Over the last few years, gut health has become a buzzworthy topic. And with good reason – a healthy gut plays a huge role in your overall physical and even mental well-being, often in unexpected ways.

A big part of all this buzz has been around prebiotics and probiotics – what they are, how they work, and what foods to eat or supplements you should take.

Here’s what you need to know about prebiotics and probiotics, including what makes them different, how they affect your gut health, supplements and more.

The importance of good gut health

What is the gut? Although many may think of the stomach, your “gut” refers to your small and large intestines. Within your gut lives a whole community of microorganisms, like bacteria, fungi and viruses – this is called the microbiome.

When your gut is healthy, you have more good bacteria than harmful bacteria in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. And this is important, because a healthy gut can help you digest food, metabolize nutrients and reduce inflammation. Studies also suggest that a healthy gut may positively affect heart health, mental health and kidney function. However, a lot of research is still underway.

So, what can you do to make sure you have enough healthy bacteria in your gut? Talking to your doctor is a great first step. But generally speaking, this is where probiotics and prebiotics can help.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live strains of bacteria and yeast. When ingested, either through food or as a supplement, probiotics add to the population of healthy microbes in your gut.

Probiotic foods

Many fermented foods naturally contain probiotics or are known for having probiotics added to them. Probiotics contain live cultures – living microorganisms that contribute healthy bacteria to your gut. Common probiotic foods include:

  • Yogurt
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kefir
  • Pickles
  • Tempeh

What are prebiotics?

A prebiotic is a type of dietary fiber, often plant-based, that feeds the healthy bacteria, or probiotics, in your gut. It’s usually created from a type of carbohydrate that your body itself can’t digest. Prebiotics can travel to your lower intestines where they become food for those good bacteria in your gut, helping them to grow.

Prebiotic foods

Prebiotics can be found in dietary supplements and select high-fiber foods, including:

  • Garlic
  • Chicory root
  • Onions
  • Bananas
  • Dandelion greens
  • Asparagus

While both prebiotics and probiotics are generally good for your digestive health, what they actually do to help the bacteria in your gut differs. Think of it this way – prebiotics help good bacteria to grow, while probiotics add more healthy bacteria to your microbiome.

Possible gut health benefits from prebiotics and probiotics

Research suggests that reinforcing good bacteria in the gut microbiome can help strengthen your immune system and ease symptoms of anxiety or depression. It also promotes a strong gut barrier, which is the mucus layer in your gastrointestinal tract that protects you from toxins.

However, many studies are still looking into whether prebiotics and probiotics can improve specific GI conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux. But generally speaking, experts agree that probiotics and prebiotics can help promote better gut health.

Benefits of probiotics

Probiotics introduce new healthy bacteria to your gut, which may lead to some of the following benefits:

  • Better digestion
  • Improved medication absorption
  • Increased vitamin and mineral production
  • Stopping bad bacteria from causing illness
  • Increased balance between good and bad bacteria, reducing inflammation

Potential side effects of probiotics

Typically, probiotics are generally considered safe by most health professionals when consumed in the right moderation. However, with probiotics, it’s possible to have an allergic reaction to the live bacteria being introduced into your body. This can result in hives, stomach pain, trouble breathing and more.

Also, probiotics may not be right for those with compromised immune systems for similar reasons – introducing that new bacteria into your body might increase your chances of getting sick.

Benefits of prebiotics

When prebiotics help boost bacterial growth, it can lead to a host of very specific health and wellness benefits. Prebiotics can:

  • Help with calcium absorption
  • Keep the cells in your gut lining healthy
  • Decrease rates of constipation

Are prebiotic- and probiotic-rich foods or supplements better?

Typically, the best way to get key nutrients, including probiotics and prebiotics, is through food. This is a big reason why you’ve likely heard that a balanced diet featuring a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins is important for your overall health.

However, if you have an underlying condition or another obstacle to getting probiotics and prebiotics through food, supplements could be an option. Keep in mind that supplements are not strongly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. So it’s important to carefully consider your options, especially if supplement brands make a lot of health and wellness claims.

But before you overhaul your diet or start a supplement, it’s a good idea to talk with your primary care doctor first. They can work with you to understand your health goals, diagnose and create a treatment plan for any underlying conditions, and more.

Can you take prebiotics and probiotics supplements together?

Yes, you can take prebiotics and probiotics together. This way, you can add new microbes to your gut with a probiotic while encouraging these microbes to grow and flourish with a prebiotic.

Remember to talk with your doctor before making any permanent changes to your diet or supplement routine.

Other ways to improve gut health

Your gut is a complex habitat for over 1,000 different species of bacteria. What’s important is keeping all these microbes balanced, so you have more healthy ones than harmful ones.

While prebiotics and probiotics could be a good way for you to maintain your gut health, there are other ways you can promote a balanced microbiome:

  • Maintain a fiber-rich, diverse diet. The more types of food you eat, the more diverse your microbiome becomes. A well-rounded diet can help feed all the different species of bacteria in your GI tract. Focus on high-fiber fruits and vegetables, like raspberries, artichokes, beans, lentils and whole, unprocessed grains.
  • Get good, regular sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, your stress levels are more likely to increase. And often, this stress can impact your gut, changing the makeup of your microbiome. Once that bacterium is compromised, it can start to impact your quality of sleep and even your brain function. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night and establish a regular bedtime routine.
  • Exercise consistently. Studies suggest that regular exercise can positively affect gut health. Regular physical activity encourages healthy digestion and may increase levels of beneficial microbes in your gut, which can boost both your metabolism as well as your immune system. If you’re not someone who frequently exercises, don’t worry – you can start small. Just 30 minutes of light activity like walking or water aerobics a few times a week can make all the difference.
  • Manage your stress levels. As mentioned before, stress can wreak havoc on your gut. In fact, we often say that the gut has its own brain. Many of the microbes in your intestines can impact brain function and increase your likelihood of experiencing anxiety, depression and sleep issues. When you’re too stressed, you put the healthy bacteria in your gut at risk, threatening the balance of your microbiome. Luckily, there are many things you can do to help manage stress levels.

See your doctor for more information on better gut health

Do you have questions about digestive health? Schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor, who can advise you on prebiotics and probiotics, take a look at any concerns, suggest treatment options or refer you to a digestive health specialist if needed.