What Are Prebiotics and How Can They Benefit Your Health?

What Are Prebiotics and How Can They Benefit Your Health?

What Are Prebiotics and How Can They Benefit Your Health?

People often hear about probiotics - live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your digestive system. However, prebiotics are less commonly known, even though they play an important role in gut health. In this article, we will explore what prebiotics are, how they work, and how they can benefit your health.

Understanding Prebiotics

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates, mainly fibers, that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are not bacteria in themselves; instead, they act as food for the good bacteria that occur naturally in our digestive system.

Definition of Prebiotics

Prebiotics were first defined in 1995 as "nondigestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, which can improve the host's health" [1].

Prebiotics are essential for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. They are a type of dietary fiber that passes through the digestive system undigested and reaches the colon intact. Once in the colon, they are fermented by the gut bacteria, producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that provide energy for the colon cells and help maintain a healthy gut environment [4].

How Prebiotics Differ from Probiotics

While both prebiotics and probiotics are important for gut health, they have different functions. Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when consumed in adequate amounts, can confer a health benefit on the host [2]. They are found in certain fermented foods (such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut) as well as in supplements. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are found in certain foods (such as garlic, onions, bananas, and asparagus) and promote the growth of good gut bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli [3].

Prebiotics and probiotics work together to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Prebiotics provide the food and environment necessary for the probiotics to thrive and exert their health benefits. Therefore, it is important to consume both prebiotics and probiotics regularly to maintain a healthy gut.

Common Sources of Prebiotics

Prebiotics occur naturally in many types of food, including:

  • Chicory roots
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Banana
  • Barley

It is important to consume a variety of prebiotic-rich foods to ensure a diverse gut microbiome. Some manufactured foods are enriched with prebiotics, such as some types of yogurt, bread, and cereal. However, it is important to read labels carefully and choose products that contain natural sources of prebiotics rather than synthetic ones.

In addition to promoting gut health, prebiotics have been shown to have other health benefits, such as improving calcium absorption, enhancing immune function, and reducing inflammation [5]. Therefore, incorporating prebiotic-rich foods into your diet can have a positive impact on your overall health.


Prebiotics are an essential component of a healthy diet. By promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, they help maintain a healthy gut microbiome and provide numerous health benefits. Consuming a variety of prebiotic-rich foods, such as garlic, onions, and bananas, can help ensure a diverse gut microbiome and promote overall health.


  1. Gibson GR, Roberfroid MB. Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr. 1995 Jun;125(6):1401-12.
  2. FAO/WHO. Health and nutritional properties of probiotics in food including powder milk with live lactic acid bacteria. Córdoba, Argentina: FAO/WHO; 2001.
  3. Slavin J. Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients. 2013 Apr 22;5(4):1417-35.
  4. den Besten G, van Eunen K, Groen AK, Venema K, Reijngoud DJ, Bakker BM. The role of short-chain fatty acids in the interplay between diet, gut microbiota, and host energy metabolism. J Lipid Res. 2013 Sep;54(9):2325-40.
  5. Roberfroid M, Gibson GR, Hoyles L, McCartney AL, Rastall R, Rowland I, et al. Prebiotic effects: metabolic and health benefits. Br J Nutr. 2010 Aug;104 Suppl 2:S1-63.

The Role of Prebiotics in Gut Health

Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. They contribute to gut health in several ways:

Supporting the Growth of Beneficial Bacteria

The gut is home to trillions of bacteria, with hundreds of different species represented [4]. Some of these bacteria are considered good, while others can cause problems if they overgrow. By feeding the beneficial bacteria, prebiotics help keep the gut microbiome in balance [5]. This is important because a balanced microbiome is associated with better overall health, including a stronger immune system and better mental health [8].

