Prebiotics and probiotics have gotten so much attention in the past decade or so that you might think they're the most important factors for gut health.
But there is something even better, a recent discovery that promises to be a gamechanger for gut health -- postbiotics.
Amazingly, research has discovered that prebiotics and probiotics are simply the means to obtaining postbiotics!
In this guide, we'll discuss everything you need to know about the three Ps, how to get more of them, and the resulting health benefits.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Let's start with the ones you know the best -- prebiotics and probiotics.
What is Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are foods that contain fiber. They feed beneficial bacteria. You can also purchase prebiotic fiber supplements.
What Are The Two Types of Fiber?
The two main types of fiber are soluble and insoluble. Most fiber foods contain both types.
Soluble fiber dissolves in liquid, forming a thick gel-like substance. It slows digestion, and as this gel travels through the digestive system, it offers many health benefits.
For instance, it can reduce cholesterol absorption and block fat absorption.
When this gel-like substance reaches your lower colon, it feeds the beneficial bacteria.
Insoluble fiber also called roughage, is not digested. Instead, it adds bulk to stool and speeds the transit of food through the digestive tract.
It acts like a gigantic toothbrush, cleaning out toxins and other waste products in your intestines and eliminating them. Insoluble fiber also promotes regular bowel movements.
How to Take Prebiotics
You can get prebiotics by eating various plant foods, such as oatmeal, oat bran, nuts, and seeds.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that women aged 50 or younger consume 25 grams of fiber per day, 38 grams for men. (1) You may also take prebiotic supplements, aka fiber supplements.
What is Probiotics?
Probiotics are live beneficial bacterial colonies located in your gastrointestinal tract. They help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and maintain a healthy diversity and balance of microorganisms.
Why is this important?
The gastrointestinal tract is home to trillions of microorganisms, most of them located in the large intestine (colon.)
Collectively called the gut microbiota, these microbes are responsible for breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and synthesizing specific vitamins.
They also play a role in the immune system, metabolism, mood, and much more.
How to Take Probiotics
You can get probiotics by consuming fermented foods and by taking probiotic supplements.
Foods that contain probiotics include:
The most popular way to get probiotics these days is by taking supplements.
Problems with Probiotic Supplements
However, there are a few potential problems with probiotic supplements that you won't see in advertisements.
First, there is little evidence that probiotic supplements effectively improve digestive health (or any other areas of health.)
In a report by the American Society for Microbiology, researchers noted that while probiotic supplements may help some specific issues -- such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and urinary tract infections -- the beneficial effects seen in studies were usually low and could easily be explained by the placebo effect. (2)
Other problems? Probiotic supplements have been found to be contaminated with potentially dangerous organisms.
Indeed, infants have suffered an infection after ingesting pathogenic and even non-pathogenic live microbes. (3, 4)
Some people also experience mild side effects after taking probiotic supplements, including gas and bloating. But they may also cause serious side effects in those with underlying health conditions.
What is Postbiotics?
Postbiotics are “waste” products resulting from bacterial fiber fermentation in the lower colon. When you consume soluble fiber, it travels to your lower intestine, where your good bacteria eat it. This bacteria then excretes postbiotic metabolites.
Numerous research studies suggest that postbiotics provide most health benefits commonly attributed to fiber intake and probiotics.
Types of Postbiotic Metabolites
Thousands of postbiotic metabolites exist, so, unfortunately, it’s not possible to list all of them in this article. But here are some of the most important ones.
Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs): acetic, propionic, and butyrate: A primary class of postbiotic metabolites shown to have numerous crucial health benefits. For example, specific SCFAs may reduce the risk of cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disease, and much more. (We'll delve more into butyrate shortly.)
B-vitamin synthesis (biotin, cobalamin, folates, nicotinic acid, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, riboflavin, and thiamine): These vitamins play a significant role in cardiovascular health, hormones and cholesterol production, proper nerve function, energy levels, brain function, and more.
Vitamin K: Essential for proper blood clotting and bone metabolism. It also regulates blood calcium levels.
Glutathione: An essential antioxidant that may reduce the risk of several diseases - including diabetes, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis - by reducing oxidative stress.
Antimicrobial peptides(AMPs): May protect the body against dangerous pathogens. And unlike traditional antibiotics, antimicrobial peptides appear to slow pathogenic resistance to them. This means they can be more effective for long-term use than antibiotics.
How Does Postbiotics Affect Overall Health?
