(Woodpath is an education site focused exclusively on gut health. Our articles are researched by clinical nutritionists and contain citations at the end of the page.)
Probiotics aren't the only contributors to gut health. Probiotic bacteria (the live bacteria that colonize the large intestine) work in tandem with prebiotics, a type of fiber that feeds and activates this good bacteria.
Prebiotics are found in breast milk, soybeans, avocados, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, onions, oats, honey, and green bananas.
Together, these two components create a natural synergy for your digestive system in the form of a synbiotic. But this relationship, as with any relationship, is not always in perfect balance — especially if you're not eating a wide variety of natural foods daily.
The bottom of this page contains product recommendations. First, let's learn the science so we understand which to choose.
Basics of Synbiotics
Synbiotics are nutritional supplements (or food ingredients) that contain both probiotics and prebiotics as a way to create synergy. In other words, synbiotics may deliver a greater impact than if you were to take prebiotics and probiotics separately.
Synbiotics are believed to improve gut microbiota health significantly, vs. what probiotics or prebiotics could achieve alone.
Not unlike probiotics, the key to synbiotics lies in the types of strains used and the dosages. It's essential that both the probiotic and prebiotic microbial strains get along with each other and can function synergistically.
If the right types of probiotic strains get together with the right types of prebiotic fibers in the right amount, that's when you may see measurable results.
Why Use Synbiotics?
The main reason for using a synbiotic is that when probiotics don't have the necessary prebiotics, the good gut bacteria is less likely to survive oxygenation, high temperatures, and low pH. (Manigandan, Mangaiyarkarasi, Hemalatha, Hemalatha & Murali 2012)
Adding prebiotics to a probiotic supplement can ensure that the microorganisms arrive in the lower digestive tract intact.
Synbiotics can also increase the absorption of nutrients and can stimulate the production of beneficial bacterial strains already present in the gastrointestinal tract. (Markowiak, Śliżewska 2017)
Common Synbiotic Combinations
Some of the most common synbiotic combinations include the probiotic strains of Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Saccharomyces boulardii with prebiotics like fructooligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), inulins and resistant starch. (Pandey, Naik & Vakil 2015)
Scientific studies have shown that specific synbiotic formulations can improve the symptoms of diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and other problems affecting the gastrointestinal tract. (Pandey, Naik & Vakil 2015)
However, research has yet to conclude whether taking synbiotics will provide quantifiable benefits for healthy people with no serious conditions or ailments.
Synbiotics and Food
Synbiotics can be an effective way to keep good bacteria thriving for a robust microbiome — but relying solely on a dietary supplement is not a cure-all.
What you eat on a day-to-day basis still has the most significant impact on your health.
- Consume a wide variety of vegetables and whole foods that are rich in probiotics and prebiotics.
- Limit your intake of sugar and fat, which have shown to disturb good gut bacteria.
- Instead of a high-fat BLT sandwich on nutrient-deficient white bread, try avocado toast made with sourdough bread. Or try sautéing tempeh strips with veggies like asparagus, onions, and kimchi for a dish that packs a probiotic and prebiotic punch.
You may want to take a probiotic supplement in conjunction with eating plenty of prebiotic foods. However, not all supplements are created equal. Research is crucial.
- Choose brands that use ingredients proven to be effective in clinical trials.
- Read the labels to confirm that a specific synbiotic formulation has shown real-life health benefits.
- Pay attention not only to the quality and strain of probiotic and prebiotic but also to the quantity of the ingredients to avoid inadequate dosages.
Preliminary research signals the promise of better gut health tied to synbiotics. However, more studies are needed to conclusively determine the precise beneficial effects of synbiotics — not only for those with IBS and other bowel disorders but for otherwise healthy individuals. This includes determining which strain combinations and quantities create the most synergistic relationships between probiotics and prebiotics.
Those with digestive issues may benefit most from these curated mixtures of microorganisms and fibers. Further research may conclude that even those without digestive issues may benefit from synbiotics.
If you and your doctor determine synbiotics are right for you, we recommend the following: