What are Postbiotics? 5 Health Benefits
If you have somewhat kept up with health news over the past several years, it is likely you have heard of prebiotics and probiotics. Both of these components have to do with keeping your digestive system healthy and regular, among several other health benefits.
Postbiotics are much less widely known than both prebiotics and probiotics, but recent research suggest that they have an equally important role, if not more important, in maintaining and improving our health. In fact, many of the health benefits that have been attributed to prebiotics, may indeed be due to postbiotics.
What are Postbiotics?
Postbiotics are byproducts of the fermentation process carried out by probiotics in the intestine. In other words, as probiotics feed on prebiotics, postbiotics are produced. They are basically the “waste” of probiotics.
Waste products don’t sound like they would be of much use to us. Interestingly enough, they are, indeed, responsible for multiple important health-boosting functions in our gut. Some examples of postbiotics include organic acids, bacteriocins, carbonic substances and enzymes. They result naturally from the existence and survival of microorganisms living in our gut, though they can also be added directly through therapeutic processes (10).
We know that all of this talk about pre-, pro-, and postbiotics can be pretty confusing. So, let’s take a step back to talk about gut microbiota and the relationship between the three.
The Importance of Intestinal Microflora: “Good” Gut Bacteria
When we are born, our intestines are sterile, but thanks to mother’s milk and exploring things with our mouths, our gut is rapidly colonized by microbes that ferment nutrients and secrete important bioactive compounds that affect our physiology and metabolism (1).
These natural, health-promoting bacteria have a symbiotic relationship with the human body. In other words, they live off our gut, while we benefit from their presence and by-products.
They play an important role in human homeostasis, and healthy gut bacteria has been linked to fighting many diseases from Crohn’s disease to Cancer (2).
Medication, stress, diet, and disease can negatively affect the natural population of intestinal microflora. Decades ago, several groups of independent researchers found that it is possible to repopulate gut microflora with the diet. This is where probiotics and prebiotics were originally identified, and now where postbiotics are known to play an important role.
Relationship Between Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Postbiotics
While the names are all very similar, they are different elements that are, nonetheless, related.
Here is the breakdown:
Nutrients that qualitatively change the composition of gut microbiota by providing “food” that promotes good bacteria growth (1). Prebiotics are mainly dietary fiber, like that you find in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
These are the gut microbes themselves. They have been attributed with the health promoting aspects of the microbe ecosystem, including strengthening the barrier against infection, as well as the antibacterial, immune-modulating, and anti-inflammatory aspects (3). You find probiotics in foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and kimchi.
Postbiotics are the metabolites of probiotics, or the components that result from probiotic activity in the gut, like fermentation (4). As intestinal microbes consume prebiotic fiber, the result of that fermentation or consumption is what is known as postbiotics.
Recent research presents evidence that most of the positive effects we used to attribute to probiotics are actually due to postbiotics (4). They may also provide the bases for the proper processing of prebiotics, promoting a healthy prebiotic population in yet another manner (5).
To put it simply, prebotics proceed probiotics, which proceed postbiotics. Postbiotics, in turn, promote the use of prebiotics. Prebiotics are like the “food”, probiotics are the microorganisms themselves, and postbiotics are the results of probiotics consuming that “food”. Postbiotics, while being a sort of probiotic waste, are what may be exerting many of the health effects on humans. This helps us understand the symbiotic relationship between gut microorganisms and humans on an even deeper level.
Sources of Postbiotics
Because postbiotics are a byproduct of probiotic fermentation, the direct source of postbiotics are probiotics. Foods that can help increase the concentration of postbiotics in the gut are (9):
- Miso soup
- Soft Cheeses
- Sourdough bread
Additionally, postbiotics can be produced and extracted in laboratories to be used for therapeutic purposes, and delivered through pills and direct application (10).
Benefits of Postbiotics
1. May help lower blood sugar and prevent obesity
A lack of intestinal microbe balance has been shown to contribute to obesity and insulin resistance. A postbiotic bacterial component called muramyl dipeptide, has been shown to relieve glucose intolerance by increasing insulin sensitivity (6). While more trials are still needed to fully understand the mechanism, it seems that this postbiotic plays an important role in fighting Pre-Diabetes and Type II Diabetes (11).
2. Supports probiotics
Probiotics and postbiotics work together to exhibit beneficial effects on human health. Probiotics produce postbiotics which often produce the immunomodultory effects that have been deemed beneficial for our health (10).
3. Treats Diarrhea
It has been long known that probiotic foods and supplements are effective in treating diarrhea. With a closer observation it is noted that the effect is not due to a direct interaction between the “good” bacteria and the intestinal lining, but rather to the metabolic products released by probiotics (12).
4. Antimicrobial properties
One of the main functions of probiotics and postbiotics is to populate the gut with an ecosystem that favors the growth of good bacteria, thus not allowing the population of infectious bacteria. The “replacement effect” in coordination with the direct bacteria-fighting properties of postbiotics helps fight infection (5, 10).
5. Helps Support Immune System in Infants and People with Difficult Conditions
For people with conditions that result in immunodeficiency (immune system deficiency or weakness), or infants, probiotics may not be tolerable or safe (7). Postbiotic compounds, however, are mucho more tolerable, and may reduce problematic inflammation (5).
One study examined the role of probiotics and postbiotics in treating Nectrotizing enterocolitis, one of the leading causes of death in newborns, and one of the most common gastrointestinal emergencies. While more studies need to be carried out, it was found that postbiotics, together with prebiotics, are potential alternatives, or complements to, probiotics (8).
6. Reduces Inflammation
In fact, people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may not benefit from probiotics, and in fact may be detrimental to inflammation. In fact, postbiotics, when administrated, may protect against inflammation caused by some infections including salmonella (5).
You will likely be hearing more and more about postbiotics over the next several months and years. Postbiotics are likely to be the next up-and-coming health-boosting component in your diet and digestive process. It is important to note that, no matter what the supplement, it will not translate into significant health improvements, unless you make changes to your lifestyle.
Improving your health isn’t only about taking supplements, but rather about making improvements to your diet, exercise and living choices. Choose foods that are nutrient dense and calorie light, drink plenty of water, practice 30 minutes of physical activity a day, avoid smoking and drinking in excess, and get at least 8 hours of sleep a night. If you do these things, increasing your consumption of foods that will help increase your postbiotic concentration, will very likely result in an overall improvement in your health.
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