Prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics are dietary ingredients with the potential to influence health and mucosal and systemic immune function by altering the composition of the gut microbiota. In the present study, a candidate prebiotic (xylo-oligosaccharide, XOS, 8 g/d), probiotic (Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis Bi-07, 109 colony-forming units (CFU)/d) or synbiotic (8 g XOS+109 CFU Bi-07/d) was given to healthy adults (25–65 years) for 21 d. The aim was to identify the effect of the supplements on bowel habits, self-reported mood, composition of the gut microbiota, blood lipid concentrations and immune function. XOS supplementation increased mean bowel movements per d (P= 0·009), but did not alter the symptoms of bloating, abdominal pain or flatulence or the incidence of any reported adverse events compared with maltodextrin supplementation. XOS supplementation significantly increased participant-reported vitality (P= 0·003) and happiness (P= 0·034). Lowest reported use of analgesics was observed during the XOS+Bi-07 supplementation period (P= 0·004). XOS supplementation significantly increased faecal bifidobacterial counts (P= 0·008) and fasting plasma HDL concentrations (P= 0·005). Bi-07 supplementation significantly increased faecal B. lactis content (P= 0·007), lowered lipopolysaccharide-stimulated IL-4 secretion in whole-blood cultures (P= 0·035) and salivary IgA content (P= 0·040) and increased IL-6 secretion (P= 0·009). XOS supplementation resulted in lower expression of CD16/56 on natural killer T cells (P= 0·027) and lower IL-10 secretion (P= 0·049), while XOS and Bi-07 supplementation reduced the expression of CD19 on B cells (XOS × Bi-07, P= 0·009). The present study demonstrates that XOS induce bifidogenesis, improve aspects of the plasma lipid profile and modulate the markers of immune function in healthy adults. The provision of XOS+Bi-07 as a synbiotic may confer further benefits due to the discrete effects of Bi-07 on the gut microbiota and markers of immune function.