your gut health. As for who might not want to pop a probiotic? Meshulam says anyone with a weakened immune system or serious GI problems might want to skip it, as adding bacteria could cause further problems.

According to research from Columbia University Medical Center, prebiotics aren't safe to use for everyone, either. Specifically, anyone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome should probably avoid them due to the fact that they can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation for those who are more sensitive. They also may be more problematic to those who suffer from Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth or FODMAPs intolerance. If you don't have any of these issues, you may consider trying a prebiotic to help increase the absorption of certain minerals, reduce the occurrence of harmful bacteria, and help you feel more more full and satiated.

Another key takeaway? You can get the benefits of both pre and probiotics through diet — as in, you don't necessarily need to purchase supplements. "Foods that are fermented are high in probiotics: Plain greek yogurt, kimchi, and tempeh are my favorites," says Meshulam. "Prebiotics are found [in] onion, banana, garlic, and asparagus. For most folks, incorporating a variety of plant-based foods will ensure you are getting plenty of prebiotics." Yet, another reason to consider revamping your diet.

This article was originally published on