When most people hear the term “gut health” they don’t typically associate it with fitness or energy, and rather assume it’s only about digestion. So here I’m covering the basics of how our gut plays a role in nearly all bodily functions, plus how incorporate prebiotics and probiotics for fitness and health.
How the Microbiome Influences Health
Let’s start off with some basic terminology. The “microbiome” is all of the microbes living inside and on the human body. While research is constantly being conducted on the trillions of microbes, it’s the bacteria in our digestive tract that we have the most information about, especially those in our large intestines and colon.
Research has shown that the bacteria and microbes residing in our gut greatly influence our immune system, metabolism, nutrient use and production, and our mental health. Evidence even shows that having a favorable balance of gut flora can limit inflammation, aid recovery and support hydration! Let me put that another way: a poor balance of gut bacteria may increase inflammation, limit recovery, and contribute to poor hydration.
Now on to PREbiotics. They’re less frequently mentioned in the health and nutrition world versus probiotics, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important! I like to explain prebiotics as food for our good digestive bacteria. Fiber-rich carbohydrate foods are our best prebiotic sources. Certain types of fiber, and other carbohydrates called oligosaccharides, are able to fuel bacteria to enhance their function and production in the gut.
Some of the best prebiotic foods include garlic and onions, bananas, and less commonly consumed foods such as chicory root and jeruselum artichokes. Whole grains and legumes contain prebiotics, too. Research also supports the benefits that nuts like almonds and pistachios have on gut health.
The more familiar term, PRObiotics, refers to the living bacteria in foods and beverages that may aid in colonizing good gut bacteria. Fermented foods and beverages are the best sources of probiotics, though you’ll see plenty of packaged food products now adding live cultures in, too.
In addition to yogurt products and cultured cottage cheese, you can also find plenty of probiotics in high quality refrigerated sauerkraut, kimchi and miso, or sip on kombucha and other probiotic tonics. Fun ingredients like gochujang provide some probiotics, too.
Supplementing with Probiotics for Fitness?
Since gastrointestinal cells take about two weeks to turn over, you’ll want to give it more time than that to determine if inclusion of more prebiotic and probiotic foods has benefit your fitness and health. If you frequently consume the foods mentioned above and are still experiencing gut health issues, it may be time to meet with a gastroenterologist and a dietitian specializing in GI health to determine if a well-researched supplement or other medication may be helpful.
When choosing a supplement note that all probiotics products are NOT made equal and it’s important to research the brand and how many CFU (colony forming units) and different strains of live bacteria it contains (note that more is usually better). This document provides evidenced based information about which strains may be associated with improving different conditions.
A systematic review of the efficacy of probiotics indicated that there is strong evidence to support specific probiotics help reduce symptoms of abdominal pain in patients with IBS and patients who experienced diarrhea while on antibiotics. This study also indicated that there is moderate evidence to support that for some patients with IBS, specific probiotics can help reduce bloating and distension and improve bowel movement frequency and consistency.
Everyone’s microbiome is unique, and there is no guarantee that these products will help alleviate symptoms, but with high quality probiotic supplements and physicians approval, there should be minimal to no risk. Improvements in gut health may indirectly benefit your recovery from exercise.
- A favorable balance of gut microbiota supports immunity and GI health during prolonged exercise by enhancing the ability of antioxidants to aid recovery and improve hydration status.
- Consume foods rich in prebiotic fibers daily, but not immediately prior to activity or closely following exercise.
- Probiotic supplementation may lower the incidence of GI symptoms, reduce inflammation and response to oxidative damage, and improve endurance performance. Speak with a physician or dietitian.
I absolutely loved this book that I received when I attended the Plant Based Nutrition Leadership Symposium in LA earlier this year. One of the authors, researcher Jack Gilbert, presented at the symposium and was brilliant and wonderful to speak to. While it isn’t related to athletic performance, it is written in a way that shines a lot of light on gut health for the average consumer.
Questions on prebiotics and probiotics? Leave them below!