Probiotics and prebiotics: how to support your gut bacteria the natural way

Close up on woman's stomach with hands making a heart shape to show a healthy tummy

A nutritionist will always say that if your digestive system is not working correctly, then nothing else will.  In essence, what goes on within the gut affects all other body systems. 

The good news, however, is that if you look after what’s inside, you’ll glow on the outside. Much of this is down to probiotics, otherwise known as friendly gut bacteria, and the prebiotics that fuel them.

This World Digestive Health Day, Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer shares the ins and outs of probiotics and prebiotics.

What are they?

A word cloud around Probiotics

The word probiotic literally means ‘for life’ such is their importance to our overall health.  The exact number of probiotic strains is thought to be around 400 but more research is being carried out all the time.  Most current research tends to be around some of most important and prevalent strains being Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum.


Prebiotics on the other hand are a type of non-digestible fibre that help feed these friendly guys. They are found in many different types of foods, especially certain fruits and vegetables. Prebiotics are sometimes referred to as the ‘fertiliser’ of the digestive tract because they stimulate growth and wellbeing of probiotics.

Why do I need them?

Probiotics are essential for human health and the more we know, the more we realise just how critical they are to our wellness.  They fulfil many different functions throughout the body, including encouraging healthy digestion and helping to normalise issues such as constipation and diarrhoea. They also help to control and limit the production of parasites and pathogenic intestinal yeasts.

Close up of woman's tummy with her hands making a heart shape in front

Probiotics synthesise vitamins including vitamin K, vitamin B12, folic acid and biotin, hence they have a big role to play in skin, bone, brain and hair health.  Importantly they are essential for keeping the immune system in good shape (even more important right now).

shutterstock_271645694 jogger with bones higlighted in leg Aug15

Clearly, if probiotics aren’t correctly nourished then they aren’t going to flourish, which is why prebiotics are essential too.  They help to feed the good guys and research has found they aid calcium absorption, hence are important for bone density. They also play a key role in brain health and help the body to process carbohydrates and balance blood sugar levels. Prebiotics are often used on their own or alongside probiotics in supplement form to great effect in cases of IBS and inflammatory bowel disease.

Where do I find them?


In short, probiotics are primarily found in fermented foods, which are widely eaten in traditional Asian diets. They are naturally found in kefir made from goat, cow or sheep milk with kefir grains and kimchi made from fermented cabbage, cucumber and radish. Sauerkraut, produced from fermented cabbage, miso from fermented soya beans and natural live yoghurt are also great sources.  Whilst they are not always the first-choice foods in traditional western diets, more and more people are realising their health benefits so are including them in their diets.


Prebiotics can be found in bananas, oats, Jerusalem artichokes, green vegetables, onions, garlic, soybeans, chicory and asparagus.  And if you’ve ever wondered why you may have more flatulence after eating these foods, it’s because they start a feeding frenzy in the gut.  This is a good thing but maybe not so pleasant for you (or those you live with!). However, once the gut is in better shape, the effects of eating these foods will be much less noticeable.

How can I use them in daily recipes?

The short answer is ‘very easily’. You don’t necessarily need to have probiotics and prebiotics in the same meal and the good news is that many of these prebiotic foods are frequently included in the diet already.

Pot of natural yoghurt

Natural yoghurt is often part of the daily diet and kefir is readily available in drink form or in yoghurts, in supermarkets. And if you’ve not tried other fermented foods, why not start with this simple miso and prawn recipe from BBC Food. It’s got a great balance of probiotics and prebiotics and is super tasty too!

So, with a little careful planning, you can increase your intake of probiotics and prebiotics naturally, providing wonderful health benefits.

Stay well.


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All images: Shutterstock


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