You hear a lot about probiotics these days, but what about prebiotics? In this article, we’ll cover the top 3 best prebiotic supplements on that market. You’ll also learn why you should consume both prebiotics and probiotics for optimal digestive health.
Updated June 2021.
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics were first defined in 1995 as “non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria already resident in the colon.” (1)
That definition has been tweaked throughout the years and the latest update to the definition (decided on by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP)) is as follows: a prebiotic is “a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit.” (2)
But let’s put this in plain English, shall we?
A prebiotic is anything that your healthy gut bacteria can “eat,” and as a result, benefits you and your body.
Prebiotics can be found in both foods (typically high-fiber foods) and supplements.
While “classic” prebiotics such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galactooligosaccharides (GOS) still fit this new definition, this expanded criteria now also allows some non-carbohydrate nutrition components such as polyphenols (a type of antioxidant) to be classified as prebiotics. These prebiotic polyphenols can be found in many plant foods and are wonderful for your digestive and overall health!
Prebiotic vs Probiotic
What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics? Prebiotics and probiotics are quite different, despite very similar-sounding names!
While a prebiotic “feeds” good bacteria in your microbiome and offers you benefits in return, a probiotic is a live organism that benefits your body. (3)
You can think of a prebiotic as the fuel for probiotics, which are the live bacteria that need feeding.
Probiotics can be found in foods like yogurt, kefir, kvass, sauerkraut, and more. Prebiotic food sources include chicory root, garlic, onion, Jerusalem artichoke, and more. You can consume both probiotic supplements and prebiotic supplements. (We’ll talk about the best prebiotic supplements in just a moment.)
Both probiotics and prebiotics are exceptionally good for you, and I highly recommend incorporating both into your routine for optimal gut health. If you’d like to learn more about probiotics, check out my article on the topic here.
Can You Take Prebiotics and Probiotics Together?
Absolutely! In fact, it’s great to take prebiotics and probiotics together. Utilizing both in your gut health routine will help to optimize your digestive wellness.
However, when you’re looking at “synbiotic” supplements that contain both prebiotics and probiotics, be aware that most of these supplements only contain a very small amount of prebiotic. These amounts are typically not enough to be considered a therapeutic dose of prebiotic and thus won’t have much of an effect on your health (but it can help the probiotic bacteria in your supplement survive better).
We’ll talk about the best prebiotic supplements in just a moment!
What’s the Difference Between Prebiotics and Fiber?
Many prebiotics are considered a type of fiber, so you will often see the term “prebiotic fiber supplement” used.
That said, not all types of fiber are considered prebiotic. The main difference between a prebiotic and fiber is that a prebiotic must selectively feed beneficial bacteria. Fiber may be metabolized more broadly and thus can feed non-beneficial bacteria as well as good bacteria. (Note that this doesn’t mean that fiber isn’t good for you — it just acts somewhat differently from prebiotics.)
Prebiotic supplements are a powerhouse when it comes to improving your health.
Here are some of the benefits of prebiotics you can expect.
Prebiotics & Digestive Health
Because prebiotic supplements selectively feed healthy bacteria, they can be used to help correct “dysbiosis” or imbalanced gut bacteria (i.e. too much bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria).
Gut dysbiosis has been associated with a myriad of health conditions, like allergies, eczema, metabolic syndrome, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmunity, and more. You can learn more about dysbiosis by reading my article on the topic here.
By consuming prebiotics, you can increase your counts of beneficial bacteria, tipping the scales toward a more balanced gut microbiome. A balanced microbiome means a healthy body!
Prebiotic supplements have also been shown to improve lactose tolerance in those who are lactose intolerant, as well as improve symptoms of IBS like bloating, excessive gas, diarrhea, and constipation. (4, 5)
Prebiotic supplements can also improve IBS-like symptoms even more than a low-FODMAP diet alone when combined with this approach. (6)
Prebiotics, Weight Loss & Metabolic Function
Gut bacteria play a huge role in how your metabolic system functions. When gut bacteria in the microbiome become imbalanced (i.e. you have “dysbiosis), you can develop systemic low-grade inflammation, often referred to as “metabolic endotoxemia.” This is when toxic molecules such as lipopolysaccharides (LPS) get through a “leaky gut” into your bloodstream.
Taking prebiotic supplements has been shown to improve fasting blood sugar, HbA1c, fasting insulin levels, and inflammation markers. (9)
Prebiotic intake has also been shown to increase satiety and decrease calorie intake, which may play a role in some of the positive metabolic changes seen with prebiotic consumption. (10)
Prebiotics & the Immune System
More than 70% of your immune system is housed in your digestive tract. (11)
This makes sense when you think about it — after all, your digestive tract is exposed to the many foods, particles, bacteria, etc that make it through your mouth on a daily basis. In order to keep you healthy, it must have a robust system in place to tolerate foreign particles that pose no pathological threat, while also being able to mount an attack toward pathogens that may negatively impact the body.
Prebiotic supplements have been shown to positively impact the immune system. Prebiotic consumption increases short chain fatty acid (SCFA) production, which in turn has been shown to promote T regulatory (Treg) cells, as well as other important immune cells. (12) Treg cells have a balancing effect on the immune system because they discourage autoimmunity (the attack of your own body’s cells).
