Nutrition

Postbiotics: A Missing Key to Gut Health Support?

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You’ve probably heard of probiotics and prebiotics—two key components of the digestive system. Postbiotics, on the other hand, don’t get nearly the same level of attention when it comes to gut health support: Many people haven’t even heard of postbiotics, much less considered incorporating them into their routines.

In light of recent research suggesting that postbiotics are actually just as important as probiotics and prebiotics when it comes to supporting our gut bacteria, it turns out bridging that knowledge gap can be pretty powerful. Here’s what you need to know.* (1)

What are postbiotics?

Postbiotics can be defined as bioactive compounds produced by food-grade microorganisms during a fermentation process—specifically, when the “good bacteria” in your gut digests and breaks down portions of dietary fiber and prebiotics, which are typically found in complex plant carbohydrates. A natural byproduct of this process is the production of short chain fatty acids (more in a sec). And just like probiotics, postbiotics work behind-the-scenes to support gut health.* (1,2,3)

It can be tough to keep all the biotics straight, so here’s a quick refresher on definitions:

  • Prebiotics: Prebiotics can be defined as nondigestible food components that support the growth of probiotics and the beneficial bacteria that exist in the gut so they can flourish.* (5)
  • Probiotics: Probiotics are defined by the World Health Organization as live bacteria that may provide health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. These microorganisms can be found in foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha) and probiotic supplements.* (4,5)
  • Postbiotics: As stated earlier, postbiotics are produced by the fermentation process carried out by beneficial bacteria.* (1,2,3)

PrebioticsProbioticsPostbiotics.jpg

Benefits of postbiotics

Remember that fermentation process we were talking about earlier? Let’s take a closer look at what’s actually going on.

“Beneficial bacteria—including both ingested probiotics and the 'good bacteria' that already exist in the gut—selectively ferment certain things, like prebiotics and some types of fiber,” explains Arianne Vance, MPH, Ritual’s Senior Scientist. “One consequence of this fermentation is the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA), like butyrate, acetate, and propionate.” (2)

  • Butyrate
  • Acetate
  • Propionate

Butyrate is the main callout here: Studies show it’s the primary energy source for the cells that line the colon. That’s why we recommend opting for a postbiotic supplement made with tributyrin, a source of butyrate.* (1,2)

How to support postbiotic production

There are two ways to support the postbiotic concentration in the gut. Since postbiotics are one of the end results of the aforementioned fermentation process, your first option is to increase consumption of foods that provide fiber and prebiotics. This may naturally increase the production of postbiotics in the colon.*

Sources of prebiotics

Here’s some foods that provide prebiotics. (6)

  • Leeks
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Onions
  • Wheat
  • Garlic
  • Chicory
  • Oats
  • Soybeans

Supplementing with postbiotics (and what to look for)

The second, and perhaps more convenient choice, is to take a postbiotic supplement. By going that route, you can circumvent the inevitable hurdles of modern life—picky partners, busy schedules, even limited access to certain foods—and ensure you’re consistently supporting the gut microbiome, no matter what your diet or lifestyle looks like. Just make sure you pick one that includes a clinically-studied postbiotic. Considering postbiotics aren’t as widely available as prebiotics or probiotics, vetting the market to ensure you’re getting a high-quality formula is that much more crucial.*

References:

  1. Wegh CAM, Geerlings SY, Knol J, Roeselers G, Belzer C. Postbiotics and Their Potential Applications in Early Life Nutrition and Beyond. Int J Mol Sci. 2019 Sep 20;20(19):4673.
  2. Campos-Perez W, Martinez-Lopez E. Effects of short chain fatty acids on metabolic …. Biochim Biophys Acta Mol Cell Biol Lipids. 2021 Feb 9;1866(5):158900.
  3. Robles Alonso V, Guarner F. Linking the gut microbiota to human health. Br J Nutr. 2013 Jan;109 Suppl 2:S21-6.
  4. World Health Organization. Guidelines for the Evaluation of Probiotics in Food. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Working Group on Drafting Guidelines for the Evaluation of Probiotics in Food. 2002.
  5. Gibson GR, Roberfroid MB. Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr. 1995 Jun;125(6):1401-12.
  6. Carlson, J. L., Erickson, J. M., Lloyd, B. B., & Slavin, J. L. (2018). ...and Sources of Prebiotic Dietary Fiber. Current developments in nutrition, 2(3), nzy005.

Meet Our Experts

This article features advice and has been reviewed by members of our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Senior Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Senior Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

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