Maintaining a Balanced Gut Microbiome

Along with probiotics, prebiotics contribute to a diversified and balanced microbiome. This has numerous benefits, such as improved digestion, reduced inflammation in the gut, and protection against intestinal infections [6]. In fact, studies have shown that prebiotics can reduce the risk of infectious diarrhea and other gut infections [9].

Enhancing Digestive Function

Prebiotics are known to improve digestive function by increasing bowel movement frequency and decreasing transit time in the gut [7]. This can assist with regularity and help alleviate symptoms of constipation. Additionally, prebiotics can help with the absorption of important nutrients, such as calcium and magnesium [10].

It's important to note that prebiotics are found in many different foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Some of the best sources of prebiotics include bananas, onions, garlic, asparagus, and chicory root [11]. By incorporating these foods into your diet, you can help support a healthy gut microbiome and improve your overall health.

In conclusion, prebiotics play an important role in gut health by supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria, maintaining a balanced microbiome, and enhancing digestive function. By incorporating prebiotic-rich foods into your diet, you can help promote a healthy gut and improve your overall well-being.

Health Benefits of Prebiotics

Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut. While probiotics are live bacteria that we consume, prebiotics serve as food for these bacteria. By promoting the growth of good bacteria in the gut, prebiotics can have a number of health benefits.

Improved Immune Function

The gut plays a key role in immune system function. By supporting a healthy gut microbiome, prebiotics can enhance the body's natural defenses against harmful pathogens. Research suggests that prebiotics can stimulate the production of immune-boosting compounds, such as short-chain fatty acids [8]. In addition, prebiotics may help to reduce inflammation in the gut, which can further support immune function [13].

Better Nutrient Absorption

Prebiotics can aid the absorption of certain nutrients, such as calcium and magnesium. By promoting the growth of good bacteria in the gut, prebiotics enhance the gut's ability to absorb nutrients from food [9]. This can contribute to overall health and wellbeing. In fact, research has shown that prebiotics may even help to improve bone density by increasing calcium absorption [14].

Weight Management and Appetite Regulation

Prebiotics have been shown to reduce body weight and regulate appetite by changing the gut microbiome [10]. This is thought to be achieved by increasing levels of certain hormones that affect appetite and fat storage, such as GLP-1 and PYY [11]. In addition, prebiotics may help to reduce inflammation in the gut, which has been linked to obesity [15].

Mental Health and Cognitive Function

Emerging evidence suggests that the gut microbiome can influence mental health, with imbalances in gut bacteria linked to anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders [12]. By promoting a healthy gut, prebiotics may contribute to better mental health and cognitive function. In fact, some studies have found that prebiotics can improve memory and reduce anxiety in animals [16]. While more research is needed in humans, these findings are promising.

Improved Digestive Health

Prebiotics can also have a positive impact on digestive health. By promoting the growth of good bacteria in the gut, prebiotics can help to prevent and treat a variety of digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) [17]. In addition, prebiotics may help to reduce symptoms of constipation and diarrhea [18].


Overall, prebiotics offer a range of health benefits. By promoting a healthy gut microbiome, prebiotics can improve immune function, nutrient absorption, weight management, mental health, and digestive health. While prebiotics are found naturally in many foods, such as onions, garlic, and bananas, they can also be taken as a supplement. As with any supplement, it's important to talk to your healthcare provider before adding prebiotics to your diet.

How to Incorporate Prebiotics into Your Diet

Prebiotic-Rich Foods to Include

To ensure a healthy intake of prebiotics, try consuming:

  • Raw garlic and onions in salads, soups, or stews
  • Bananas as a natural sweetener in smoothies or oatmeal
  • Asparagus roasted as a side dish
  • Chicory root as an ingredient in coffee or tea
  • Jerusalem artichokes roasted or sautéed
  • Barley in soups, stews, or grain salads

Prebiotic Supplements: Pros and Cons

Prebiotic supplements are available in various forms, including powders, capsules, and chewable tablets. While they can be a convenient way to ensure an adequate prebiotic intake, supplements are not for everyone. Some people may experience digestive discomfort, such as bloating or gas, when they consume prebiotics. It is best to start with a lower dose and gradually increase it to avoid adverse effects.

