Did you know that when probiotics are digested in the gut, they produce health-promoting compounds known as postbiotics? Postbiotics are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process that occurs when you ingest probiotic supplements or probiotic-rich foods and beverages such as yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha. Emerging research demonstrates that these beneficial compounds support immune and digestive system health in various ways. (14)
Continue reading to learn more about the various health benefits of postbiotics and how you can support your gut’s ability to produce them, with or without added help from postbiotic supplements.
What are postbiotics?
Postbiotics are bioactive compounds that are created during digestion when the bacteria in your gut break down the prebiotic fibers in certain foods. The term postbiotics encompasses various constituents that are released by or produced via the metabolic activity of the microorganism, which provides a benefit to the host. Examples of postbiotics include:
- Bacterial lysates
- Cell wall fragments
- Extracellular polysaccharides (EPS)
- Functional proteins
- Secreted polysaccharides
- Short-chain fatty acids (e.g., acetate, butyrate, propionate) (14)
Postbiotics vs. probiotics and prebiotics
Unlike probiotics, postbiotics do not contain live microorganisms. (15) Postbiotics should also not be confused with prebiotics, a type of indigestible fiber found in many plant-based foods. Prebiotics feed the live microorganisms residing in the gut, which then ferment in the gut to create postbiotics. (14)
The body depends on the consumption of prebiotics and probiotics, whether from foods or supplements, to produce postbiotics. (14) Diets rich in fiber have been shown to support the production of postbiotics such as short-chain fatty acids. In contrast, diets low in fiber and high in fat are associated with limited short-chain fatty acid fermenting capacity and increased risk of chronic disease such as colorectal cancer and cardiometabolic diseases. (13)
Examples of prebiotic foods include:
- Beans and legumes (e.g., soybean, peas)
- Human breast milk
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Raw garlic
- Raw honey
- Raw onion
- Raw asparagus
- Under-ripe bananas
- Whole grains (e.g., wheat, barley, rye) (5)(15)
Probiotics are largely found in fermented foods and beverages, such as:
- Yogurt (10)
Tip: To naturally boost your gut’s production of postbiotics, consume prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods on a regular basis.
Health benefits of postbiotics
Outlined below are some of the several health benefits of postbiotics.
1. Gut health
Postbiotics may reduce inflammation in the gut and enhance epithelial barrier function, which is responsible for regulating nutrient absorption and preventing the invasion of harmful bacteria. (9)
Some research demonstrates that short-chain fatty acids such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate may improve symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. (9) One small study found that administration of butyrate for 13 weeks helped improve symptoms in individuals with Crohn’s disease, a type of irritable bowel disease (IBD). In fact, 69% of participants noted symptom improvement and 53% achieved remission. (11)
Did you know? Individuals with IBD have been shown to have fewer healthy bacteria in the gut that ferment fibers and produce short-chain fatty acids. (9)
Individuals experiencing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may also benefit from postbiotic supplementation. One study involving subjects with IBS demonstrated improvements in pain during defecation as well as urgency to defecate following 12 weeks of supplementation with sodium butyrate, a type of postbiotic. (1)
2. Immune health
The digestive tract is home to many types of immune cells and is an integral component of your immune system. Short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate have been shown to play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the intestinal epithelial barrier by supporting the production of intestinal mucus and regulating the expression of tight junctional proteins, which seal the spaces between intestinal epithelial cells. (13) Having a healthy intestinal barrier helps improve the body’s resistance against infection. (14)
In a trial comparing the effects of low versus high doses of the postbiotic Lactobacillus pentosus b240 (a gram-positive bacterium isolated from fermented tea leaves), high doses were shown to reduce the rate of the common cold in adults over the age of 65. (12)
A systematic review evaluating recent findings of research conducted in children under the age of five concluded that postbiotic supplementation, specifically heat-killed L. paracasei CBA L74, may reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections such as laryngitis and pharyngitis. (8)
If you suffer from allergies, postbiotics may offer some symptom relief. Bacterial lysates have been shown to reduce symptoms of atopic dermatitis (eczema) (3) and reduce the frequency of allergic rhinitis (stuffy nose) episodes. (7)
Although postbiotic supplements are not as commercially available as probiotic supplements, some health food stores and supplement distributors may carry them. Postbiotic supplements may be available under different names, such as calcium butyrate or sodium butyrate, or they can be found in three-in-one supplements that also contain prebiotics and probiotics. (2)
While the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics are widely understood, it’s important to note that there is little to no research demonstrating the benefits of taking all three constituents at once. Furthermore, we don’t fully understand the benefits of each type of postbiotic, and the way probiotics are broken down into postbiotics is believed to be highlighly individualized, making additional research necessary. (14)
The truth is that you don’t need a postbiotic supplement to experience their health benefits. Remember that postbiotics are the result of the fermentation of prebiotics by probiotics in the gut. Consuming prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods, or taking a probiotic supplement when directed by your practitioner, can help your gut produce postbiotics naturally. (15)
Did you know? Because postbiotics are technically “dead,” they have a longer shelf life compared to probiotics. (6)
The bottom line
Current studies suggest that postbiotics may help enhance gut and immune function by promoting a healthy intestinal barrier; however, more research is needed to validate these claims. While postbiotic supplements are considered safe for most individuals, it’s important to talk to your integrative healthcare provider before introducing postbiotics, or any other supplement, to your wellness plan. (4)
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