Prebiotics & The Brain
The gut and the brain are intimately connected — your brain “talks” to your gut and vice versa. At least on a subconscious level, we’ve known about this connection for a long time, as evidenced by our use of phrases like “gut feeling,” “gutsy,” and “gut instinct” – but research is just starting to truly realize the extent of the connection between the brain and gut. (15)
Targeting the microbiome with microbiome-modulating things like prebiotic supplements and probiotic supplements is of great interest to researchers who study stress-related diseases such as anxiety, depression, and even conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
Because this is such a new field of study, I expect that we’ll see lots more about the effect prebiotic supplements can have on our mental health in the coming years!
Prebiotic Side Effects
There are very few side effects of consuming prebiotic supplements. That said, some people may experience slight increases in bloating when consuming large doses of prebiotics.
To avoid any digestive upset, it is best to start slow when increasing your intake of prebiotic supplements. Over time, your bacteria get used to having more and more fuel and you generally won’t experience digestive upset anymore.
There are also prebiotics that are less likely to cause these types of side effects (like Sunfiber). We’ll get to those in a second!
Types of Prebiotics
There are many substances that act as prebiotics, and the list will surely become even longer in the coming years with the new, expanded definition of a prebiotic.
Some popular prebiotics include:
- FOS (Fructooligosaccharides)
- GOS (Galactooligosaccharides)
- Partially hydrolyzed guar gum or galactomannan fiber – Sunfiber
With the expanded definition of prebiotics, there are some newer prebiotics available now as well, such as polyphenols.
Polyphenols are naturally-occurring compounds found in in plants. Some foods high in polyphenols include blueberries, coffee, strawberries, blackberries, flaxseed, tea, and wine. Recent research has shown that polyphenols act as prebiotics in the digestive system, increasing our counts of healthy gut bacteria. Learn more about polyphenols foods and their effect on gut bacteria.
Prebiotics can be found in both foods and supplements. Eating prebiotic foods can be a great way to get prebiotics in your diet if you’re not interested in taking prebiotic supplements.
Here is a list of foods that contain prebiotics (including polyphenol prebiotics):
- Burdock root
- Chicory root
- Chocolate (dark)
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Yacon root
Best Prebiotic Supplements
I’m a big fan of including prebiotics both from the diet and incorporating a prebiotic supplement.
Here are a few of the best prebiotic supplements on the market. Remember to start slow and ramp up your dosage over time to avoid digestive complaints, no matter what prebiotic supplement you take!
Sunfiber is a new (and pretty unique) prebiotic fiber supplement. It is certified low-FODMAP by Monash University, so it’s the best prebiotic supplement choice for those who are FODMAP intolerant or with significant digestive problems. It’s also been shown to improve clearance rates of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) when combined with the typical antibiotic treatment for this condition. (18)
I generally recommend 6 grams of Sunfiber per day for best results. Sunfiber mixes in with hot or cold beverages easily and is taste-free and colorless.
I love Sunfiber so much, actually, that I use it for my products at Gut Power Drinks! Each of our drinks combines our signature blend of prebiotics (Sunfiber) and probiotics, along with a polyphenol-rich flavor like matcha, cocoa, or coffee for the ultimate gut health drink mix.
If you’re new to prebiotic supplements, I truly believe Sunfiber is the best prebiotic supplement to begin with. It’s incredibly well-tolerated and has some really impressive benefits.
Bimuno is the best prebiotic supplement that contains GOS (galactooligosaccharide). It’s generally very well tolerated, even by those with digestive issues. I typically recommend 1 stick of the powder formula (3.6g). Bimuno can be mixed into pretty much any beverage and is tasteless.
NOW’s Nutraflora FOS is the best prebiotic supplement containing FOS (fructooligosaccharides). In general, I find FOS to be slightly less well-tolerated than the others on this list, but not by much! It’s got a nice sweet taste — I generally just dump it into my mouth and let it dissolve. I recommend 5 grams of FOS for best results.
What to Avoid in a Prebiotic Supplement
As prebiotic supplements become more popular, I’ve started to see lots of products claiming to contain prebiotics when they either don’t contain a substance that actually fits the definition of a prebiotic or they contain so little prebiotic that it is almost guaranteed not to actually provide any health benefits.
This typically happens in “synbiotic” products, which means that they include both a probiotic and a prebiotic. There is usually a tiny amount of prebiotic which does absolutely nothing for you as a human being, but can possibly increase the survival of the probiotic you’re taking. If you’re taking a prebiotic to benefit you, you’ll be taking grams of the stuff, not milligrams.
If your prebiotic supplement comes in capsule form, be extra vigilant about the dosage – the amount of prebiotic needed to provide you a benefit typically will not fit in a capsule or two. Prebiotic supplements most often come in powdered form for this reason.
Lastly, prebiotics do seem to be somewhat like probiotics in that different types of prebiotics may be better suited for different uses. (Remember that the effects of probiotics are strain-specific.) Further research in the area will elucidate which prebiotic supplements are most beneficial for different conditions.
The Bottom Line
Prebiotic supplements feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut, which in turn make you healthier. The best prebiotic supplements include Sunfiber (most well-tolerated), GOS, and FOS – though there are also others out there!
You can consume prebiotics both in foods and prebiotic supplements – it’s a good idea to do both to ensure you’re properly fueling your microbiome.
Be wary of supplements that contain milligrams of prebiotics – while they may benefit probiotics contained in the supplement you’re taking, it’s not a therapeutic dose for you. If you want the health benefits of consuming prebiotic supplements, you generally need to take grams of the stuff, which is why most prebiotic supplements come in powdered form.