How addressing this often neglected area of nutrition can help to maximize your athletic potential.
A lot goes into optimizing your nutrition for health and performance. With so many nuanced decisions to make, it’s not surprising that only the top level athletes in the world are dialled in to perfecting every aspect of their diet. Unless you are at the very top level of your game, I don’t believe it necessary for everything food-wise you put in your body to be perfectly suited to your specific nutritional requirements, but striving to be better is always a good goal to have. Because everybody is slightly different, different nutritional strategies and sub-categories of dietary choices will have varying impacts on your results towards your goals. While in the grand scheme of things, total caloric consumption and optimizing you macronutrient ratios to fit your needs will have the greatest impact on your athletic performance, probiotics and enhancing your gut health can have a tremendous impact on your overall health as well as some factors in athletic performance.
N.B. There is a lot of research going in to all the various effects probiotics may have on our bodies. For brevity sake, I’m going to focus mostly on the factors that may help with athletic performance.
First off, what are probiotics?
When we think of bacteria, our typical reaction is of something that is bad, or makes us sick. It is not something most people want to hear about relating to our food. While some bacteria can make us sick (pathogenic bacteria), many are innocuous, meaning they have no impact on us if our immune systems are functioning properly. There are also bacteria, found in our digestive systems and in certain foods that we eat, that actually provide benefits to human health. These are called probiotic bacteria, or probiotics and they help to create a beneficial “microbiome”. The microbiome refers to all the bacteria living in and on the human body and it has a tremendous impact on our health. The bacteria in our digestive system play a key role in immune function, as they typically help to fight off the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria that cause illness (Macfarlane & Cumings, 1999). As they colonize our gut and metabolize the same foods that we eat, certain probiotic strains can also help to improve nutrient digestion and bioavailability (Parvez et al., 2006).
Our microbiome is in a constant state of flux between “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria” depending on a variety of lifestyle factors. This article will focus primarily on gut health as it relates to our microbiome. For the majority of people, nutrition is going to be the number one factor impacting the microbiome of the gut, or digestive system. However, if you happen to get sick and require a cycle of antibiotics, this can also be devastating for the microbiome.
Antibiotics are prescribed to combat nasty bacterial infections that won’t go away without intervention. Note that a bacterial infection is caused by pathogenic bacteria, not probiotic bacteria. The problem is that antibiotics are not selective; they not only kill off the bad bacteria in your system, but wreak havoc on your entire microbiome. Killing off the probiotic bacteria in your gut as well. People who are not aware of this will often don’t know to take proactive measuresand will often find the bad bacteria in the gut overgrow the probiotic bacteria following treatment with antibiotics.
Food Sources and Doses
Probiotics in our diet are found in products that have gone through a fermentation process. You can get probiotic bacteria from food sources like fermented milk products, sauerkraut, and kimchi, etc. The most common fermented milk products include yogurt and kefir. In order to fully reap the benefits of fermented foods, the product should be labelled raw or unpasteurized and will be found in a refrigerator. For example, shelf-stable sauerkraut is not probiotic. The rules are a little bit different for fermented milk products, because the milk used to make the yogurt or kefir can be pasteurized, as the bacteria are added to the pasteurized milk following afterwards to ferment the product. Adding some form of fermented food to several meals per day is the best way to ensure you are “supplementing” your digestive system with the bacteria you want colonizing your gut. For more information on fermented foods and their predominance in the diets of the healthiest populations on earth, check out the excellent book Nourishing Traditions.
In order to ensure that a beneficial microbiome is proliferating in your body, you need to properly nourish the probiotic bacteria, while reducing the foods that promote non-beneficial bacteria. Probiotic bacteria thrive off of nutrients, known as prebiotics, that humans don’t get as much use out of. These are fibre compounds found primarily in a variety of vegetables and are especially high in onions and garlic (Macfarlane & Cummings, 1999). You probably already know you should be eating more fibre for improving digestive health and you can chalk up prebiotic nutrients as another reason for eating more vegetables (and fruits).
Bad bacteria, that often predominate following a course of antibiotics, can thrive in the absence of plenty of fruits and vegetables. Diets containing lots of refined sugars and processed carbohydrates negatively impact gut health and bad bacteria are happy to establish themselves in these conditions. Consuming plenty of vegetables at every meal, while reducing refined sugars and processed carbohydrates will help to promote a healthier microbiome if you are also adding in fermented foods.
While you can go in to a supplement store and buy a probiotic supplement, it is much more affordable to just get probiotics through the foods in your diet, than to buy an expensive probiotic supplement that actually works as well as food. It is also better to eat fermented foods, as you will consume a greater variety of probiotic bacteria than you typically can get from supplements alone, which is beneficial since most of these bacteria work synergistically to promote your health. Note that the term “probiotics” can often also refers to supplements that contain probiotic bacteria and some people may interchangeably refer to either supplements or foods when talking about probiotics.
