Pro-biotics and Pre-biotics: What’s the Difference?

prebiotics and probiotics supplements

There’s talk of pro-biotics and pre-biotics all over the place – but how many of us actually know which is which – and why they are important to us? We asked gut-smart herbalist Pamela Spence to talk us through it, so we never get confused again! 


Pamela says:

I get asked this question a lot! It’s quite simple really, and it’s a really exciting area of gut research because we are learning more all the time. 

Let’s back up a minute and talk about why we need any ‘biotics’ in the first place. We now know that inside our gut are around 100 trillion live bacteria, as many as 5000 different species (and counting). Some are helpful, some not so much. This community of bacteria – called your gut microbiome – weighs in at around 2kg and is now thought to be so important that it is being considered a separate organ with distinct metabolic and immune activity. 

We have only just scratched the surface to understand the extent of our dependence on our microbiome. We do know that this massive community of bacteria are actually responsible for digesting our food. Not only that but they also create most of our neurotransmitters (feel good brain chemicals) as well as some vitamins and they even have a role to play in our immunity. We also know that there are differences in the microbiome in people who are obese, have atherosclerosis, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Suffice to say these little guys are pretty important. 

Sometimes our microbiome gets disturbed – it might be because of our diet, medications we have to take, or stress levels. Whatever it is, sometimes the beneficial bacteria are just not there in sufficient numbers and then we can notice issues in our digestion, probably before we notice the knock-on effect on the other systems I’ve mentioned. 

When this happens, we simply need to put more of the good bacteria in – now that’s a probiotic. Probiotics are live cultures – think of it like seeding your gut with more of the beneficial bacteria so that it can get on with the job of digesting and all those other things it does. When you put them in, not all of them stick, which is why we take them over a period of time to give ourselves the best chance of improving the numbers in there. 

The pre-biotic is a kind of fibre that feeds the bacteria in there, keeping them healthy and strong. So it’s not enough to put the good bacteria in, you need to remember to feed them too. Foods that contain this type of pre-biotic fibre include almonds, bananas and wholegrains – or of course you can find them in some food supplements. 

So now you know why both are important and you can go out there and support your microbiome like a pro(biotic)!

June 2023