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Postbiotics: The newest addition to the gut health family

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When it comes to our health, most of us have heard of prebiotics and probiotics and know a thing or two about their benefits for our digestive system (although it’s hard to tell them apart), but what about postbiotics?

To recap, probiotics are the live microorganisms or “good bacteria” that we consume in our diets to establish a healthy gut microbiota: the entire collection of trillions of bacteria that normally live in the gut.

Probiotics such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, also known as lactic acid bacteria, are found in fermented foods including yogurt, sauerkraut, some cheeses and some fermented beverages, as well as in dietary supplements.

Prebiotics are what probiotics feed on, mainly the non-digestible plant materials in our diet, including fiber that can only be used by probiotics and the gut microbiota.

Fruits including bananas and apples, vegetables such as Jerusalem artichokes, leeks and asparagus, onions, garlic and even some grains, nuts and legumes are rich in prebiotic compounds.

Certain combinations of probiotics and prebiotics can be used together to enhance the beneficial effects of probiotics when consumed, and these are known as synbiotics.

So what are postbiotics?

As the name suggests, postbiotics are what is generated after the digestion of certain foods. They are the degradation products or “metabolites” that follow the digestion of prebiotics and fiber-rich compounds by the probiotics and the resident microbiota in our intestines.

The colon, the lower part of our digestive system, is where many postbiotics are produced, as the microbiota and the food we eat go through a stage called colonic fermentation in the colon.

One of the important things that happen during colonic fermentation is the breakdown of prebiotics and non-digestible fibers in our diet by the gut microbiota. This produces beneficial compounds for our health such as short-chain fatty acids, certain vitamins (vitamin B and K), amino acids and antimicrobial peptides that prevent the growth and activity of harmful bacteria.

Some carbohydrate substrates known as secreted polysaccharides and exopolysaccharides produced by these bacteria also provide various beneficial effects, and thus are considered postbiotics.

But because the concept of postbiotics is relatively new, the process of defining them is still a work in progress. In our article Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatologywe discuss the definition of probiotics and their importance in enabling consumers to understand which products have beneficial health properties.

Benefits of postbiotics

In general, postbiotics can provide us with benefits similar to those of probiotics and prebiotics.

But the beauty of postbiotics is that they can provide these benefits without the side effects that probiotics and prebiotics can have. For example, some people may experience discomfort from a temporary increase in gas and bloating after taking probiotics and prebiotics.

So you can take postbiotics as supplements if you don’t tolerate them or don’t like consuming probiotics and prebiotics.

One of the well-known benefits of postbiotics is their ability to shift our gut microbiome towards a healthy composition. Research has shown that beneficial postbiotic compounds can support the growth, activities and functions of probiotics and the gut microbiota.

It is more like a boosting effect, so that our gut microbiota, which plays a crucial role in our overall health, can fight off pathogenic microorganisms like Salmonella in our body. As we know, healthy gut microbiota keeps us healthy as it can positively affect our overall health.

Postbiotics can also boost our immune system. For example, the exopolysaccharides produced by Lactobacillus delbrueckii ssp. bulgaricus, one of the starter culture bacteria used to make yogurt, has the ability to enhance the activity of the body’s natural killer cells.

Similar positive effects on the immune system were shown in a recent study in which researchers used exopolysaccharides produced by Lactiplantibacillus plantarum isolated from human breast milk.

Short-chain postbiotic fatty acids produced by digesting high-fiber plant foods may also reduce the risk of colon cancer. They are considered carcinogenic metabolites. Some positive effects of postbiotics on breast cancer patients have also been demonstrated.

It is still early days for postbiotic research, with most of these studies being cell-based or animal-based laboratory experiments. However, their applications in humans are promising.

Are Dead Probiotics Helpful?

For beneficial probiotic effects, they must be alive when consumed and travel through our gut. But recent research shows that even if you completely remove the probiotic cells from its growth medium, i.e. the food source where probiotics are grown, the cell-free source can still produce some positive effects, including boosting the immune system. .

This appears to be because some postbiotics produced by these probiotics when in food remain even if you remove all living probiotics. For example, some exopolysaccharides and vitamins remain active and don’t break down in food before we consume them.

Some dead probiotics and their cellular components have also been shown to provide beneficial effects. But much more research needs to be done in this area.

How to exploit the benefits of postbiotics

As the field of probiotics is still growing, there will be much more to discover in the coming years.

For now, the best thing we can do for gut health is consume probiotic-containing foods like yogurt and sauerkraut because they contain both postbiotics that were produced during processing and storage, as well as living probiotics, which they will continue to release more postbiotics in the gut.

Including prebiotic-rich plant foods in your diet will therefore add to these health benefits, providing food with probiotics as a first step towards a healthy gut microbiome.

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