When it comes to gut health, there is no one size fits all solution. When faced with tracking down the culprit of your stomach or digestive issues, your mind might first go to food poisoning from that gas station sushi or that milk that has been sitting in the fridge for a bit too long. But oftentimes it’s our gut bacteria – the microbes living in our gut – that are affecting the way we feel.
The solution to these gut issues can often be found in the vitamin aisle of your local supermarket, but you’d be forgiven if the wide array of probiotic, prebiotic, postbiotic and a whole host of other options, has thrown you for a bit of a loop. It’s important before purchasing and ingesting these to not only understand what they’ll do to your body, but why, and how each can have its own benefits and interact with your body in different ways.
Your Gut Microbe and You
While it may be a little bit tough to swallow, the bacteria in your gut is a normal part of everyday life. In fact, there are more bacteria found in your digestive tract than there are cells that make up your entire body. The first step in understanding the difference between probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics is to understand what exactly is in your gut and how it affects the way you feel.
Your gut microbe at any given moment contains a litany of both good and bad bacteria, viruses, protozoa (single-cell organisms) and even fungi. Don’t panic just yet though, as all of these are normal. It’s the balance of these various bacteria that is the ultimate determiner of your gut health; too much bad bacteria can leave you feeling sick, while too much good bacteria can cause intestinal bloating, among other health issues.
The “good” bacteria in your digestive tract (examples of which can be found in the following paragraphs) serve a number of purposes in keeping you healthy. Not only do they protect you from the bad bacteria that are seeking to make you sick, they can also improve your digestion and help regulate your immune system. To keep these processes moving along smoothly and your health in check, a good balance of bacteria from all sources, as well as a complete understanding of the differences, is a good place to start.
Probiotics, the one that most people are most familiar with, are the “good” bacteria (or yeast) that are found in many cultured foods.
Upon consuming these foods, the bacteria will make their way to your gut where they’ll live, regulating and improving your digestive health.
Where Do Probiotics Come From?
Fermented foods, by the processes of their creation, contain probiotics. Examples like cultured yogurts, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and tempeh all contain probiotics within them, and can be very beneficial to your health upon consumption.
What Else Can Probiotics Do For Me
In addition to the aforementioned digestive benefits, an ample supply of probiotics can help improve a myriad of conditions, including:
- Lactose intolerance
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Respiratory infections
- Eczema, particularly in children
If probiotics are the good bacteria living in your digestive tract, prebiotics are the fibers and sugars you consume that help to feed those good bacteria.
Your body on its own cannot break down all of the fiber and sugar-rich foods that you supply it with. The bacteria in your digestive tract – particularly the large intestine – help break these foods down and use them as a source of fuel to continue keeping your body feeling its best.
Where Do Prebiotics Come From?
As mentioned above, most prebiotics are fibrous and sourced from plants. While different prebiotics are found in different vegetables and other foods, some of the more important sources are listed below.
- Garlic, asparagus, onions, leeks and bananas all provide fructooligosaccharides.
- Beans and legumes are fantastic sources of galactooligosaccharides.
- Whole grains, such as barley, oats and rye provide your gut bacteria with Beta-glucan.
All of the above and more are important parts of keeping your good bacteria amply “fed” and allowing them to continue to thrive and keep your stomach feeling good.
What Else Can Prebiotics Do For Me
In addition to acting as a food source for the probiotic bacteria in your gut, prebiotics also carry with them a host of potential health benefits. Like probiotics, these can help improve your immune system, but also reduce risk of infection and improve your heart health.
Following the natural path here, if prebiotics help feed probiotics, logic indicates that postbiotics are the aftermath.
As your good bacteria takes up residence in your intestines and helps to regulate your health while it munches away on prebiotics, over time this process yields postbiotics. However, unlike most “waste” products, these molecules (called metabolites) are actually of critical importance to your health.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of beneficial chemical outputs that result from postbiotics, including:
- Various vitamins, primarily vitamin B and vitamin K. These are critical to your body’s cellular health, the formation of new red blood cells, energy production, eyesight and much more.
- Antimicrobials, which help to reduce and get rid of the “bad” bacteria found in your gut.
- Inflammation reduction and a healthier gut lining via the production of short-chain fatty acids.
Good Bacteria Examples
With all this talk of “good” bacteria and where to get it, it’s important to note not only where it comes from, but what these bacteria actually are.
A quick stroll through your pharmacy will put on display a wide variety of probiotic gummies, pills and capsules, all providing an array of good bacteria in varying amounts. Let’s take a quick look at what some of the more commonly found good bacteria are, and what they can do for you.
- Lactobacillus: As the name may hint at, produces the enzyme lactase, which helps break down the lactose found in dairy products. For some people whose stomachs can be irritated by the consumption of dairy, the dearth of lactobacillus can be traced back as the source of the issue. For them, regulating the amount of lactobacillus in their digestive tract can help break down the tough to handle lactose and allow for smooth sailing with digestion.
- Bifidobacteria: The main bacteria found in younger people, particularly newborns and those under the age of about seven years old. This bacteria similarly lines the wall of the large intestine and helps to maintain a proper bowel pH level (which is very important to mineral absorption), production of vitamins B and K, and regulate stools. Working closely with its good friend lactobacillus, bifidobacteria helps to ferment carbs in the gut, which release the short-chain fatty acids that can reduce inflammation and keep your intestinal lining fresh.
As has been mentioned, these are not the only two “good” bacteria found in probiotic supplements, nor is it advisable to load up simply on them. A balance of these bacteria in your gut, which sometimes involves a degree of trial and error, will be important in keeping your digestive tract performing optimally.
Other Sources of a Balanced Microbiome
While many people choose to seek out a simple probiotic supplement to fulfill their daily need for probiotic bacteria, there are other sources as well, in addition to the foods listed above. Quick tips are included below, including some non-food-based factors to pay attention to as well.
Avoid processed sugars, as these can lead to unhealthy bacteria growth and sickness, among other negative health side effects.
Eat lots of vegetables and healthy fats. Some examples are avocados, nuts, seeds, some oils, and of course a solid serving of your favorite veggies.
Consider eating more fermented foods. Yogurt is a popular option and often will list the beneficial bacteria included on the label. Notably, not all yogurts contain live and active cultures, so it’s worth double-checking the label before you buy.
Regulate your sleep and reduce your stress. Both a lack of sleep and an increase of stress can cause your microbiome to shift negatively, so ensuring you’re getting proper sleep each night and taking steps to keep yourself calm, cool, and collected can have similar digestive benefits.
Summary and Conclusion
To conclude, the key to a healthy gut is balance, and the key to balance is understanding what you’re eating and how it affects your digestive system. Putting a priority on ensuring you’re consuming enough probiotic bacteria in the right amounts will yield a healthier, better-functioning digestive system. But probiotics, of course, aren’t the whole story. Those probiotics need a source of fuel themselves, which is where prebiotics come in. To recap:
- Probiotics are the good bacteria that live in your gut and help your digestive system function smoothly.
- Prebiotics are the fibrous nutrients in food that fuel the good bacteria.
- Postbiotics are the outcome, the leftovers after the probiotics have done their job, which will have tangible impacts on your large intestine and overall health.
It’s important to note that not everyone’s gut microbiome is the same. In fact, many will be vastly different and could require a different balance to keep you feeling your best.