Tips for a Balanced Prebiotic Intake

To balance an appropriate prebiotic intake, consider the following tips:

  • Eat a diverse range of fiber-rich foods
  • Aim for at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day
  • Include legumes, whole grains, and nuts in your diet
  • Avoid highly processed and refined foods
  • Consider a supplement after consulting with a healthcare provider

The Bottom Line

Prebiotics are an essential part of a healthy gut, and their impact extends far beyond digestive function. By promoting a balanced microbiome, prebiotics can contribute to improved immune function, better nutrient absorption, and even weight management and mental health.

Focus on including a variety of prebiotic-rich foods in your diet, and if needed, talk to your healthcare provider about supplement options.


  1. Gibson G, Roberfroid M. Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr. 1995 Jun;125(6):1401–12. doi:10.1093/jn/125.6.1401
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO). Health and nutritional properties of probiotics in food including powder milk with live lactic acid bacteria. Córdoba: Argentina; 2001.
  3. Slavin J. Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients. 2013 Apr 22;5(4):1417-35. doi: 10.3390/nu5041417.
  4. Sender R, Fuchs S, Milo R. Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body. PLoS Biol. 2016 Aug 19;14(8):e1002533. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002533.
  5. Bates JM, Mittge E, Kuhlman J, Baden KN, Cheesman SE, Guillemin K. Distinct signals from the microbiota promote different aspects of zebrafish gut differentiation. Dev Biol. 2006 Jul 1;297(1):374-86. doi: 10.1016/j.ydbio.2006.05.006.
  6. Bischoff SC, Barbara G, Buurman W, Ockhuizen T, Schulzke JD, Serino M, Tilg H, Watson A, Wells J. Intestinal permeability – a new target for disease prevention and therapy. BMC Gastroenterol. 2014 Jul 23;14:189. doi: 10.1186/s12876-014-0189-7.
  7. Meneses ME, Martínez-Villaluenga C, Dueñas M, Hernández ÁR, Estrella I, Gálvez A, Becerril R, Holguín AR. In vitro fermentation and chemical characterization of underexploited legumes as potential prebiotic ingredients. LWT - Food Sci Technol. 2017;77:54-60.
  8. Rooks MG, Garrett WS. Gut microbiota, metabolites and host immunity. Nat Rev Immunol. 2016 Apr;16(6):341-52. doi: 10.1038/nri.2016.42.
  9. Sobczak AI, Krawczyk M, Zujko ME, Joniec J, Bogdański P, Stachowska E. Prebiotics and their effects on calcified tissues of the tooth. Ann Agric Environ Med. 2019 Dec 19;26(4):495-500. doi: 10.26444/aaem/109153.
  10. Raninen K, Lappi J, Mykkänen H, Poutanen K. Dietary fiber type reflects physiological functionality: Comparison of grain fiber, inulin, and polydextrose. Nutr Rev. 2011;69(1):9-21. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00370.x.
  11. Mach N, Berri M, Estellé J, Levenez F, Lemonnier G, Denis C, et al. Early-life establishment of the swine gut microbiome and impact on host phenotypes. Environ Microbiol Rep. 2015 Feb;7:554–69. doi: 10.1111/1758-2229.12285.
  12. Miele L, Giorgio V, Alberelli MA, De Candia E, Gasbarrini A, Grieco A. Impact of gut microbiota on obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease risk. Curr Cardiol Rep. 2015;17(12):120. doi: 10.1007/s11886-015-0668-4.
  13. Burcelin R, Garidou L, Pomié C, Klopp P. Gut microbiota and diabetes: from pathogenesis to therapeutic perspective. Acta Diabetol. 2011;48(4):257–73. doi: 10.1007/s00592-011-0333-6.

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