Prebiotics vs probiotics vs postbiotics: what’s the deal? All three p’s are commonly discussed health topics these days. But though they may sound similar, they all play different roles in your body. In short: probiotics are beneficial bacteria; prebiotics are fuel; and postbiotics are the end result.
Read more to learn all you need to know about the difference between prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics.
Gut Microbiome 101
There are trillions of microbes (bacteria, viruses, yeast, fungi, and other tiny organisms) living inside your body. Most of these microbes live in your large intestine, also known as your gut. This community of microbes is called your gut microbiome.
The majority of this bacteria is harmless. Some are bad and may negatively impact your health. Others are good and may help support your health in various ways, like boosting your immune system, brain health, and digestive health.1,2,3
Probiotics Are The Workers
Probiotics are beneficial, live bacteria. Some of this “good” bacteria already lives inside your gut. You can also consume probiotics in the form of supplements or by eating certain foods. When consumed, this bacteria “restocks” the good bacteria in your gut. Probiotics provide a wide range of potential benefits for the human body, brain, and immune system.4,5
How Do Probiotics Work?
A healthy microbiome should be diverse, meaning it should contain a wide variety of strains of bacteria. It should also be stable, meaning the “good” and “bad” bacteria are balanced. Consuming probiotics adds good bacteria to your body, which helps with both diversity and balance.6
Why Are They Good For Us?
Probiotics help ensure that your microbiome works to the best of its ability. When your microbiome is healthy, it:
- Manufactures vitamins, like vitamin K and vitamin B
- Turns fiber into short-chain fats that feed your gut wall and perform metabolic functions
- Prevents bad bacteria from entering your blood
- Helps your body digest food
- Breaks down and absorbs medications
- Prevents numerous health conditions that affect the heart, body, and mind
- And so much more7,8
These are all considered to be the beneficial health effects of probiotics.
Your body naturally seeks to balance its good and bad bacteria. Consuming probiotics may help supercharge this natural process.
Sources Of Probiotics
Many people opt for probiotic supplementation if they find they aren’t getting the probiotics they need from diet alone. A probiotic supplement can introduce important species of healthy bacteria, like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium.9
Naturally fermented foods contain live microorganisms that may help strengthen your gut’s microbiome.10 A few good choices of probiotic-rich foods to add to your diet are:
- Plain yogurt
Prebiotics Are The Fuel
Prebiotics are types of fiber that the human body can’t digest. Your gut bacteria, however, can digest this fiber. Prebiotics serve as fuel (or food) for probiotics. Prebiotics help nourish your gut bacteria. This helps support a healthy digestive system and immune system.12
How Do Prebiotics Work?
When you consume prebiotics, they survive the journey through the digestive tract to the part of the colon where “good” bacteria lives. Once there, the bacteria breaks the prebiotics down into nutrition that they can use to help them grow.13
Why Are They Good For Us?
Some people don’t get enough fiber in their diet to support a healthy colony of “good” bacteria. For others, it may not be a diet issue. They may have a health issue that results in an unhealthy balance of beneficial bacteria.14
Prebiotics may help both of these scenarios by providing fuel to support a robust community of good bacteria. Some studies suggests that prebiotics may potentially benefit the body by:
- Changing the speed at which the body processes carbohydrates
- Boosting calcium absorption
- Supporting probiotic growth in the gut, which leads to all of the benefits that come with a healthy gut microbiome15
Sources Of Prebiotics
There are several different types of prebiotics. Many of them are a form of carbohydrate. Most of these are oligosaccharide carbohydrates (OSCs).16 They naturally exist in a variety of prebiotic foods, including:
- Jerusalem Artichokes
- Sweet Potatoes
- Tiger Nuts
- Belgian Endive17
Because prebiotic concentration in foods can be low, they are often manufactured as prebiotic supplements.18 If you’re looking to boost your prebiotic intake beyond your diet, you may consider supplementation.
Postbiotics Are The End Goal
Postbiotics are bioactive compounds that are produced when probiotic bacteria consumes prebiotic fiber in your colon. Technically, postbiotics are a form of waste. They may have various beneficial effects on your body.19,20
What Exactly Are They?
Postbiotics include any material that remains in food after bacteria consumes it.21 They include:
- Short-chain fatty acids
- Cell wall fragments
- Bacterial lysates (a mixture of pieces of bacteria)
- Cell-free supernatants (waste produced by bacteria and yeast)
- Other microbial metabolites, like vitamins and amino acids22
Why Are They Good For Us?
Many of the potential health benefits that are commonly attributed to probiotics and prebiotics actually come from the production of postbiotics. Postbiotics are linked to several human health benefits.
- Postbiotics, like butyrate, can stimulate T cell production and help support your immune system.
- Short-chain fatty acids may help with certain digestive ailments.
- They may help ease diarrhea.
- They may suppress hunger signals, which could contribute to weight loss.
- They may help support healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.23,24
Sources Of Postbiotics
Increase Your Intake Of Pre- And Probiotics
Because postbiotics are produced when probiotics break down prebiotics, you can naturally increase your body’s postbiotics by increasing your pre- and probiotics. (Say that five times fast!) What’s more, increasing your body’s pre- and probiotics may give you all of the potential health benefits associated with those things, too.25
You can also take a postbiotic supplement. These are somewhat harder to find than pre- and probiotic dietary supplements, but they are available.26 If you want to maintain a healthy immune and digestive system all year round, you may want to speak to your doctor about this option.
Think You Have A Gut Health Issue? Here’s When To See A Doctor
Your gut microbiome is kept healthy through the presence of a diverse and stable colony of bacteria. Occasionally, this microbiome is compromised due to one or more of these factors:
- Your Diet
If your gut health is out of whack, “bad” bacteria may overtake the good. If you experience the following gut-related symptoms, check in with your doctor.
- Issues with bowel movements
- Abdominal discomfort and cramps
- Sudden weight gain
- Drastic changes in cravings and appetite28
Take Care Of Your Gut And It Will Take Care Of You
Your gut microbiome is a living, complex thing. It has so many functions that many scientists think of it as an organ in its own right. It’s dynamic and ever-changing – factors like the environment, diet, and medicine can all change its composition.29
This is all to say that it’s never too late – or too soon – to take care of your gut. No matter what its current status, it may be worth looking at prebiotics vs probiotics vs postbiotics to see what might help you. Talk to your doctor if you’re ready to boost your gut health.