Postbiotics — What Are Postbiotics and How Do They Benefit You?

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When it comes to trendy wellness topics, gut health often comes to mind, and for a good reason. A healthy gut is an indicator of good health—and research has shown that it may improve your running.

You’ve probably heard of prebiotics and probiotics. But you may not be familiar with another type of ‘biotic,’—postbiotics—which may be another key to achieving optimal gut health.

What are postbiotics (and prebiotics and probiotics)?

It may help to understand the different ‘biotics’ in play for gut health. Here’s a quick refresher on prebiotics and probiotics.

Prebiotics

“[These] are certain types of fiber in plants that are partially broken down by bacteria within our large intestine,” says Julie Stefanski, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

These fibers are found in garlic, onions, leeks, leafy greens, kale, and oats. And research has found they may reduce exercise-induced asthma symptoms in runners.

“Bacteria acts upon these types of prebiotic fibers and produces beneficial compounds within our gut such as short-chain fatty acids which the cells lining our colon can utilize,” says Stefanski.

Probiotics

“Probiotics are specific live bacteria which have been shown to be beneficial to health in humans,” says Stefanski.

These “good” bacteria are found naturally in your gut and help change or repopulate intestinal bacteria to balance gut flora—and they’ve been found to reduce GI symptoms in marathon runners. Fermented dairy foods like yogurt, kefir products and aged cheeses, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and cultured nondairy yogurts all contain probiotics.

Postbiotics

“Postbiotics include any material left over in food by the bacteria used to ferment the food item,” says Stefanski. “This may include substances produced by the bacteria or parts of dead bacteria such as the cell walls.”

Postbiotics are found in any food which has been fermented by live bacteria such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, yogurt, and certain pickles.

So how exactly are postbiotics different from prebiotics and probiotics?

“The best way to think about it is that the prebiotics are the fuel for the probiotics who are the workers in our gut. The end result of all the hard work done by the probiotics are the postbiotics. In other words, the postbiotics are the goods created,” says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet.

And while probiotics are living, both pre and postbiotics are dead material.

“Postbiotic substances include short-chain fatty acids, protein chains called peptides, and parts of dead bacteria,” says Stefanski. “Experts believe that these substances can act to maintain gut health and reduce inflammation.”

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What are the benefits of postbiotics?

Research on postbiotics is still fairly new and limited. However, initial research may point to postbiotic supplements being beneficial.

“Scientific research has confirmed that postbiotics may help maintain a healthy immune system, support a healthy digestive system, and help balance the microbiome in our gut,” says Gans.

Research has found they may lower inflammation and improve immune health, and possibly help prevent type 2 diabetes. Though postbiotics have been found to be a boon to your overall health, it’s still not understood exactly how they work.

“This is a really new area of interest and is not well defined,” says Stefanski. “Within all the substances produced by bacteria, there’s not supporting research yet to tease out that one of those compounds has certain benefits over another.”

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Are there any potential risks of taking postbiotics?

While postbiotics are generally safe, you may have some not-so-nice side effects.

“Athletes who have sensitive GI systems need to be cautious with adding any supplement to their regiment that touts digestive benefits or effects,” says Stefanski. “Everyone has individual responses to these types of products, and no one wants to be out for a run and have a supplement kick in midstride when there’s no bathroom facilities available.”

Should runners take postbiotics?

If you’re looking to improve your gut health, an obvious place to start is with fermented foods, and those high in fiber. However, if you’re looking to supplement, discuss taking postbiotics with your healthcare provider.

Gans does suggest taking a postbiotic supplement. “I recommend that anyone interested in taking better care of their bodies consider adding a postbiotic to their daily regime. Maintaining a healthy immune and digestive system is important year-round, especially for someone who wants to try and feel their best so they can keep their training and running schedule on track.”

And if you are interested, do your research on which supplement you choose.

“It’s important to remember that dietary supplements within the U.S. are only loosely regulated and even less so if manufactured outside of North America,” says Stefanski.

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