Probiotics Are Cool and All, but Have You Heard About Postbiotics?
Related to prebiotics and probiotics, postbiotics are essentially the endgame goal of all your gut health efforts. "When you take prebiotics or probiotics, people don't realize that at the end of the day, the hope is to get some postbiotics. The entire point is about postbiotics," says gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, MD, author of the upcoming book, Fiber Fueled.
So why should we care about the latest and greatest "biotic" compound to come up in the wellness world? We asked Dr. Bulsiewicz to share the 411 on postbiotics and why they're so important.
What are postbiotics and how are they different from pre- and probiotics?
Before we continue, here's a quick gut health refresher. Probiotics, Dr. Bulsiewicz says, are live microoraganisms (typically bacteria or yeast) that benefit the body by boosting the immune system, reducing inflammation, helping with digestion, and improving mood. They live in your gut, but there are also foods that contain probiotics, such as yogurt, pickled veggies, and miso. (You can obviously also find them in supplement form.)
Prebiotics, meanwhile, Dr. Bulsiewicz says, feed the good bacteria in your gut. "Prebiotics are fuel, or energy, for your bacteria. It helps bring back the good guys as quickly as possible," he says. Some of the most common include beta glucans (found in oats, barley, wheat and rye), psyillium, acacia powder, and wheat dextrin.
Gut health in a nutshell: Postbiotics = Prebiotics + Probiotics
"The thing to know about probiotics is that they don't stick around. They don't colonize the gut permanently," Dr. Bulsiewicz says. This is where postbiotics come in. This is a relatively new term (hence why you may not have heard it before!) used to describe "functional bioactive compounds, generated in a matrix during fermentation, which may be used to promote health." The translation of this International Journal of Molecular Sciences (IJMS) article definition: Postbiotics are essentially the byproducts of probiotics. They eat food, it ferments in the gut, and voilà, you have postbiotics.
Dr. Bulsiewicz has this formula for understanding postbiotics: prebiotics + probiotics = postbiotics. "What this means is that when you feed the good bacteria that live in your colon, that bacteria will turn around and reward you with a gift. And that gift is postbiotics," he says. Unlike pre- and probiotics, postbiotics aren't something you can consume in food or supplement form; it describes what happens when the two combine.
There are a lot of different kinds of postbiotics; what is created depends on what exactly your gut bacteria have been eating. Per the IJMS article, they can include short-chain fatty acids, proteins, and metabolites. These different compounds have different functions in the body, and thus can have different kinds of benefits.
What are the potential benefits of postbiotics?
Here's the thing: We're just starting to understand what postbiotics are (there's even still debate about the term's definition), so there isn't a ton of robust research about what their specific benefits are. But there is some evidence that they can have some long-lasting benefits, including the following:
1. Postbiotics can help heal leaky gut
Even if you aren't familiar with the term leaky gut, you might be familiar with its symptoms. Known in the medical world as “increased intestinal permeability,” leaky gut is when the walls of the digestive tract become permeable, which can trigger inflammation in the body. Dr. Bulsiewicz says one postbiotic, butyrate, can help reverse the effects. "Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid, which is produced when you consume soluble fiber. That soluble fiber gets metabolized and consumed by the healthy bacteria inside of you to produce butyrate. Then, butyrate helps heal your colon," he says.
2. Postbiotics may help lower inflammation
According to one study published in the journal Clinics in Perinatology, pre- pro- and postbiotics are all connected to lowering inflammation throughout the body by helping to restore the good bacteria population in the gut. (It should be noted that this specific study focused on these compounds for helping prevent or treat an intestinal disease common in prenatal babies, so take these findings with a grain of salt.)
3. They may help boost the immune system
One study found a connection between postbiotics and a stronger immune system, particularly in infants. This is not too surprising as, after all, a direct link between gut health and immunity has long been established.
4. Postbiotics may help prevent type 2 diabetes
Postbiotics (specifically Muramyl dipeptide, a type of peptide created by probiotics) have also been found to be successful in preventing diabetes, at least in mice. Researchers explain that having gut bacteria chronically out of balance can contribute to someone becoming insulin resistance, and pre-diabetic. Postbiotics, meanwhile, appear to help insulin work more effectively, bringing balance and stopping the development of diabetes.
Watch the video below for more tips on how to boost gut health:
Okay, how can I ensure I'm producing enough postbiotics?
Again, maximizing your postbiotics requires feeding your body's probiotics with a variety of prebiotics. How to do that, you ask? By eating more fiber, aka the best source of prebiotics there is.
You can get prebiotics from both soluble (the kind that absorbs water) and insoluble (the kind that pushes things through your system) fiber. But Dr. Bulsiewicz says you don't need to stress about hitting a specific quota of each kind into your daily diet. "For simplicity's sake, fiber is often broken into these two main groups, but the truth is, we don't have a good estimate on how many [different] types of fiber sources there are," he says. "The key, from my perspective, is to eat a diverse mix of plants that will bring a unique mix of fiber, both soluble and insoluble," he says.
In other words: Eat lots of plants and the prebiotic + probiotic = postbiotic formula will start taking place in your body. And when that happens, you're gearing yourself up to reap loads of potential health benefits. Plus, eating lots of fiber itself is good for more than just postbiotic production—you're gearing yourself up for a healthier gut, better digestion (and less constipation), potentially lower cholesterol, and other benefits.
When it comes to postbiotics, there's clearly still a lot to learn. But the major takeaway is this: Taking care of your gut is the gift that keeps on giving and is even more beneficial than we may know. As if we needed another reason to eat more plants.
If you want to take a probiotic but aren't sure which one, here are some tips, including the exact ones six different gut experts take.
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