The role of prebiotics and probiotics in early nutrition

Around 2500 years ago, the Greek physician regarded as the father of medicine, Hippocrates stated that “all diseases beginin the gut”. This statement has proven to be true through the years, since research has shown that an increasing number of health issues are linked to disturbances in the gut microbiome. Dietary, genetic and environmental factors are recognized as key in shaping the composition and the function of the gut microbiome. In early infancy, microbial colonization in babies plays a central role in immune health and infections, protecting against bacterial and viral pathogens. Furthermore, functional food ingredients such as prebiotics and probiotics have been proven to modify the composition and functioning of infants’ microbiota by positively increasing the microbial communities in their guts.

What are prebiotics?

According to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), “prebiotics are selectively fermented ingredients that result in specific changes in the composition and/or activity of the gastrointestinal microbiota, thus conferring benefit(s) upon host health”. Prebiotics are non-digestible compounds that act as a fuel source for health-promoting microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract which is required for protection against pathogens or to improve intestinal barrier function. They help stimulate the growth of good bacteria such as Lactobacilli or bifidobacteria, found in the gut by acting as food for the bacteria. They are predominant in many high-fiber foods, including bananas, apples and whole grains.

Researchers have focused on these types of prebiotics which serve as a substrate for the microbiota, increasing the overall gastrointestinal tract health:

  • Fructooligosaccharides(FOS)
  • Galactooligosaccharides(GOS)
  • Inulin

Prebiotics, such as GOS, can exert a direct antimicrobial effect and thus block the adhesion of pathogenic bacteria to intestinal epithelial cells.

What are probiotics?

Probioticsare “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. These so-called “good bacteria” or “beneficial microbes” can help change the bacterial balance in the gut and influence the body’s immune responses. Several important mechanisms underlying the effects of probiotics on various microorganisms’ modifications of the gut microbiota and enable them to fight against pathogens in the intestinal barrier and modulate the immune system. Different studies propose additional mechanisms linked to their immunomodulation effect: production of antimicrobial substances, bacterial growth inhibitors, enhancement of the intestinal barrier and modulation of human intestinal cells gene expression.

How important are prebiotics and prebiotics in early nutrition?

Human milk is still the preferred nutrition option as it provides adequate nutrients for infants, it contains many different enzymes and hormones which enhance the development of infant immunity systems early in life. It naturally contains oligosaccharides which act as prebiotics, helping babies develop a healthy gut microbiome.

Humanmilk oligosaccharides are the third most abundant compound in breast milk. Research has started to unlock the potential of prebiotics and probiotics benefits for your little ones, in the prevention of diseases later in life. They are also associated with short-term health benefits such as :

  • Supporting digestive comfort
  • Helping reduce the incidence of antibiotic-associated diarrhea
  • Reducing colic symptoms in breastfed babies and atopic issues such as eczema
  • Decreasing the risk of respiratory tract infections or gut infections

When to administer probiotics and prebiotics to your babies?

If you’re not breast feeding or if you supplement your milk, you can feed your baby with a probiotic-enhanced formula or supplement. When possible, introduce probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, and dairy products.


Li S.W., Watanabe K., Hsu C.C., Chao S.H., YangZ.H., Lin Y.J., Chen C.C., Cao

Y.M., Huang H.C., Chang C.H., et al. (2017). Bacterial composition and diversity in breast milk samples from mothers living in Taiwan and mainland China. Front. Microbiol. 2017; 8:965.10.3389/fmicb.2017.00965.

Daliri, Eric & Lee,Byong. (2015). New perspectives on probiotics in health and disease. FoodScience and Human Wellness. 449. 10.1016/j.fshw.2015.06.002.

FAO/WHO (2006). Probiotics in food: Health and nutrition properties of probiotics in food including powdermilk with live lactic acid bacteria and guidelines for the evaluation. Rome,Italy (2006).

Glenn R. Gibson, Marcel B.Roberfroid, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 125, Issue 6, June 1995, Pages1401–1412, Dietary Modulation of the Human Colonic Microbiota: Introducing the Concept of Prebiotics

Resources –International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP)

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