What's the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

There has been a growing amount of interest lately in the subject of gut bacteria helpers like probiotics.

There has always been a use for probiotics in the health and pharmaceutical world, but only in recent years has it become a word recognized on the shelves of drug stores and mentioned during doctor visits.

On the subject, the most common question I am asked is “What are probiotics?” and “What are prebiotics?”. Both are excellent questions, and both have very different answers.

No, prebiotics and probiotics are not the same thing. Very different actually. But both are now necessary for your optimal gut and digestive health. We will explain below why now more than ever they are needed in your body.

Today we will define and explain the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, and how the human body benefits from both of these organisms.

Probiotics: what are they and where can i find them?

In short, probiotics are positive bacteria strains that benefit your body when they are present in your system.

Probiotics broke onto the scene back in the late 2000’s. Thought to be a passing health fad, like hot-yoga or soul cycling classes, probiotics were seen by many as a very optional health additive. After people started going out of their way to get more probiotics into their bodies however, the public learned that there were a great number of benefits. What’s interesting, however, is that probiotics are nothing new to the human body.

A single probiotic capsule (as in supplement) can have as many as 25 billion bacterium or as little as 5 million, and works in your body to kill off any unwanted bacteria strains and invaders that it comes in contact with. Probiotics help provide a precise ratio of good bacteria and bad bacteria that all work to rebalance your gut and digestive tract.

In short, what probiotics do in the body is break down food, hunt for invaders and kill off unwelcomed germs and bacteria. This can lead to boosted immunity, smoother digestion, and ease gastrointestinal issues.

They can also reduce the occurrence and frequency of urinary tract infections.

The appendix as a natural probiotic producer

As we mentioned above, probiotics are not “new” to the human body.

The ever mysterious organ we know as the appendix has been found to be a natural producer of probiotics, for those of us who haven't had ours removed yet.

The leading theory as to what the appendix was/is used for in the body is that when the body is in dire need of positive bacteria strains, the appendix would be called upon to expel and distribute large amounts of bacteria that it keeps stockpiled.

While this little pocket of dormant bacteria may be helpful, the average appendix was not designed to produce enough natural probiotics to combat the demands and interactions that come from the Western Diet we all have made into the norm. This overload of heavily processed foods and very little natural and fibrous foods is one of the reasons that lead to the appendix becoming “useless” in the body.

Where Can I find natural probiotics?

You can get your hands on natural probiotics by eating foods that use active bacteria to reach it’s edible stage. These would be foods such as (but not limited to): sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, pickled foods, apple cider vinegar and raw soft cheeses.

I know what you may be thinking..."doesn't beer use active bacteria to ferment and brew?" So does that mean that beer contains probiotics? The answer to that question is no. Beer does not contain probiotics, as it uses only a very specific strain of bacteria to ferment the yeast.

Nice try, though.

Prebiotics: what are they and where can i find them?

So if probiotics are beneficial bacteria strains, what are prebiotics?

Prebiotics, in short, are the foods that directly feed the probiotic bacteria so that they can better do their jobs. They act as a kind of fertilizer for the probiotics to grow and thrive within.

Prebiotics can naturally be found in very fibrous foods such as asparagus, garlic and onions, leeks, bananas, and chicory. Foods that the body cannot naturally break down with ease are what prebiotic bacteria crave, and when you boost the health of the bacteria within you, it allows them to perform their jobs that much more efficiently.

So, how do probiotics/prebiotics work to deliver bacteria into the body?

Probiotics are bacterial cells that are frozen or petrified in place, that when introduced into a warm and wet environment, reanimate and go about their business.

What makes taking probiotics difficult is that the bacteria have to survive the journey all the way from your mouth to your small intestine (a trip longer than you think). This is why staggeringly high CFU counts are not considered harmful --because not every single one of those bacteria are going to make it to their destination.

When handling probiotic supplements, it is best not to handle the capsules until you are ready to ingest them:

As they are in a very volatile state, anything from the oils on your fingers to a drop of water landing in the container can reactivate the bacteria strains and cause them to die off before they can perform any helpful tasks.

Do CFU’s matter?

The average body has around 100 trillion bacteria living within the body at any given time. This is why the high CFU counts on supplements all tend to be so high to begin with.

CFU stands for “Colony Forming Units”. On probiotic supplement bottles, you will more than likely see a label declaring the CFU count of each tablet or capsule, with numbers ranging anywhere from 1 billion (or below) up to 50 billion (or above).

While it may certainly be impressive to see a probiotic capsule bearing over 100 billion CFU’s, it is nothing more than a higher number raised to convince you to pay a higher price tag.

Unless under a doctors orders to take a high amount of probiotics because your body is depleted of positive bacteria from taking something like antibiotics, there is no need to try and take probiotics with a CFU higher than the low-to-mid billions.


Looking to get your gut flora back on track after a living off of a gut-harming diet? A supplement may be best for redirecting and moving your body back onto the right track.

Works Cited:
"Probiotics: In Depth." NCCIH. N. p., 2011. Web. 2 Jan. 2018.
Bollinger, R.. Barbas, A., et al. "Biofilms In The Large Bowel Suggest An Apparent Function Of The Human Vermiform Appendix”". Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2007.
Pollan, M. "Say Hello To The 100 Trillion Bacteria That Make Up Your Microbiome." Nytimes.com. 2017.
Rodgers, B, Kirley K., and Mounsey, A.. “Prescribing an Antibiotic? Pair It with Probiotics.” The Journal of Family Practice. 2013.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with questions regarding a medical condition. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read here. This article is for general information only.

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