You’ve heard of probiotics, seen advertisements for prebiotics, but now there’s a new -biotic that people are talking about in the gut health space: Postbiotics, what remains after your body digests probiotics and prebiotics.
“Postbiotics are byproducts produced by probiotics after they feed on prebiotics. Although research is new and limited, initial studies on postbiotics show they may benefit heart health and have the same benefits as probiotics,” explains Sheri Berger, RDN, a dietitian nutritionist and owner of the company Sheri The Plant Strong Dietitian. So if probiotics are the microorganisms that promote healthy digestion (the “good bacteria”) and prebiotics (fiber is the most common one) are what the probiotics eat, postbiotics are what’s created by this process.
Postbiotics may have a wide range of health benefits from lowering blood sugar levels to reducing inflammation in the body. And like prebiotics and probiotics, they could potentially boost immunity and skin health. It’s a growing area of interest in the supplement industry — some wellness brands have already started to include postbiotic ingredients — though it’s important to remember that, like probiotics and prebiotics, you can get postbiotics naturally in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, and miso.
Here’s what to know about this new but exciting area of gut health. Keep in mind that postbiotic supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so it’s important to check with your primary care provider before you consider taking them.
One of the reasons postbiotics are growing in popularity are their potentially wide range of health benefits.
Gut health and immunity
Postbiotics appear to boost the immune system according to Keri Gans, MS, RDN, a dietician and author of The Small Change Diet. And some research suggests they may even be better than probiotics when it comes to amping up immune function in addition to playing a role in reducing gastrointestinal inflammation. It’s also possible that postbiotics may be able to promote digestive function in infants by supporting the microbiome as it matures.
Fighting chronic disease
Early research suggests postbiotics may play a role in colon cancer treatment, and some studies have observed postbiotics stopping the cell cycle that allows cancer cells to divide and multiply. Another theory is that postbiotics may trigger cancer cells to self-destruct.
Since postbiotics appear to help reduce inflammation, scientists have been looking into whether these compounds may help control the overactive inflammation people experience from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and COVID. Ongoing research suggests postbiotics could potentially increase the effectiveness of current COVID treatments by dampening inflammation and restoring the balance between good and bad microbes in the gut.
For IBD, testing on mice showed postbiotics working better than probiotics to manage the disease. Although Gans stresses that it’s too soon to tell whether the benefits are truly due to postbiotics treatment or another factor: “Research on using prebiotic, probiotic, and postbiotic supplements to treat IBD has been inconclusive. There is some concern of uncomfortable gastrointestinal side effects with their use and further research needs to be done.”
Improves skin and vaginal health
Beyond the gut, researchers are looking at the role postbiotics may play in skin and vaginal health. A 2022 review in the journal Biomolecules explains that postbiotics could possibly strengthen the skin barrier and speed up the wound-healing process. In the vaginal microbiome, some postbiotics were shown to be effective in treating bacterial infections such as those caused from Candida strains.
The exact ways probiotics function in the body isn’t yet fully understood. In 2021, the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics issued a statement on postbiotics which included five potential mechanisms that could explain their role in gut health.
One theory suggests that probiotics act as a “support buddy” for gut microbes while another suggests they may help strengthen the gut barrier. The postbiotic butyric acid, for example, appears to provide energy for cells lining the colon. Other potential mechanisms include a role in immune function or metabolic response.
With so many gut-health options available, a natural question is whether one is better than the other. Experts say there is no clear winner. “It depends on what an individual needs and their health goals,” explains Gans. “Everyone’s gut microbiome is unique, so pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.”
Since the idea of taking postbiotic supplements is still new, it’s important to look at the ingredients of every product and talk with your doctor before starting a new supplement regimen. Alternatively, as mentioned earlier, you can find postbiotics in certain food and beverages that undergo fermentation. Berger recommends miso, sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt because they contain both probiotics and postbiotics. She also suggests people get a good helping of prebiotics from everyday ingredients such as onion and garlic.
Before you go, make sure to check out these powerful quotes for reshaping your relationship with food.
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