Health 

A Quick Guide to Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Postbiotics

January 20, 2021 5 min read

Cloves of prebiotic-rich garlic on the countertop

By now, you've probably heard about the many benefits associated with probiotics. Live microorganisms, probiotics are believed to alter the microflora in your gut, thereby aiding in digestion and promoting overall wellness. Although probiotic consumption is on the rise—the number of probiotic-using adults quadrupled between 2007 and 2012—you might be less familiar with prebiotics and postbiotics. 

While probiotics refer to food or supplements containing viable microorganisms, prebiotics stimulate the growth and activity of those probiotic bacteria. In this way, prebiotics can improve and restore the bacterial balance of the microbiome. Finally, postbiotics are non-living bacterial or metabolic products that probiotic microorganisms produce. 

Collectively, these elements can help you maintain a healthy microbiome while promoting the balance of the nearly 1,000 species of bacteria residing in your gut. Keep reading to learn about prebiotics versus probiotics versus postbiotics, and discover how they may be able to impact your health for the better. 

Why your gut bacteria matters

Intestinal bacteria play a prominent role in overall health. Along with protecting you from harmful bacteria and supporting digestion, studies show that good gut bacteria may reduce obesity, improve depression, and even play a role in immune function. So it's only logical that the foods and supplements you put into your body can significantly impact your gut's bacterial makeup and subsequent well-being. 

When it comes to preserving your gut health, what you don't eat is just as important as what you do. In general, a high-fat, high-sugar diet can contribute to insulin resistance and other unfavorable conditions. Feeding the bad bacteria in your gut can allow them to grow and colonize more easily. On the other hand, consuming a diet rich in vegetables, grains, and natural probiotics may help preserve digestive health. 

Comparing prebiotics versus probiotics

If you're suffering from stomach upset or other digestive symptoms, you may have heard that supplements can help. Before you decide what option is best for your needs, it pays to do your research regarding prebiotics versus probiotics. So, how do these two ingredients compare?

As live bacteria, probiotics contribute to the population of microbes residing in your gut. When consumed in either whole-food or supplement form, probiotics may effectively treat a wide range of ailments, including antibiotic-induced diarrhea. On the other hand, prebiotics refer to a type of fiber that humans are unable to digest. However, this fiber does stimulate the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

Individuals looking to boost their digestive health may wonder whether prebiotics or probiotics will be most helpful, but these elements may work best when consumed in tandem. While probiotics are a type of good bacteria, prebiotics promote the growth of good bacteria. For this reason, you may want to consider taking both. 

Prebiotic-rich fruits including bananas, oranges, grapes, and melons

Understanding postbiotics

Postbiotics also play a key role in the digestive equation. Referring to the material left behind when bacteria ferment their food, postbiotics are somewhat of a newcomer in the world of gut health. Composed of short-chain fatty acids, peptides, and dead bacteria, it's suspected that postbiotics may play a vital role in the body. 

While research remains limited, early studies indicate that postbiotics can help support the digestive system while boosting immunity. They may achieve this by reducing inflammation, a condition associated with a host of adverse health effects, including a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. 

How do these compounds work together?

Although each of these elements plays a different role in the body, prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics can work together to create a healthy and harmonious gut. 

Many individuals take probiotics to treat digestive irregularity, stomach upset, and chronic GI issues. However, probiotics need to survive stomach acid and intestinal bile to achieve their goals. Even if they do survive, they must have access to nutrients to fuel the growth of healthy bacteria once they arrive in the gut.

That's where prebiotics come in. By maintaining the gut's delicate digestive balance, prebiotics enable probiotics to grow and thrive. However, not every prebiotic is useful for supporting every probiotic strain. If you want to improve colon health, you need to select the prebiotics and probiotics you take with care. 

When prebiotics and probiotics work together, they facilitate the formation of postbiotics. These postbiotics then offer a number of health benefits, including immunomodulatory effects. 

Another way of thinking about this is that prebiotics provide fuel for probiotics, which leave behind an end product known as postbiotics. 

Should you take prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics at the same time?

Research on the relationship between prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics remains limited. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), using these supplements is generally considered safe for healthy individuals. 

Additionally, pregnant women and those who are nursing can likely take probiotics and prebiotics without suffering any side effects. Still, it's a good idea to speak to your doctor before starting any new supplement regimen while pregnant or breastfeeding. 

Food-based sources of prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics

Supplements aren't the only way to get prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics. Many of the foods people consume on a daily basis also contain these beneficial compounds. The following foods are high in prebiotic fiber:

  • Legumes, beans, and peas
  • Oats
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Dandelion greens
  • Garlic, onions, and leeks
Asparagus spears, a source of prebiotic fiber

You can also add prebiotics to your diet by consuming chicory root, a common ingredient used in coffee. Almost 50% of chicory root fiber comes from the prebiotic fiber inulin. Along with supporting gut bacteria growth, research shows that inulin supports digestion while helping to alleviate constipation

Probiotics are another ingredient you can effortlessly obtain from your diet. Foods like yogurt can be a great source of beneficial bacteria. Of note, not all yogurts on the market contain active cultures. If your preferred yogurt brand doesn't list live probiotics on the label, you may want to look for another option. For best results, avoid yogurt with significant quantities of added sugar.

Additionally, fermented foods are helpful because they contain bacteria that ingest the naturally occurring fiber and sugar present in foods. The following fermented foods are excellent sources of probiotics:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha tea
  • Kefir
  • Certain pickles and pickled vegetables

Finally, postbiotics are in many of the foods you might already be eating. In particular, you can get postbiotics by eating foods fermented with live bacteria, such as tempeh, sourdough, and buttermilk. You'll want to avoid the cultured buttermilk typically found in grocery stores, as it generally does not offer probiotic benefits. Instead, choose traditional buttermilk made with fermented dairy products. 

The good news is that many foods known for their prebiotic, probiotic, and postbiotic contents are also considered healthy components of a balanced diet. You can also opt for supplements to help support your gut, such as Physician's Choice 60 Billion Probiotics packed with organic prebiotics or postbiotic-rich Immune.*

In summary

Scientists are still revealing the mechanisms in which gut health affects overall well-being. However, it's believed that intestinal bacteria play a significant role in healthy digestion. Moreover, poor gut health is now associated with an array of long-term consequences, affecting your likelihood of developing diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. 

Although more research is needed, current studies suggest that probiotics, prebiotics, and postbiotics may be an effective way of promoting gut balance and boosting overall health and wellness. 

According to the CDC, it's safe for most patients to take prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics simultaneously for intestinal health. However, if you're pregnant, nursing, or suffering from one or more underlying conditions, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a new nutritional regimen. 

April Maguire - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice 

Up next: Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection


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