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Fatima from Edmonton asks:
'What’s a postbiotic and should I be taking one?'
Expert: Laura Tilt, registered dietitian and health writer
Given gut health’s meteoric rise from the stuff of dusty medical textbooks to dinner table fodder, there’s a strong chance that you’ll be familiar with many of the terms in its orbit.
Terms like microbiome (the trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut), probiotics (live bacteria found in food like yoghurt that's thought to confer various health benefits when consumed) and prebiotics (a form of dietary fibre that ‘feed’ the bacteria in your gut). Now there’s a new word to add to your gut health dictionary.
Postbiotics are non-living compounds that are produced or released by gut microbes during the fermentation process. Confused? We don’t blame you. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
What are probiotics?
First defined in 2001, probiotics are (to quote the official scientific definition) ‘live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host’ – aka, you.
Though live microbes can be found in both foods (such as kefir) and dietary supplements, only strains with a proven benefit can be given the official ‘probiotic’ label.
Heard the one about how probiotics alter the make-up of the gut microbiome? Well, this isn’t strictly true. Probiotics only colonise the gut for a short time and are thought to carry out their effects indirectly, for example by lowering the pH of the gut, which prevents disease-causing pathogens from taking hold.
What are the health benefits of taking probiotics?
But – isn’t there always a but? - these benefits vary, and no single product can claim them all, so look for a strain matched to the one you’re after.
The US probiotic guide can help you find a strain to suit your needs, but if you just want to give your gut some friendly microbes, pick up a multi-strain product or some live yoghurt or kefir.
What are prebiotics, then?
While you were likely aware of probiotics first, prebiotics have actually been on the scene since 1995.
Essentially, they feed the microbes in your gut. Largely, they’re fibres found in foods – such as onion, garlic, artichokes, oats, pulses and asparagus oats – or supplements.
Consumed in sufficient quantities (3g to 5g or more per day), prebiotics have been shown to increase numbers of beneficial microbes in the gut and the production of postbiotics (we’re getting to those, promise).
Sidenote: be aware that in doses over 6g prebiotics can trigger bloating and wind as a result of the microbe fermentation process.
If your gut is on the more sensitive side, up your intake slowly, or if opting for a supp, choose one made from galacto-oligosaaccharides (rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) as these are less likely to trigger gas.
So, what are postbiotics?
These non-living compounds produced or released by gut microbes during the fermentation process include short chain fatty acids (which keep the lining of the gut healthy), functional proteins and dead bacteria.
Postbiotics are a relatively new concept, but scientists think they offer similar benefits to probiotics, without the challenge of getting live microbes to the gut.
They’re produced when you consume prebiotics and can be found in fermented foods, while research on adding them to supplements is still in its early stages.
Bottom line? Whether you stick a pre, pro or post in front of it, know that all ‘biotics are beneficial and, like most things, they work best in combination: consume prebiotics to feed your probiotics, to benefit from postbiotics. Did someone say teamwork?
What foods should I be eating to get the ‘biotic benefits?
Probiotics: Not all fermented foods contain live microbes, but research says yoghurt and milk kefir are the most likely to have probiotic effects – look out for ‘live’ or ‘active’ cultures on the tub.
Prebiotics: Raid the veg aisle; onions, garlic, bananas, chicory root and Jerusalem artichokes are all plants offering a prebiotic punch.
Postbiotics: Postbiotics can be consumed as part of fermented foods, but they don’t need to be ‘alive’. Find them in pasteurised ‘kraut, kimchi or sourdough.
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