Postbiotics: The Unsung Hero Of Gut Health
You’ve heard of probiotics and perhaps even prebiotics. But postbiotics? Learn what they are, how they positively affect your health and the best sources.
Probiotic supplements are magic. Just pop a pill and gut health is instantly achieved. Or just eat some yogurt and friendly bacteria will populate your GI tract and all your health concerns will vanish.
That’s what savvy marketers would like you to believe anyway.
But probiotics are only one part of the equation when it comes to having a healthy microbiome in the colon, aka, the large intestine, where the majority of your bacteria should colonize, as you learned in this article about SIBO.
(If you forget whether bacteria should be in the small intestine or large intestine, just remember: COLONize the colon.)
In order to have a flourishing microbiome in the colon, the beneficial bacteria (probiotics) need to be fertilized. And the best fertilizer for probiotics is prebiotics (prebiotic fiber). Resistant starches such as chicory root, and raw garlic and onion (other examples here) are prebiotic fiber.
But even if you eat a ton of raw onion everyday (you probably won’t have many friends if you do) and other resistant starches, that’s not the end of the gut health story.
Yes, eating resistant starches will lead to a healthier microbiome.
However, it’s not the bacteria itself that confer health benefits to us.
It’s basically what they poop after eating the prebiotic fiber. And that metabolic byproduct is what’s known as “postbiotics.”
What are postbiotics?
These short-chain fatty acids are arguably the most important component of your gut microbiome.
According to a research article published in Advances in Experimental Medicine & Biology, “Increasing evidence indicates that many of the health beneficial effects associated with the establishment of a symbiotic gut microbiota are driven by bacterial metabolic by-products.”
The term "postbiotics,” the article co-authors go on, “indicates any soluble factor resulting from the metabolic activity of a live bacteria or any released molecule capable of providing health benefits through a direct or indirect mechanism.”
Which is a fancy way of saying postbiotics are chemicals released by friendly bacteria after they feast on prebiotic fiber that ferments in the colon. And these chemicals are what ultimately defines our state of health.
Another way to put it, courtesy of Dr. Rajsree Nambudripad, integrative medicine specialist, who told US News & World Report, “Postbiotics are the end goal of boosting your intake of prebiotics and probiotics.”
Benefits of postbiotics
Postbiotics can actually build and heal the gut lining. You’ve probably heard of leaky gut. To sum up, it describes the weakening of the mucosal barrier that normally prevents undigested food from leaking into the bloodstream and toxins from entering the GI tract.
Leaky gut can cause autoimmune disorders. Preliminary studies show enthusiasm for postbiotic therapy. The study above in Advances in Experimental Medicine & Biology suggests postbiotics may be a promising effective preventive strategy against necrotizing enterocolitis, which is the most common and serious intestinal disease among premature babies.
When you eat plenty of resistant starches and other sources of prebiotic fiber, the good bacteria in your gut produces short chain fatty acids. And these short-chain fatty acids fortify the gut barrier and help calm the inflammatory response caused by leaky gut.
And because the gut is engaged in a continuous feedback loop with the brain, postbiotics may improve GUT-BRAIN communication.
What’s the benefit of that to you?
You’ll feel happier. You’ll sleep better. You’ll digest your food better and pretty much every other important facet of wellness.
You see, gut-brain communication plays a critical role in the proper functioning of neurotransmitters. The feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine depend on optimal gut-brain communication. And if you have great gut-brain communication, you’ll be able to concentrate better and improve your memory and focus.
Examples of short-chain fatty acids
Want to dive a little deeper into the world of postbiotics? There are a few prominent chemicals that probiotics produce after they chomp on prebiotic fiber. One of them is called butyrate. We mentioned gut health above and butyrate may prove to be a miracle for repairing leaky gut by building colonocytes, which are cells in the lining of the colon. (Remember: COLONIZE your colon!)
But what if you don’t want to eat raw onion and garlic and the other foods that make the best sources of prebiotic fiber? Are there other ways to skip the middleman, er, middlebug and eat short-chain fatty acids?
Well, you could take a butyrate supplement. There’s no clear-cut evidence yet that it can help overcome gut issues.
But if you like apples, almonds, rolled oats and green-tipped bananas, you’ll provide your probiotics with plenty of prebiotics. And then, your colon will be fed with plenty of postbiotics. Happy colon, happy you!
You can also consume fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso soup, kefir and yogurt. But for some people with digestive issues like SIBO, fermented foods and prebiotic fiber can exacerbate gas and bloating.
If that’s the case then try to first repair your gut and perhaps take a butyrate supplement or consume a little ghee butter (clarified butter; the milk solids are removed, which makes it easier to digest if you have sensitivity to dairy foods). Ghee butter contains no fiber, so if you can’t digest fiber well, a tablespoon of ghee may be just what the doctor ordered.
Speaking of doctors, for best results, work with a functional medicine doctor or health coach rather than going at it alone, provided you have the budget. If you really want to get to know the health of your colon, you can order a comprehensive stool test to assess whether or not you have colonized your colon with postbiotics.