Gut health has been a hot topic recently due to the increasing understanding of the complex relationship between the digestive system and overall health. Science has shown that a healthy gut is vital to a healthy body.
Probiotics and prebiotics are said to be key components of gut health. Beneficial human gut microbiota need them to survive and thrive. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help to maintain the balance of microorganisms in the gut, while prebiotics feed the beneficial bacteria in the intestines, allowing them to flourish. Both are essential for optimal gut health, which is why they have become popular gut health supplements.
After all, the global probiotic market size was estimated at USD 58.17 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to USD 111.21 billion by 2030 (1). Meanwhile, the global prebiotic market size was estimated at USD 6.05 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to USD 21.2 billion by 2030 (2).
Do probiotics and prebiotics improve gut health?
Research shows that probiotics and prebiotics may be helpful in relieving specific conditions. However, there is increasing evidence that many of the health claims for probiotics are a lot of hype with little science to back them up. At best, they can be a waste of your hard-earned money; at worst, they can cause severe digestive distress and lead to numerous health conditions.
Is there anything that can improve your gut health?
Indeed, there is. Postbiotics — the compounds produced by the bacterial fermentation of fiber in the lower colon — are emerging as the optimal gut health solution that may provide most of the health benefits of probiotics and prebiotics with no known side effects or health risks.
We’ll cover postbiotics in a second, but first, let’s talk about probiotics and prebiotics.
What are the health risks of probiotics?
Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria that naturally live in your microbiome. You can add to your gut’s bacterial population by taking probiotic supplements or consuming fermented foods.
Below are a few of the potential health risks of taking probiotic supplements:
Probiotics can cause an imbalance in the gut microbiome.
Gut health depends on having a diverse microbial community where the beneficial bacteria outnumber the harmful ones. If this balance becomes upset, it can lead to numerous health problems. After all, the intestinal tract contains about 80% of the immune-producing cells in the human body.
There is evidence that postbiotic supplements may cause an imbalance in the intestinal microbiome, leading to an unhealthy gut. As the title of an article recently published in The Washington Post states, “Probiotic supplements may do the opposite of boosting your gut health.” (3a)
Most probiotic supplements contain only a few strains of bacteria, primarily Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Numerous health benefits are associated with these microorganisms, so it’s unsurprising that they’re featured prominently in probiotic supplements.
However, the problem is that taking concentrated doses of specific bacterial strains disrupts microbiome diversity by pushing out other beneficial bacteria that the gut needs.
Probiotics can be harmful.
According to the National Institutes of Health, patients with severe illnesses or compromised immune systems are at significant risk of experiencing adverse effects from probiotics (3).
Some of the health risks of probiotic supplement usage include infections, the transference of antibiotic-resistant genes to other microbes within the digestive tract by the probiotic bacteria, and the production of harmful substances by the probiotic microorganisms.
It has also been reported that some probiotic supplements contain microorganisms not listed on their labels, which could present a severe health risk in some instances.
Finally, some people can be allergic to specific probiotic bacteria added to supplements.
Your gut may be probiotic-resistant
An article published in the journal Cell (4) found that some people’s guts appeared to be resistant to the probiotic bacteria, meaning that the bacteria could not colonize or live in the test subjects’ guts after they consumed standard probiotic bacterial strains. Other individuals, however, experienced rapid growth and flourishing of bacteria in their guts.
The researchers suggested that not everyone is likely to benefit equally from standard probiotic treatments.
Probiotic supplements may be destroyed by stomach acid and never reach the colon.
Researchers from University College London conducted a study in 2014 on eight probiotic products and found that only one of them survived stomach acidity to make it to the intestines (5).
While this is not necessarily a health risk, it suggests you may be wasting your money on certain probiotic brands.
What are the health risks of prebiotics?
Prebiotics are plant-based food sources for your gut’s bacteria that stimulate their growth. They are typically resistant starches and other fibers able to survive digestion and make it to your colon, where they feed the good bacteria that live there.
You can get enough prebiotics by eating a variety of high-fiber foods or by taking prebiotic supplements.
Below are some potential health risks of loading up on prebiotics:
Prebiotics can cause severe digestive distress.
Prebiotics are fermented in the colon by bacteria, causing gas and bloating. Excessive gas, bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea, and nausea can occur if you significantly increase your fiber intake (6). Prebiotics can also cause constipation if you do not drink enough water.
In addition, research indicates an association between large daily prebiotic doses and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) (6).
Prebiotics. Food for Probiotics
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Prebiotics may worsen Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms.
IBS is a common and chronic functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that affects the GI tract. Symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation (or both).
Though dietary fiber is famous for easing digestive issues and regulating bowel movements, studies suggest that prebiotics may worsen IBS symptoms (7). This is because certain types of prebiotics can increase abdominal pain, bloating, and gas as they’re broken down and fermented.
Prebiotics may not produce enough postbiotics.
Research suggests that postbiotics are responsible for most of the health benefits commonly attributed to prebiotic fiber.
The problem is that you’d have to eat a lot of fiber to get enough of certain postbiotic metabolites.
What are postbiotics?
As briefly mentioned above, a postbiotic is a byproduct produced by gut bacteria when they consume or ferment resistant starch, commonly referred to as “fiber” in the lower colon. In contrast to probiotics, postbiotics are nonliving organisms.
Nevertheless, postbiotics have been shown to contribute to gut health, improve immune function, reduce inflammation, support mental health, boost metabolism, defend against various cancers, and more.
