Probiotics, Prebiotics & Synbiotics: Why You Need Them For A Healthy Gut

Integrative Gastroenterologist By Marvin Singh, M.D.
Integrative Gastroenterologist
Dr. Marvin Singh is an Integrative Gastroenterologist in San Diego, California. He is trained and board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology/Hepatology.
Probiotics, Prebiotics & Synbiotics: Why You Need Them For A Healthy Gut

Photo by Cameron Whitman / Stocksy

These days it seems like there's a lot of hype about the gut microbiome and gut health. There are so many different products out there, it could make your head spin. For example, there are prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics. Seems like everything is a "biotic," doesn't it? And do you really need all three for optimal gut health?

If the science of the microbiome feels confusing or overwhelming to you, don't worry, you're definitely not alone! I'm going to make your life a lot easier and break it down so you can understand prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics and how you can benefit from them.

What's a prebiotic fiber?

Prebiotics are largely nondigestible fibers that provide nourishment for beneficial bacteria. Think of prebiotics as fertilizer for the good guys. Some examples of prebiotics include FOS and inulin. FOS refers to fructooligosaccharides; these are low-calorie, nondigestible carbohydrates, and they occur naturally in certain plants like onion, chicory, garlic, asparagus, banana, artichoke, and many others. They have important beneficial effects like low carcinogenicity, improved mineral absorption, and lower cholesterol levels. Inulins are a group of natural polysaccharides that are made by many kinds of plants and belong to a class of dietary fibers called fructans. Often, inulin is derived from chicory root. One of the most famous prebiotics comes from human milk oligosaccharides, a key component of human breast milk, as it has been shown to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in our gut microbiome such as Bifidobacterium.

Here is a list of some prebiotic foods that are easy to incorporate into your diet to help feed your beneficial good bugs:

  • Acacia gum (gum Arabic)
  • Raw asparagus
  • Raw jicama
  • Green bananas
  • Raw Jerusalem artichoke (sunroot)
  • Raw dandelion greens
  • Raw garlic
  • Raw/cooked onion
  • Raw leek
  • Raw chicory root

What are probiotic bacteria?

Probiotics are supplements of beneficial microbes that can improve the microbial balance and can help to maintain good gut health. In other words, these are live organisms that, when administered in adequate amounts like in a supplement capsule filled with tens of billions of live bacteria, can bring a health benefit to the host. However, probiotics do not have to just be pills or supplements that you take. Some foods can be probiotics. Here is a list of my favorite probiotic foods, they are easy to find and full of beneficial bacteria:

  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Kvass
  • Sauerkraut
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Natto
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir
  • Pickles (make sure they are really fermented pickles)
  • Kombucha

Specific probiotics can provide benefit in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Some also use probiotics in the setting of Clostridium difficile–associated diarrhea and respiratory tract infections. Generally speaking, however, many use probiotics for general good health, like a supplement or vitamin for the gut microbiome.

I often remember to tell patients that just because you take a probiotic doesn't give you an excuse to eat fast and packaged or processed foods. The right ingredients (prebiotics) must be present in your diet in order for the probiotics (good microbes) to be able to flourish and thrive. Some of the popular probiotics include organisms like Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus reuteri, Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bacillus coagulans, Escherichia coli strain Nissle 1917, Enterococcus faecium SF68, and the yeast Saccharomyces boulardi. Clearly there are a lot of options! If you need some help, here's how to choose the right probiotic.


What's a synbiotic?

The word "synbiotic" refers to the combination of probiotics and prebiotics and how they work together, in synergy, to improve health. Some recent research suggests that combining particular synbiotics could exert weight-reduction and anti-inflammatory effects. Perhaps this is because it effects short-chain fatty-acid production and improves the metabolomic output of the gut microbiome. It is also felt that when prebiotics are added to the probiotics, there is improved viability of the probiotic. This basically means that if you combine probiotics with prebiotic "food," for those probiotics, it might possibly be more likely to survive and plant its flag in your gut. In other words, you should always be eating prebiotic fiber-rich foods along with your probiotics.

So, if you are looking for a way to help give your gut microbiome a boost, particularly in the setting of certain kinds of infections and IBS, you might want to consider a probiotic. Generally speaking, my favorite probiotics are the ones found in fermented foods. Not only do you get the beneficial affects of the microbes that come with the foods, but you also get the benefits of the foods themselves, including the vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients.

If you eat a well-balanced diet that is rich in prebiotic foods, probiotic foods, and other gut-healing, microbiome-balancing herbs, spices, teas, and foods, you will be well on your way to being one step ahead of the game. This synbiotic style of eating will help keep your gut microbiome diversity and richness scales more ideal. Your whole body will benefit from it!

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