As you can see, postbiotics offer health benefits that go far beyond the digestive tract. But how is that possible?
There was a time when science believed gut microbes were only concerned with digestive issues. We now know that these microbes and the brain communicate with each other.
The gut contains about 75% of the body's immune cells and 100 million neurons. For this reason, the gut is often called the "second brain.")
The gut and the brain participate in bidirectional communication through the vagus nerve.
One of the most critical nerves in the human body, the vagus nerve runs from the brain stem and through the neck, chest, and abdomen. It appears that the enteric nervous system (ENS) -- more than 100 million nerves lining the gut -- transmits the state of health to the brain and vice versa.
What is the Most Important Postbiotic Metabolite?
As previously mentioned, short-chain fatty acids are some of the most crucial postbiotics.
They have been shown to improve digestive health, boost immune function, support mental health, soothe gastrointestinal diseases, reduce the risk of numerous chronic diseases, and more.
But scientific evidence suggests that butyrate is the most health-promoting short-chain fatty acid and postbiotic metabolite. Indeed, Harvard calls butyrate the “optimal” postbiotic and notes that it provides more health benefits than the others.
Of the three primary short-chain fatty acids -- acetic, propionic, and butyrate -- butyrate is the least abundant produced by bacterial fermentation in the large intestine.
Below is an estimation of the percentage of each SCFA produced through intestinal fermentation: (5)
Though only 15% of butyrate SCFA is produced, it provides an estimated 60% to 70% of the colon's energy requirements of epithelial cells.
Health Benefits of Butyrate
There are numerous scientifically-proven health benefits of butyrate. Unfortunately, we only have the space to cover a few of them in this article.
Does Butyrate Reduce Inflammation?
Yes, it does!
Numerous studies suggest that butyrate may reduce inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract by regulating immune response, aiding recovery from leaky gut, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and colon cancer. (6)
Does Butyrate Improve Digestive Function?
Yes, it does!
Numerous research studies show that butyrate has a beneficial effect on the hypersensitivity of intestinal receptors, resulting in decreased intestinal pressure. A decrease in intestinal pressure can reduce abdominal discomfort, pain, gas, and bloating. (7)
Butyrate has also been shown to help keep the Ph level of the gut, preventing bad bacteria from overwhelming your gut microbiota. (Harmful bacteria cannot survive in an acidic environment.) (8)
Does Butyrate Heal a Leaky Gut?
Yes, butyrate has many mechanisms for healing a leaky gut.
As previously mentioned, research suggests that butyrate reduces gut inflammation that can help prevent or heal a leaky gut.
That's a great benefit, but butyrate does something even better. It has been shown to repair and enhance the barrier function of intestinal cells. (9) Weakened barrier cells -- called tight junctions -- allow harmful substances to enter your bloodstream. Therefore, to prevent a leaky gut, it is crucial that the tight junctions remain strong. And it appears that butyrate does just that!
Does Butyrate Cause Weight Gain?
No, just the opposite. Butyrate appears to defend against weight gain and obesity.
Various research studies suggest that butyrate:
Helps regulate blood glucose and insulin levels (10, 11, 12)
Increase insulin sensitivity
Reduce body fat
Reduce food intake
All of these factors attest to butyrate's potential for weight control.
Does Butyrate Protect Against Colon Cancer?
Butyrate has been shown to provide significant benefits for colon health, including the possible prevention of colon cancer.
Numerous studies show that Butyrate protects against the development of Colon cancer. Specifically, it appears to accumulate in colon cells, reducing inflammation and preventing tumor cell progression. (13)
And get this: Butyrate also appears to trigger "cell suicide," a process called “apoptosis,” causing them to die off before tumors can form! (14)
How Can I Increase my Gut Butyrate?
You can increase butyrate production by eating plenty of fiber foods, leading to severe gastrointestinal distress. But this is a painful, inefficient, and lengthy process for such a small amount of butyrate. (Remember, butyrate is the least abundant short-chain fatty acid produced by bacterial fermentation in the large intestine.)
Can I Take Butyrate Supplements?
You can, but there's a significant problem with butyrate supplements.
First, butyrate is a smelly molecule that tastes awful! Second, it is destroyed by the digestive process before making it to your lower colon, where it's needed to perform all those incredible health benefits!
So, any butyrate supplement on store shelves usually includes a stabilizing agent to ensure it gets to your large intestine. But that doesn't always work.
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