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Probiotics & Prebiotics: Improving Digestive Health

Updated January 25, 2019

Megan Jacobson

SDSU Extension Health Promotions Specialist BCBH

Written by Jessica Foster under the direction and review of Megan Olesen.

Our digestive health is very important to our overall health. Our digestive system is responsible for breaking down nutrients from the foods we consume to use for energy, growth, and cell repair (1). There has been evidence showing how prebiotics and probiotics work together to improve digestive health.

About Prebiotics & Probiotics

Probiotics are a type of “good” bacteria that are normally present in our intestines and help to maintain the natural balance of organisms in our intestines. Probiotics reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote an overall healthy digestive system by aiding in food digestion, destruction of disease-causing microorganisms, and production of vitamins. A probiotic would have a difficult time working effectively without prebiotics. Prebiotics, a non-digestible carbohydrate, are a form of food for the probiotics that assists their growth and function (2,3).

Health Benefits

More research needs to be done, but evidence has shown that probiotics can provide health benefits such as aiding in the treatment of diarrhea, intestinal infections, and irritable bowel syndrome. The use of antibiotics, used to treat and prevent bacterial infections, tend to kill the “good bacteria” present in our gut which leads to diarrhea, but probiotics have been shown to help in the treatment of diarrhea especially after antibiotic use (3). The side effects of probiotic use can vary from person to person (4). If thinking about using probiotics for the treatment of any condition, always consult your healthcare team first.

Food Sources

You have probably seen probiotics and prebiotics in the dietary supplement aisle at the store, but did you know you can find them naturally occurring in the foods you eat? Prebiotics are found in high-fiber foods. Foods that contain prebiotics include bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans, and whole-wheat foods. Foods that contain probiotics include yogurt, kefir products, aged cheese, kimchi (fermented Korean side dish made of vegetables, sauerkraut, miso (Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans), tempeh (soy product), and soy beverages (4). When picking out a yogurt at the grocery store look for “Live and Active Cultures” on the label. Since prebiotics and probiotics work together, try combing these foods in your diet such as adding bananas to your yogurt (4).

When picking out a supplements for probiotics, make sure the supplement has been tested on humans and shown to be effective (5). When looking at colony-forming units (CFUs) on the label, 50 million to 1 trillion CFUs per day have shown health benefits (5). Also it is important to look at the package information, such as serving size, health benefits, proper storage conditions, and an expiration date (5).

In Summary

Overall, if you are interested in including more probiotics and prebiotics in your diet, whole foods are the way to go. Since, not only do you increase your intake of prebiotics and probiotics but you also benefit from the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients included in the whole food.


Related Topics

Health, Nutrition