The medical and athletic community are buzzing about gut microbiomes. New research suggests that the bacteria nourish and fuel important body functions ranging from gastrointestinal health to immune system strength. Athletes are hopeful that healthier guts could reduce or prevent illnesses and gastrointestinal problems during training and racing.
Here’s the latest on gut health for athletes and what we can do to improve it.
If You exercise, You’re Already Ahead
Over the past decade, research has established that athletes have healthier and more diverse gut microbiomes than people who don’t exercise. A 2014 study comparing the microbiomes of pro rugby players with people who don’t exercise found that athletes had a more diverse set of beneficial bacteria in their digestive tracts.
Even though athletes and fitness lovers have healthier and more diverse gut biomes, exercise also puts stress on the gut. That extra stress can compromise our immune system and ability to recover.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts. They’re believed to have a host of benefits, particularly for your digestive system. While we usually associate bacteria with germs and illness, your body is full of bacteria, both good and bad.
New research suggests it’s healthy to supplement our naturally occurring probiotics. For instance, probiotics may help reduce the risk of illness during tough training blocks and may help prevent gastrointestinal problems like cramping, bloating and diarrhea.
The Australian Institute of Sport released a study in 2010 that tested the effects of a probiotic supplement in twenty high-level distance runners. In the study, half the runners received a placebo while half received a probiotic supplement. After two months, the groups were switched. When the runners were on the placebo, they racked up 72 days of symptoms from respiratory illnesses like the cold and the flu. But when they were on the probiotic supplement they only experienced 30 days of symptoms.
The over-50% reduction in this study is impressive. It suggests that probiotics could help prevent illness in the lead-up to a big race or feeling under the weather in everyday life.
Other recent research suggests that probiotics might also reduce the chance of the dreaded race-day GI-woes. In the study, 24 recreational runners received either a placebo or a combination of three probiotic bacteria strains in the months leading up to a marathon.
The runners reported gastrointestinal problems they experienced leading up to the marathon and during each third of the race. Researchers tracked how whether the runners slowed down in the final third of the race to measure the probiotic supplement’s performance benefit.
While the probiotic supplement had no effect on finish times, the runners who took the probiotic supplement reported fewer gastrointestinal problems in the two weeks leading up to the race and fewer problems, such as indigestion, diarrhea and stomach cramps, in the final third of the race.
The How-To of Probiotics
Rule one: keep probiotics in a cool, dark place, out of direct sunlight and away from heat. The best place to keep a probiotic supplement is the refrigerator; the worst place is a car on a hot day.
Don’t be surprised if you experience unusual gas or tummy rumblings at first while your body adjusts to the probiotic.