Because they are the end product of bacterial fermentation of fiber and are not alive, they offer benefits that probiotics and prebiotics don’t.
5 astonishing reasons why postbiotics supplements are a better choice than probiotics and prebiotics
1. Postbiotics are easy on the digestive system
Taking a postbiotic supplement eliminates the bacterial middleman. You no longer need to consume large amounts of fiber and wait for them to be fermented by the beneficial bacteria in your colon before experiencing health benefits.
Instead, the supplement delivers postbiotic compounds directly into the gut without bacterial involvement.
Do you know what this means? No gas! No bloating! No abdominal pain! Taking a postbiotic supplement allows you to enjoy all of the benefits of a healthy digestive system without the uncomfortable digestive side effects.
Yes, dietary fiber is important for digestive and bowel health. But consuming a massive amount of fiber just to get a minimal amount of postbiotics is counterproductive, especially when it can trigger severe gas, bloating, and other digestive issues.
2. Provides more postbiotics than bacterial fermentation
Butyrate, or butyric acid, has been scientifically proven to be more effective in healing the gut than other short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) postbiotic metabolites. Yet butyrate is the least prevalent SCFA produced by bacterial fermentation of fiber.
The following is an estimate of the percentage of each SCFA produced through intestinal fermentation (8):
- Acetate: 60%
- Propionate: 25%
- Butyrate: 15%
Although only 15% of butyrate is produced, it supplies 60% to 70% of the energy requirements of colon epithelial cells. It is essential that these cells function properly to preserve the integrity of the gut barrier, which prevents dangerous substances from entering the bloodstream.
Butyrate also helps to maintain gut health by reducing inflammation, stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria, and suppressing the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. It also has anti-cancer properties and can help improve digestion.
Due to the small amount of butyrate produced via bacterial fermentation, it is impossible to get enough of this postbiotic through diet alone. Thus, taking a good butyrate postbiotic supplement is essential if you want to enjoy all its gut health benefits.
3. Postbiotics are safer than probiotics for some people,
A huge benefit of postbiotics over probiotics is the reduced risk associated with them. You see, the health risks of probiotic supplements come from the live microorganisms they contain, which can cause complications with other microbes in the gut.
Because postbiotic supplements contain no living microorganisms, they do not have the same health risks as probiotics.
4. Postbiotics are more economical to produce than probiotics and prebiotics.
The economic benefits to the manufacturer and the consumer come from the nonliving nature of postbiotics. This is because postbiotics:
- Have a long shelf life
- Can withstand colder temperatures
- Are produced with great reliability
- Can be easily transported
5. Postbiotics have a wider variety of health benefits.
Postbiotics can support a wider variety of health conditions and do so more quickly and reliably than probiotics or prebiotics.
Below is a list of conditions that postbiotic butyrate may help prevent or relieve based on numerous scientific studies:
- Supports the integrity of the gut barrier
- Prevents or helps repair a leaky gut
- Reduces inflammation
- Boosts the immune system
- Increases metabolism
- Helps with weight control
- Relieves inflammation in the colon and rectum, which is a key feature of inflammatory bowel disease.
- Enhances the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut
- Defends against cancer, especially colon cancer
- Improves brain function
- Protects against neurodegenerative brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s
- Helps reduce harmful visceral belly fat
- Reduces insulin resistance
- Helps lower cholesterol levels
- Stabilizes mood, thereby helping depression and anxiety symptoms
- Helps prevent or treat gastrointestinal infections
- Improves digestive function, reducing bloating, gas, and other digestive problems
- Helps reduce high blood pressure
- Helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels
Common Terms Related to Gut Health
Postbiotics: The term “postbiotics” refers to the bioactive compounds produced when probiotic bacteria in your gut feed on prebiotic foods, including fiber, in your colon. Common postbiotics included short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, vitamin K, and antimicrobial peptides.
Probiotics: The term “probiotics” refers to beneficial microbes, mostly bacteria, living in your intestines. It can also refer to foods and supplements that contain live beneficial bacteria that, when consumed, add to the microbial community in your gut.
Prebiotics: The term “prebiotics” refers to special plant fibers that feed the beneficial microbes in your gut. You can get prebiotics by consuming a variety of fiber-rich foods or by taking prebiotic supplements.
Gut microbiome: The gut microbiome refers to all the microbes that live in your intestines and are essential to your health. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “The microbiome consists of microbes that are both helpful and potentially harmful. Most are symbiotic (where both the human body and microbiota benefit) and some, in smaller numbers, are pathogenic (promoting disease).” (9)
Gut dysbiosis: The term “gut dysbiosis” refers to an imbalance of microorganisms in the intestines. This condition is also known as intestinal dysbiosis or gastrointestinal dysbiosis. Numerous health problems have been linked to dysbiosis.
Postbiotics are bioactive compounds produced when the friendly bacteria in your colon break down and digest resistant starches, aka prebiotic fiber.
Though postbiotics are technically considered waste products, they have numerous health benefits similar to probiotics. Postbiotics contain a variety of compounds that can help to balance the body’s microbiota, boost immune function, and reduce inflammation. Also, postbiotics are more stable than probiotics, meaning they are less likely to be destroyed by the stomach’s acidic environment.
Most postbiotics are safe, well-tolerated, and available in health food stores and online. It is also possible to increase the body’s production of postbiotics naturally by consuming more prebiotics and probiotics.
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