Probiotics and prebiotics are microbiota-management tools for improving host health. They target gastrointestinal effects via the gut, although direct application to other sites such as the oral cavity, vaginal tract and skin is being explored. Here, we describe gut-derived effects in humans. In the past decade, research on the gut microbiome has rapidly accumulated and has been accompanied by increased interest in probiotics and prebiotics as a means to modulate the gut microbiota. Given the importance of these approaches for public health, it is timely to reiterate factual and supporting information on their clinical application and use. In this Review, we discuss scientific evidence on probiotics and prebiotics, including mechanistic insights into health effects. Strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Saccharomyces have a long history of safe and effective use as probiotics, but Roseburia spp., Akkermansia spp., Propionibacterium spp. and Faecalibacterium spp. show promise for the future. For prebiotics, glucans and fructans are well proven, and evidence is building on the prebiotic effects of other substances (for example, oligomers of mannose, glucose, xylose, pectin, starches, human milk and polyphenols).