With the advent of probiotics and the focus that surrounded them as the research first appeared about their myriad of health benefits(1), prebiotics have been forgotten about and come to the fore again.

Specific probiotics (live bacteria) and their strains have been researched with over 8,000 results in Pubmed when searching for ‘probiotics’ and ‘health’, many of these results are promising at the least and nothing short of amazing at best. Probiotics have been shown (though not yet proven) to help benefit infections such as yeast infections, bacterial infections (not just in the gut but systemically also), mastitis, arthritis, brain function, pregnancy, cardiovascular and metabolic function & immunity by a variety of pathways (). The research is exciting and the applications can be made immediately due to their high safety profile, easy identification by strain and GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) status.

Prebiotics on the other hand aren’t specific bacteria, they are the food that bacteria eat. In college we were taught to always give a prebitoic with a probiotic to help feed them on the way through. This advice has been forgotten about in the health and supplement industry, but it is now making a come back as people start to see the amazing research on prebiotics and begin to ask the question – are prebiotics better than probiotics? Do I even need to use probiotics? Do probiotics stay in my gut after taking them? And so on.

New research has shown us that the answers aren’t as simple as they seem.  Probiotics CAN stay and reside in the gut but some of the time they do not. Much like a vitamin passes through the bloodstream and saturates the tissues on its way through, probiotics also do most of their work on the way through. This work is at the interface of the gut lining and reaches far into the body as the immune sytem re-balances on its axis and the by-products of probiotics (e.g butyrate) stimulate our innate immune system to behave & find some bloody balance! If we drink too much alcohol (it’s an antiseptic), eat not enough fibre, eat too much white flour & sugar and take antibiotics more often than needed, then strange things happen. Whereas the good guys usually get ignored by our immue system’s dendritic cells (that’s what makes them good) the bad guys (the ones we aren’t familiar with) get a stronghold and come in & kick out our good guys and take up residence instead! Sounds awful! They literally kick out the good guys!

Prebiotics such as inulin & pectin (found in apples) will feed these good guys and help get them strong again plus help build up their numbers – these bacterial families can then out-number the bad guys and call your gut lining home again.

Specific probiotics however can help those good guys until they get established again and help them fight the good fight. What we do know is that specific bacteria have specific functions (4) and this may correlate with what is missing or low in numbers within your gut. The reality is that some probiotics are better for some people, and at different times, than others. So the key is finding the right bacterial strains for you, in conjunction with your practitioner based on research. Once you try the right probiotic you will know when it helps a myriad of your gut problems and also some systemic ones as mentioned above, and maybe others too. So pay close attention, the research is still young.

Prebiotics are really just fibres – these fibres aren’t digested by us & our enzymes, they pass through us in the same way as gut bacteria do, and carry along gut bacteria with them for the ride (3). Prebiotic fibres are found in all plant absed matter like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains and legumes – anything plant based, so long as its not ‘refined’. As they feed and repopulate, they also soothe the gut before they get poo’d out down the toilet (and therefore into the garden if we lived in the wild) and the cycle continues. Gut bacteria are actually soil bacteria – evolved. Ew? Just get in the garden and eat from the garden & you will find that your gut flora (diversity) explodes with happiness. Eating raw, fresh vegetables & fruit also gives you raw bacteria from the environment, as does eating foods like yogurt, keffir, saurkraut, seaweed, vegetables, nuts & fruit which all have fibre in them. Yes fibre is the key to long term gut health (as is avoiding antibiotics unless you are dying!). Antibiotics kill off some species of bacteria & our microbiome is starved. This gives the bad guys an opportunity to thrive, especially if they are resistant to the antibiotic. So we lose diversity in the gut as a result. Prebiotic fibres, of which there are many different well researched types, are even more important today than ever(2).

So we can start to understand the ecology of your guts and come to realise that diversity of bacteria matters, so does diversity of foods and diversity of prebiotic fibres. To help establish a diverse gut, you need to feed them with a diverse array of foods to keep them happy. They are very demanding creatures. Hayfever, IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, mastitis, pregnancy, ADHD, autism, eczema, asthma, allregies, cardiovascular disease, obesity, liver function, immunity & arthritis all benefit from a balanced immunity which is essentially the key result of a balanced gut.

So the question is, which one is better?

The answer is both.

To learn more, read the wonderfully written book by Montgomery, D & Bikle, A called ‘The hidden half of nature’. It is in the Apothecary library if anyone wants to borrow it. Please ask Simone we have a $20 deposit scheme for all books, fully refunded when returned.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31632412  –  Bifidobacterial Dialogue With Its Human Host and Consequent Modulation of the Immune System.    Front Immunol. 2019 Oct 1;10:2348. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.02348.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28165863   –  Dietary fiber and prebiotics and the gastrointestinal microbiota.  Gut Microbes. 2017 Mar 4;8(2):172-184. doi: 10.1080/19490976.2017.1290756.
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26657927   –  Probiotics in digestive diseases: focus on Lactobacillus GG.  Minerva Gastroenterol Dietol. 2015 Dec;61(4):273-92.
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705355/ – Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits. Nutrients. 2013 Apr; 5(4): 1417–1435.
Simone Reddington is the founder of the Apothecary, a Medical Herbalist and thinker. She holds a degree in Psychology and is a professional member of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists.