Probiotics are all the rage right now. I see their popularity continue to grow daily as articles and studies hot off the press praise this latest miracle supplement on the market. Recently, a 2012 study looked at probiotics and athletes and concluded that probiotics offer promising benefits.
Is it true? Could you, as a runner, benefit from probiotics? Let’s take a look at exactly what probiotics are, what they do for us and why we want to make sure we’ve got enough probiotics in our diets.
We host between 500 to 1,000 species of bacteria at any one time in our intestinal tract. Probiotics refer to specific strains of the beneficial bacteria that live there, the two most important groups being lactobacilli (found mainly in the small intestine) and bifidobacteria (found mainly in the large intestine). It’s interesting to note that our intestinal bacteria act as a major part of our immune system.
In fact, seventy percent of our immune system is located within our digestive system, much of it found in our gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) which lines our intestinal tract. When our bacteria are balanced we feel good, recover from our runs well and we don’t get sick.
However, when there is an imbalance in our intestinal bacteria, our digestive systems become inflamed leading to decreased absorption of nutrients and uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, cramping and diarrhea. Our GALT fails to protect us and our intestines become increasingly permeable allowing particles to enter our blood stream that should still be in our intestines, causing inflammation throughout our body. Our immune system becomes compromised, allowing pathogens to invade our system and make us sick.
Now I know you’re asking, “Yikes, what can I do to make sure my intestinal bacteria stays balanced?” Good question. Consider the followings things that cause our bacterial systems to go out of whack:
- Drinking soft drinks or diet soft drinks;
- Eating trans fats or processed oils;
- Consuming artificial colourings and flavourings (and any other food chemicals);
- Taking antibiotics (designed to kill bacteria – all bacteria);
- Drinking tap water (has chlorine in it to kill bad bacteria – but it does kill all bacteria);
- Eating too much sugar (‘bad’ bacteria feeds on sugar and overtakes the beneficial bacteria);
- High-fat, high-protein, low-fibre diets (slows bowel motility);
- Nonsteroidal drugs such as Advil, aspirin, Motrin (damage brush border cells and contributes to intestinal permeability);
- Birth control pills and steroid drugs (create conditions that feed bad bacteria);
- Overconsumption of alcoholic beverages (takes many nutrients to metabolize, contain substances that our toxic to our cells, strains our liver and damages our intestinal tract);
- Experiencing psychological or physiological stress, including hard runs such as long runs or interval/tempo/VO2 max runs.
How’d you do? None of the above apply to you ever? I know for sure that’s not true because I know you run. Unless you run short and easy all the time (hey, nothing wrong with that if you’re not in training), you need your probiotics. And let’s just say, if more than only point #11 applied to you, your really need your probiotics!
So should you take a probiotic supplement or eat some yogurt? That’s where you find probiotics… Right?
Here’s where I ask you to expand your horizons and get creative in the kitchen. Try traditionally fermented sauerkraut. Use miso in dressings and soup. Include apple cider vinegar in recipes. Buy organic unpasteurized cheese. Drink oolong tea. And yes, eat organic, plain, unsweetened and unflavoured yogurt or kefir. These foods have been fermented or cultured and contain the probiotics our intestinal systems thrive off of.
Bonus – polyphenols have been shown to increase the number of beneficial intestinal bacteria while decreasing the number of disease-causing bacteria (these are the same antioxidants that are known for reducing inflammation and warding off cancer and heart disease). So please, eat your fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts and grains too (especially green tea, apples, onions and cacao).
And what about the supplemental form of probiotics? Never plan to rely long-term on a pill. But… If you feel your immune system is trashed, you’re struggling with stress (maybe your job and your training and your life in general is stressful), you eat a lot of processed or artificial foods or drink a lot of sugary or alcoholic drinks, or you’ve just come off antibiotics or other meds… You may want to consider taking a probiotic supplement short-term until you can restore balance. I recommend Genestra Brands HMF Forte.
In the end, whole and natural foods, lots of laughter, low stress levels and consistent running is where it’s at. You’ll feel balanced… And your intestinal bacteria will be balanced too.
Happy running 🙂
Sarah J Cuff, RNH, PTS
Recipes that use Fermented Foods / Probiotic Sources