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What’s the Difference Between Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Postbiotics?

Research shows that this trio may help support gut and immune health. What are they? And how do they work? Here, we’ll break down the different “biotics.”

Prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics: If your, um, gut reaction is, “What’s the difference?” you’re not alone. The words may look similar. They sound similar. And these ingredients all impact your microbiome, the community of bacteria and other microorganisms that live inside you. Research has suggested that a flourishing microbiome is key for a healthy immune system.

So, how do these various “biotics” work to balance your gut flora? And do you really need all three? If you want to support a healthy immune system and digestive system, the answer is a definitive “yes.” We break it all down here.

Prebiotics Are Like Fuel

To better understand how the three “biotics” work, it helps to visualize a factory, says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian and certified yoga teacher in New York City. “Prebiotics are like the fuel for the factory,” she explains. They feed the workers inside, helping them to do their job better. Prebiotics are foods that promote that good bacteria in your gut. They’re typically dietary fibers naturally occurring in high-fiber foods such as asparagus, bananas, apples, barley and yams. Our bodies can’t break down the digestive fiber, so it hangs out in your lower intestines and fuels the growth of good bacteria and other microbes.

How much do you need to get a benefit? There are no set guidelines for gut health, says Gans. But the current fiber recommendation for general health is 25-30 grams. “I think we should all be encouraged to eat high-fiber foods, not just for the prebiotic benefit, but because they offer a slew of other benefits, too, alleviating constipation, lowering cholesterol, and controlling blood sugar,” Gans says.

Red-brown powder in a circle on a white background
Photo: EpiCor

Probiotics Are the Workers

Back to that factory analogy. “Probiotics are the factory workers,” Gans describes. They use prebiotics as fuel to create metabolites that support your health. Probiotics are live bacteria culture and yeast. You can get them in functional foods like yogurt.

You can also get probiotics in supplement form. One of the more common probiotics used in supplements is Lactobacillus. Most clinical research on probiotic supplements is centered on digestive health, such as off-setting diarrhea associated with antibiotic use. Early clinical data has also linked probiotic supplementation with better immune health.

Postbiotics Are the End Goal

So, if prebiotics are the fuel, probiotics are the workers, what does that make postbiotics in our factory? In simplest terms: the goods the factory is producing. “The hard work of the probiotics result in metabolites — postbiotics,” says Gans. Unlike probiotics, which are live bacteria, postbiotics contain the metabolites that they produce — essentially one of the main reasons bacteria have a ‘job’ and are so beneficial to your body,” she says.

Getting postbiotics in your gut is the ultimate goal when eating or supplementing with probiotics. Postbiotics help support your gut microbiome, aiding immune and digestive health, all year round.

Country Life Gut Connection
Photo: EpiCor

How do you get postbiotics? They’re found in all those fermented foods mentioned above, but it’s hard to know if you’re getting a consistent amount or type of postbiotic shown to have benefits. That’s where whole food fermentates come into play, a new category of digestive health ingredients that ensure you’re getting your fill of postbiotics, explains Gans. These postbiotic ingredients are made through a fermentation process and added to supplements.

The most clinically studied whole food fermentate is EpiCor® postbiotic, made through a fermentation process of the yeast, specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Human clinical trials have shown that EpiCor® postbiotic supports gut and immune health, as well as nasal comfort year-round. You can find it in digestive health supplements, including Healthy Origins EpiCor and Country Life Gut Connection Immune Balance.

The Trifecta for Your Gut

So, do you need to add prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics in your diet to maintain a healthy microbiome and immune system? “Ideally, yes; you want to be eating foods that are rich in all,” says Gans. “But I know I’m not always eating my best. So, just as I might take a multivitamin to cover my nutrition bases, I take a supplement that contains a postbiotic ingredient to ensure I’m getting enough.” Smart move.