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What are Synbiotics?

  • Synbiotics

Etymology: syn- +‎ biotic

The word ‘synbiotic’ is composed by the prefix syn, from Ancient Greek sun-, from sún, (“with”, “in company with” or together with”) and the Greek adjective biotic from the noun bios (“life”). 

Synbiotic meaning: ‘both prebiotic and probiotic’.

A Brief History of Synbiotics

What are the effects of synbiotics?

Synbiotics describe those products in which the prebiotic component selectively favors a probiotic organism, in a synergistical way, usually by improving the viability of the probiotic. Hence, the effect of probiotics is enhanced when combined with the “right” prebiotic, and this simultaneous use is potentially very beneficial for the host. 

Why is this combination potentially beneficial?

Synbiotics have both probiotic and prebiotic properties and are mainly developed to improve the survival of probiotic microorganisms in the host’s GI tract4. By introducing a selected component (prebiotic) in the GI tract of the host, the growth and/or metabolism of certain intestinal microbiota will be stimulated, which will in turn be beneficial for the host. Furthermore, a good synbiotic, which combines pre- and probiotics in a single product, should ensure a superior effect, compared to the activity of the probiotic or prebiotic alone4.

What are the benefits of synbiotics?

benefits of synbiotics

Studies describe some of the beneficial effects of synbiotics on humans4,5:

  • Increase count of beneficial bacteria of the genus Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium
  • Balance gut microbiota
  • Enhance modulation of immune response
  • Inhibit bacterial translocation (the movement of bacteria or bacterial products across the intestinal membrane to normally sterile tissues and the internal organs)
  • Reduce the incidence of hospital-acquired infection in post-surgical patients and similar interventions
  • Improved hepatic function in patients suffering from cirrhosis

Synbiotics have also been suggested to alter the composition of the colonic microbiota, reduce inflammatory processes in the gut mucosa and have ability to induce remission in IBD as well as prevention of travelers’ diarrhea and to improve the overall quality of life in patients6.

What are the mechanisms of action of synbiotics?

Studies recognize two mechanisms of synbiotic action4:

  1. Improved viability of probiotic microorganisms
  2. Provision of specific health effects
  • Synbiotic Products

The development of bio-therapeutic formulas combining appropriate microbial strains and synergistic prebiotics may lead to the enhancement of the probiotic effect in the small intestine and the colon. These products may be more effective and the protective and stimulatory effect superior to their components administered separately4. Therefore, developing a rational combination of pro- and prebiotics, with interesting nutritional properties and benefits for colonic health may be an important step in terms of health-enhancing functional food ingredients1.

Among the known prebiotics, fructans (inulin and FOS) are the most common fibers used in synergistical combination with probiotics6. Below is a list of common prebiotics and synbiotics (probiotic + prebiotic) used in human nutrition4

Prebiotics Synbiotics
Soy oligosaccharides
Lactobacillus genus bacteria + inulin
Lactobacillus, Streptococcus and Bifidobacterium genus bacteria + FOS
Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Enterococcus genus bacteria + FOS
Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genus bacteria + oligofructose
Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genus bacteria + inulin

What about whole food synbiotics?

An easy, whole food approach, which we recommend, is to combine whole foods from the prebiotic and probiotic lists we provided in the previous articles. For example, eat prebiotic foods like green bananas, chicory root, onions, oats, garlic and asparagus in combination with fermented foods (rich in probiotics) like tempeh, natto, sauerkraut, kimchi, and coconut kefir.

Safety of probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics

Supplementation with prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics has not been associated with serious adverse effects among immune-competent individuals. Care should be taken with immunocompromised patients, especially when taking probiotics and synbiotics7. Prebiotics are considered generally safe, and when considering whole food sources, such as the ones we recommend in this article, both probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics seem to be safe for the general population, with exception to individual-specific allergies or intolerances to certain foods7.


  1. Gibson GR, Roberfroid MB. Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr. 1995 Jun;125(6):1401-12. doi: 10.1093/jn/125.6.1401. PMID: 7782892.
  2. Pandey KR, Naik SR, Vakil BV. Probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics- a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2015 Dec;52(12):7577-87. doi: 10.1007/s13197-015-1921-1. Epub 2015 Jul 22. PMID: 26604335; PMCID: PMC4648921.
  3. US National Institutes of Health (2018). Probiotics: In Depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
  4. Markowiak P, Śliżewska K. Effects of Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics on Human Health. Nutrients. 2017 Sep 15;9(9):1021. doi: 10.3390/nu9091021. PMID: 28914794; PMCID: PMC5622781.
  5. Zhang MM, Cheng JQ, Lu YR, Yi ZH, Yang P, Wu XT. Use of pre-, pro- and synbiotics in patients with acute pancreatitis: a meta-analysis. World J Gastroenterol. 2010 Aug 21;16(31):3970-8. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v16.i31.3970. PMID: 20712060; PMCID: PMC2923773.
  6. Pandey KR, Naik SR, Vakil BV. Probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics- a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2015 Dec;52(12):7577-87. doi: 10.1007/s13197-015-1921-1. Epub 2015 Jul 22. PMID: 26604335; PMCID: PMC4648921.
  7. Vallianou N, Stratigou T, Christodoulatos GS, Tsigalou C, Dalamaga M. Probiotics, Prebiotics, Synbiotics, Postbiotics, and Obesity: Current Evidence, Controversies, and Perspectives. Curr Obes Rep. 2020 Sep;9(3):179-192. doi: 10.1007/s13679-020-00379-w. PMID: 32472285.

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