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What are Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Postbiotics?

The microbiome is very important to improved health and disease control. Probiotics and postbiotics are important parts of good gut health, but prebiotics (the food for your good gut microbiota) are the most important of all three.

What are the 3 p’s of biotics?

  • Prebiotics are carbohydrates and fibres that feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut. Humans don’t normally digest prebiotics directly.
  • Probiotics are live bacteria that are known to supply health benefits when present in the human gut. The term probiotic applies to bacteria naturally present or external supplements.
  • Postbiotics are the beneficial molecules produced by probiotic bacteria such as short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Probiotics are also known as secondary metabolites.

In the simplest terms: Prebiotics feed Probiotics who in turn produce Postbiotics.

A helpful analogy is to think of the gut is a garden. The prebiotics are the soil and fertiliser, the probiotics are the seeds that grow into plants, and postbiotics are the fruit that humans then eat. Although all three contribute to good health, the most important by far is a good prebiotic.

The term prebiotic describes a wide range of substances. These range from simple sugars (oligosaccharides) to complex foods that contain fibres, minerals and micronutrients. Bacteria can survive with simple fibre supplements but need more than just a carbon source to thrive. Consuming a simple supplement is very similar to humans eating cheap white bread. It will stop starvation but there are far better options available. It has been shown that some simple prebiotics can exacerbate IBS conditions.

How much of what we consume reaches our gut?

Probiotic supplements usually only contain one or a few strains and there are already over a thousand known bacterial strains living in the human gut. Consuming a probiotic usually does not substantially change the gut microflora for long. Probiotics can also be very fragile. Heat, stomach acid and time can kill them. Only a fraction of the probiotics swallowed will make it to the large intestine.

The evidence for consuming probiotic supplements is not yet broadly proven. Research has shown some promising results for specific conditions, however benefits to the population at large are unclear. In some cases probiotic supplements have even been shown to exacerbate negative effects.

Prebiotics feed the good bacteria that already exist in the gut. They aren’t affected by heat or stomach acid and they have been shown to help improve outcomes for people who are concerned about blood sugar levels. Prebiotics will also feed the bacteria in probiotic supplements. Conversely, probiotic supplements are less effective without prebiotics as they don’t have the food they need to thrive. Consuming high-quality prebiotics will improve the performance of a probiotic supplement.

How long does it take to build a healthy gut?

On average it takes around 3 hours for a next generation of bacteria to exist in the gut. This means significant changes to the gut microbiome can occur in as little as a day. Eating prebiotics feeds the good bacteria which then dominate the bad (proinflammatory) bacteria. Feed your gut microbiome regularly to stay healthy. Like humans, microbes need a consistent supply of food to multiply and improve overall wellbeing.

Should you take the 3 p’s if you already have a healthy gut?

Probiotic and postbiotic supplements may be of aid to the gut while it is undergoing repair from an injury or bad diet. Continued use of probiotic and postbiotic supplements after repair is probably not necessary. However, even after your gut has repaired, the continued consumption of a high-quality prebiotic will allow the positive bacteria in the gut to thrive. This, in turn, will allow the positive bacteria to produce all postbiotics that a body requires. Fermented foods are a good way to add extra pro and postbiotics to a diet. The fermentation process is like what occurs in the gut. Fermented food start with prebiotics that are partially digested. These probiotic strains result in postbiotic micronutrients which are naturally good for our gut.

In summary

There are two key things to consider with prebiotics. These are:

  1. They must be a complex, high quality prebiotic food, and
  2. It’s important to consume them consistently.

For these reasons the choice of a high quality, complex, broad spectrum prebiotic is a vital part of a healthy gut.