By now, most people have heard of probiotics. Whether you take them in a pill or chow down on greek yogurt daily, chances are you have heard something about these gut health power players. You may have also read about prebiotics, which are the food source that keeps probiotics healthy and thriving. What you may not have heard much about, however, is an emerging term in the nutrition field called postbiotics. While research on postbiotics is still in its infancy, some limited data suggests that postbiotics may be an integral part of a healthy digestive system.
With the swift pace of buzz-worthy nutrition topics constantly moving onward, it is no wonder that people still confuse probiotics and prebiotics. Growing use of the postbiotic terminology is bound to raise even more questions, so let’s backtrack and dive into a brief refresher on the other two -biotics.
Prebiotics are substances that usually come from carbohydrates, like insoluble fiber (the form of fiber that your body cannot break down or digest). Prebiotics are often considered the food for probiotics. As such, these carbohydrates can help support gut and general health by providing an energy source for the healthy population of beneficial bacteria already living in your gastrointestinal tract. Prebiotic consumption is also associated with improved immune function and treatment of gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease, although the data is inconclusive. Like probiotics, you can consume prebiotics in many forms. The gut-healthy fiber found in dark leafy greens such as kale and the inulin found in fresh chicory roots are examples of prebiotic food sources. Prebiotics can also be purchased over the counter and taken as a pill or powder.
Probiotics are an abundant population of healthy bacteria that are plentiful in specific foods and supplements. Consuming probiotics can help maintain the population of gut bacteria that help produce beneficial metabolites. Amino acids, vitamins, and other health-promoting substances produced by good gut bacteria are all examples of metabolites. Like prebiotics, probiotics have also helped treat gastrointestinal disorders like IBS and lactose intolerance. Again, more research needs to be done in this area to confirm the widespread applicability of these treatments, but the initial data is encouraging. The most common probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These probiotics are abundant in foods like tempeh, kefir, pickles, and sauerkraut. You may also take probiotics in a supplement form, often as a pill, powder, or liquid. It is possible to take a supplement that contains both prebiotics and probiotics. These supplements are known as synbiotics.
Now that we’ve covered some basics of pre and probiotics , we’re ready to dive into our main topic: postbiotics. While gut health experts have known about postbiotics for years, their application and definition remain somewhat vague. According to registered dietitian Mindy Hermann, postbiotics are “bioactive compounds produced by food-grade microorganisms during the fermentation process of a food or beverage, which are ingested in the fermented product, resulting in various benefits in the gut of the host”. The process of fermenting postbiotics occurs outside of the body, allowing consumers to ingest the beneficial metabolites usually produced by probiotics directly.
While probiotics are active, living microbes, pre and postbiotics are not. They are dead material that may also support healthy gut flora and reduce inflammation. Similar to the other two -biotics, research on postbiotics is both new and limited. Certain data suggests that postbiotics may be especially useful in supporting a healthy immune function and balancing the gut’s overall microbiome. Food sources of postbiotics include any actively fermented food, including yogurt, pickles, tempeh, and kimchi. They also come as a supplement in pill or powder form.
While not all supplements will be great for everyone, they can certainly be a healthy addition to a well-rounded and balanced diet. For those incorporating supplements to treat specific medical conditions, it is important to consult your health care provider before adding it to your diet.
It is also a good idea to thoroughly research any supplement before purchasing it to ensure its safety and efficacy. The supplement market is loosely regulated in America and even less so outside of the country. Specific product certifications such as non-GMO, organic, and third-party testing are good places to start. If supplements are out of budget or simply not your thing, check your local grocery store for naturally pre, pro, and postbiotic-containing foods such as yogurt, pickles, and tempeh. Not sure where to start? Try this awesome SuperFood Tempeh Burger with pickled carrots to help kick start your gut health journey on a high note!
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