First, there were probiotics—live microbes that thrived in your gut. Then came prebiotics or the fibre that nourishes these tiny organisms. Now there is yet another entrant to the biotics family: postbiotics. According to data by food market research firm Lumina Intelligence, there has been a lot of buzz around the term postbiotics in recent times: between June 2019 to June 2021, there has been a nearly 1,300% increase in Google searches about postbiotics. And while references to postbiotics have been around since 2014-15, the term got an official definition only recently. In early May this year, an International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus panel defined it as “a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host.” So what exactly are these postbiotics, and what happens when you consume them?
The gut or gastrointestinal tract, the long tube that stretches from the mouth to the anus, is home to anywhere between 300-1,000 different species of bacteria. This complex microbial ecosystem plays a huge part in human metabolism, helping digestion, regulating the immune system, offering protection against pathogen invasion and vitamin generation. Probiotics refer to these helpful microorganisms. On the other hand, prebiotics are the food sources, mostly the fibre that your body doesn’t digest, that these organisms need to thrive and grow. “Postbiotics refer to the byproducts of the probiotics fermentation process in the gut,” says Bengaluru-based Ryan Fernando, the founder of Qua nutrition.
Eshanka Wahi, a nutrition coach, based out of Dubai and Delhi, expands further. “The best way to think about it is that prebiotics are the fuel for the probiotics, which are the workers in our gut. So postbiotics are the end result of all the probiotics’ hard work. In other words, postbiotics are the goods produced,” she says.
Postbiotics, an umbrella term that refers to all the items produced due to this fermentation process, could include metabolites, short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), extracellular polysaccharides microbial cell fractions, functional proteins and cell lysates, among other things. “The postbiotic production depends on the gut microbiota which differs between populations; thus its response and health benefits may differ from individual to individual,” says Fernando.
Additionally, fermented food—say sourdough bread or soya sauce—may also contain some non-viable microbial cells that linger in the food even after heat processing it. “These effector molecules of fermented food microorganisms are thought to be similar to those produced by probiotics,” says a May 2021 article published by Nature Review, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. However, the journal does add that the link hasn’t been conclusively established yet, and more research is required.
The best way to get postbiotics, in any case, is by consuming more prebiotics and postbiotics. “An average adult needs about 3-5 g of both probiotics and probiotics in the day. So include foods like kefir, kombucha, yoghurt, oats, flaxseeds, garlic, onions and barley in your daily diet to fulfil your quota,” says Delhi-based Aakriti Arora. One can also take a supplement, but with a caveat: consult a medical professional first. “Postbiotics can be extracted in laboratories, but the regulation and definition around postbiotics are complex, so supplements available over the counter may not be sold as “postbiotics” but as another derivative,” says Fernando.
Whatever the source of postbiotics, the overarching consensus is this—they are probably great for you. “Many of the health benefits linked with consuming prebiotics and probiotics come from the production of postbiotics,” says Arora. Short-chain fatty acids, for instance, could aid weight loss, regularise our blood sugar levels, boosts our immunity, helps people with IBD and aids in the treatment of diarrhoea, she adds.
Fernando, too, says that many studies have shown them to have beneficial properties like anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, gut barrier integrity, anti-adhesion of pathogens. “But there is a need for more human trials to validate these health claims.”