Most probiotic supplements contain viable but non-living bacteria. Expensive probiotic supplements that actually contain live bacteria are typically found in a refrigerator. The live bacteria in fermented foods will better establish themselves and colonize your digestive system.
When consuming a supplemental form of probiotics, the dosage referred to is how many colony-forming units or CFUs a single dose contains. This basically refers to how many bacterial colonies are in a dose of the supplement and can therefore promote proliferation in your digestive system when ingested. Typical beneficial daily doses are in the range of 10 billion CFU, which you may also see written as 10^8 or 1^9.
Health and Athletic Performance Implications
More research on probiotics has been focused in the past few years on how it may improve athletic performance. Being a hard training athlete is an additional stressor on your body on top of everyday life. This in turn can put your immune system at an increased susceptibility to sickness. One of the main demonstrable benefits probiotics can have for athletes through boosting the immune system (Cox et al., 2010; Shing et al., 2016). Obviously getting sick is counterintuitive to your goal when you're training for a competition or in the midst of a hard training cycle. You need your immune system to be fully functional in order to fight off pathogens as well as endure the stress of your training.
Digestion and Nutrient Bioavailability
Improving the quality of your digestive system through consuming probiotics will also help you to better digest the foods that you eat. As a strongman or strength athlete, you have to eat a lot of food every single day. This can be quite the burden on your digestive system, as if you didn’t already know this. Your gut microbiome can help you to assimilate more of the nutrients you are consuming by aiding digestion and increasing nutrient bioavailability (Parvez et al., 2006).
Improving immune system function, including being able to better fight off food borne illness, and increasing nutrient digestion are several factors that can make or break your recoverability from your training and therefore improve your athletic performance.
Anxiety and Depression Reduction
While still an emerging field of research, having a positive impact on your gut bacteria by consuming probiotic bacteria, may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression (Rao et al.,2009). This can be important for athletes for several reasons, if you are able to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, you can better focus on your training, and therefore improve at a greater rate than someone who is less focused on training. Being able to better control your anxiety can especially be helpful when you need to relax and recover instead of worrying about life. Having less anxiety will also reduce the amount of stress your body goes through, which also improves your ability to recover.
The reduction in anxiety and depression resulting from increasing probiotics in your diet may be linked to a reduction in bad bacteria that that create a pro-inflammatory environment as the probiotics out-compete the bad bacteria. Inflammation has a negative impact on practically all functions in your body including your mental state which is why it can result in greater levels of anxiety and depression when your gut health is not optimized.
Conclusion and Moving Forward
This article was intended to serve as a primer for why you would want to include probiotics in your diet whether for general health, or as a strongman or strength athlete. Gut health is a multifaceted issue that requires attention to much more than just consuming probiotic bacteria and the prebiotics to nourish the bacteria, but just getting started on even one thing to improve your gut health will make a great start towards an overall healthier body. Remember that the most effective way to have a dramatic improvement on your gut health and gut microbiome is to not only focus on consuming more probiotic foods and the fuel sources for those good bacteria, but also reducing the fuel sources that help the bad bacteria in your gut thrive. This predominantly consists of reducing your consumption of refined sugars and processed carbohydrates. Stay tuned for the next article in the Kraut Chronicles series where I'm going to show you the recipe I use to make my own probiotic sauerkraut at home. It is better than any other sauerkraut you've ever had and also is an extremely affordable way to get the very best probiotics and prebiotic nutrients in your diet.
Do you regularly consume fermented foods and if so, what’s your favourite to eat? Leave a comment below!
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Cox, A. J., Pyne, D. B., Saunders, P. U., & Fricker, P. A. (2010). Oral administration of the probiotic Lactobacillus fermentum VRI-003 and mucosal immunity in endurance athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(4), 222-226.
Macfarlane, G. T., & Cummings, J. H. (1999). Probiotics and prebiotics: can regulating the activities of intestinal bacteria benefit health?. Western journal of medicine, 171(3), 187.
Parvez, S., Malik, K. A., Ah Kang, S., & Kim, H. Y. (2006). Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health. Journal of applied microbiology, 100(6), 1171-1185.
Rao, A. V., Bested, A. C., Beaulne, T. M., Katzman, M. A., Iorio, C., Berardi, J. M., & Logan, A. C. (2009). A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of a probiotic in emotional symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Gut Pathogens, 1(1), 1.
Shing, C. M., Peake, J. M., Lim, C. L., Briskey, D., Walsh, N. P., Fortes, M. B., ... & Vitetta, L. (2014). Effects of probiotics supplementation on gastrointestinal permeability, inflammation and exercise performance in the heat. European journal of applied physiology, 114(1), 93-103.