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Are Synbiotics the New Probiotics?

You may already know that yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha are all packed with gut-healthy probiotics, while foods like green bananas, asparagus, and artichokes contain prebiotics. In case you’re blanking on the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, here’s a quick refresher: Probiotics are microorganisms that add good-for-you microbes to your gut and can help aid digestion. Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that feed that good bacteria in your gut.

But what about synbiotics? These are supplements that contain probiotic strains in addition to prebiotics. Here’s why that could be good: Some researchers say probiotics can encounter “survival difficulties” while passing through the intestinal tract. In other words, they don’t actually make it all the way to the gut.

The idea behind synbiotics is that adding prebiotics to a probiotic supplement can help ensure that the digestion-friendly microorganisms arrive in the gut alive and well. These supplements are said to be particularly useful for people with conditions like IBS, other bowel disorders, and diabetes.

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Anything that aids digestion can’t be bad, right? But think twice about picking them up in the supplement aisle. First, they aren’t super well studied. “Because probiotics and prebiotics work together, synbiotics may be very important,” explains Cynthia Sass, RD, Health contributing nutrition editor. “But right now we don’t have a lot of data to show that synbiotics are more effective than, say, taking probiotics and eating a diet rich in prebiotics.”

Another potential synbiotic snag: Nutritional supplements in general aren’t well regulated. “Right now my primary concern is the limited research and the lack of regulation in terms of guaranteeing that a product you buy is actually synbiotic and effective,” says Sass.

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There’s no question whether probiotics and prebiotics on their own are good for you. According to Sass, prebiotics not only feed probiotics, but also increase nutrient absorption and support bowel regularity. Just don’t think that taking a synbiotic means you don’t have to pay attention to your diet. “Your overall pattern of eating still has the greatest impact on your health protection or risk,” says Sass.

Until more comprehensive research is conducted on synbiotics, consider sticking to swallowing a probiotic supplement or eat probiotic-rich foods in addition to prebiotic foods. Need ideas? Sass recommends a kefir breakfast bowl with a slightly green banana, a veggie burger topped with sauerkraut and onion, or a stir-fry made with asparagus and kimchi for a gut-healthy meal that packs both probiotics and prebiotics.

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