Probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics – what’s the difference?

When it comes to our gut health, there are few words that attract as much buzz as prebiotics andprobiotics. And there’s good reason for that. But have you also heard of postbiotics?

All of them (pre, pro and postbiotics) have a crucial role in keeping us healthy by helping to maintain a balance of bacteria in the gut. You may have heard it referred to as “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria”.  A lack of good bacteria can be a result of a number of factors, including illness, poor diet and medication.

A balance of bacteria is key to a healthy gut microbiome, and overall good health. Evidence shows that this balance comes from eating a diversity of plants. From the moment we are born, our gut microbiome is at work, affecting digestion, the immune system, the central nervous system and other bodily processes.

There are ways to maintain this balance. Yes, you guessed it: through prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics. Yet, while they work together, they also work in very different ways.

Spot the difference

Probiotics have been all the rage for years. They are living bacteria that have beneficial qualities to us as humans.  Prebiotics induce the growth of the probiotics.  They are food for the good bugs.  Postbiotics are the healthy compounds produced by bacterial metabolism.

Prebiotics = food for healthy gut microbes

Probiotics = microbes with beneficial qualities

Postbiotics = compounds produced by gut microbes

Prebiotics + probiotics = postbiotics

Prebiotics are a type of fibre that the human body is unable to digest. They act as food for probiotics and, in turn, support a healthy gut through improved digestive health. Prebiotics are found in many fruits and vegetables, especially those that contain complex carbohydrates. Since these carbs cannot be digested, they become food for the bacteria and other microbes. The list of prebiotic foods is long and includes apples, bananas, onions, garlic,  leeks, leafy greens, kale, and oats.  Fibre isn’t the only prebiotic though.  Resistant starch (found in foods like oats, rice, potatoes, and legume) is technically not fibre but it behaves in a very similar way to soluble fibre.  It passes through the small intestine unblemished and is fermented by our colon microbes. 

Probiotics, on the other hand, contain live organisms that directly join the population of healthy microbes in your gut. Probiotics occur in many fermented foods, including yoghurt, kimchi, and kombucha.

Health benefits

Various studies have shown that prebiotics and probiotics have a multitude of other health benefits.

Let’s start with prebiotics. Prebiotic intake can:

  • Help prevent and treat diarrhoea, whether infectious or associated with antibiotic use;
  • Improve mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression;
  • Reduce the severity of allergies;
  • Promote satiety and weight loss;
  • Promote a healthy heart by lowering LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ cholesterol) and blood pressure; and
  • Address symptoms of some digestive disorders, such a Crohn’s disease.

As for probiotics, there are similarities. For example, just like prebiotics, probiotics have been shown to help prevent and treat diarrhoea; promote satiety; and improve heart health. They can also:

Every day I tell my clients that gut health is the key to living well – and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply eating a wide range of plant foods (colourful foods that make up a rainbow) and including diversity (in both prebiotics and probiotics) in our diet will help improve our energy levels and overall health.

To learn more about probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics, watch my Instagram live with Microbiologist, Kiran Krishnan here. And don’t forget to join our ‘Feel Fabulous by Friday’ program here.