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The Endurance Athlete’s Guide to Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Gut Health

lactobacillus acidophilus for healthy gut flora

Gut health, digestion, and all that good stuff. How’s it going for you?

Are you digesting everything? Absorbing all the available nutrients? Not sure? Let’s talk about it.

Gut health is vital for anyone trying to be fit and healthy. It’s even more important for an athlete who needs lots of extra calories and nutrients to withstand the stress of training. And still more important for endurance athletes (like you) who need to fuel up during their workouts and are at a greater risk of gastrointestinal distress.

Not to mention the number of problems that can be rooted in the digestive system. According to the Dr. Detective, Bryan Walsh, “Gastrointestinal infections are more common than many people realize, and can cause a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms.”

Want to see just how many symptoms? Review this case study where he gets to the bottom of a complicated gastrointestinal dysfunction.

It’s pretty serious business.

So let’s take a look at what’s going on in there…

A Look Into Your Digestive Tract

It goes by many names. Digestive tract, digestive system, gastrointestinal system, your gut. Whatever you want to call it is fine, just know that it’s more complex than you’d think.

The heart and lungs get the glory, and perhaps they should, but the GI tract should not be relegated to the background (because no one wants to talk about that stuff.)

For starters, the digestive system is where you digest food and absorb nutrients. And that’s very important to both health and sports performance.

But there’s so much more…

Your Immune System

Did you know that roughly 80% of your immune system is located in your gut?

It makes sense if you think about it. Most germs and foreign invaders are going to enter through your mouth. Even if you’re washing your hands and not touching your face, you’re still willingly shoveling food into your mouth.

The Enteric Nervous System (ENS)

Your gut even gets its own nervous system! The ENS can operate autonomously – this is why some people say the gut is like a “second brain.”

Good Bacteria

What creeps people out is the number of bacteria living in their guts. That’s a good thing, though!

As explained in this article from PN titled “All About Probiotics,” “gut bacteria are involved in immunity and help to ensure our immune system doesn’t have an itchy trigger finger (think food sensitivities).”

The gut bacteria enhance digestion and nutrient absorption, obstruct the growth of “bad bacteria” and other pathogens, and a host of other things you want to happen.

“Probiotics can help replenish and nourish this internal supply of good bacteria.”

Probiotics, huh?

Yep. You’ve probably heard of them by now. It’s a hot topic.

But the reality is, most people are still catching up to what the pros have been doing a while.

If you have read FASTER, that book about life as an elite racing cyclist, it mentions the importance of probiotics and having an alkaline gut. (Basically, probiotics are super important for being able to absorb nutrients, and if you want to recovery after a ride, you better be absorbing nutrients!)

The point is, it’s a good idea to keep your gut in as good of shape as possible. Keep reading to see how…

The Big Problems We Are All Facing (Every Day)

Every day is a constant battle to stay healthy. Lots of foods and toxins can wreak havoc on your gut. Here are some of the worst offenders:

Poor diet / Artificial ingredients

The average person has a terrible diet full of processed foods. Some contain so many artificial ingredients, I don’t how you can consider them to be “food” at all.

Endurance athletes… we’re probably some of the worst offenders. Sports drinks, energy bars, gels, chews, waffles – they are convenient, and might even help us win races, but it comes at a price.

If your diet is full of processed foods, fast food, sugar, preservatives, excessive alcohol consumption, and/or inadequate fiber, your gut is probably in poor shape.

Artificial sweeteners like Splenda might be the worst part. Splenda has been shown to alter gut microflora, and not in a good way. And the thing is, it’s everywhere – diet soda, apple juice, protein powder, protein bars, chewing gum, ice cream, chewable vitamins, salad dressing, even toothpaste.

Drugs (legal ones)

Drugs are tough on your body. They might fix one thing, but they often cause 2-3 problems for each one they fix.

The worst? Prescription antibiotics. These are very hard on your body, and they’re prescribed way too often. What happens is the antibiotics will kill off the bacteria responsible for your illness, but they take out all your good bacteria at the same time.

Your gut needs to rebuild itself after a course of antibiotics.

NSAIDs will take a toll as well. Typically these are cautioned against due to potential liver damage, but they’re also hard on your stomach.

Environmental contaminants

It’s not just your diet. There are toxic substances all around us in the soil, water, and air. Think pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used on food crops.

Even if not applied directly, these contaminants can get into your food! And if they’re in your food, they’re going to end up in your intestines.

Allergens

Yes, even natural foods can pose risks to many people. Gluten, dairy, and nuts are common allergies.

So whole grains, butter, and peanuts might be giving you some digestion issues.

Stress

Stress isn’t really good for anything. But it’s soooo common!

And with all these problems to look out for, you’re going to get more stressed out. It’s an endless cycle.

Fortunately, our guts are doing most of the work without us even noticing.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t lend a helping hand with your actions…

Here’s What You Can Do About It (4 Good Tips)

I can’t stress enough that you probably have some sort of gastrointestinal issue, even if you’re not aware of it. If you’ve ever dealt with bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, indigestion, fatigue, and/or low energy, those are all possible symptoms of larger problems that you can’t see.

It’s time to do something about it. Here are four diet and lifestyle changes that will improve your gut health:

1. Buy organic.

If you were to consume a 100% organic diet, you could avoid most of the environmental toxins mentioned earlier (chemicals, pesticides, etc.)

You could buy organic produce from the grocery store, or even better, try to get locally grown produce and locally raised meats at local farmers markets.

The best idea, though, if you can do it, is to grow your own garden!

2. Avoid sugar (and junk food in general.)

Sugar is bad for so many reasons. One of them is that it helps the bad bacteria to survive, grow, and multiply in your gut. It nourishes them.

Try to avoid all unnecessary sugar in your diet. Of course, this is no easy strategy, especially for endurance athletes. But keep it in mind when you’re not on the bike or having a post-ride recovery drink.

3. Add fermented foods into your diet.

Regularly eating fermented foods will improve your gut health, because these foods contain probiotics.

Common examples include sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, tempeh, kombucha tea, yogurt, kefir (fermented raw milk,) and skyr (sort of like kefir but not exactly.)

4. Supplement with probiotics and digestive enzymes.

Finally, supplement with healthy bacteria directly. The latest research is great, saying these are more important than a daily multivitamin!

More on probiotics in the next section…

Probiotics (The Good Bacteria)

Probiotics are essentially the good bacteria in your gut. They are “involved in immunity and help to ensure our immune system doesn’t have an itchy trigger finger (think food sensitivities).”

That’s another quote from Ryan Andrews at PrecisionNutrition.com that I believe is a perfect summary of the real-life importance of probiotics.

Not only do they help basic digestive function and protect your intestines from damage, they make sure your immune system is only attacking when it should be.

Perfect example – gluten intolerance. There are actually some new studies that show probiotics can reverse gluten-intolerance!

Of course, it takes time. From 30-60 days for any current inflammation to subside, then possibly up to a full year before your small intestine fully heals.

Also exciting is that probiotics may help with issues surrounding chronic fatigue. There’s research showing that those who took probiotics had lower levels of inflammation than those taking a placebo. (A great story on that is at LiveScience.com – “Probiotics May Lower Inflammation and Treat Diseases.”)

Food sources of probiotics:

Probiotics are found in fermented foods. Here are some examples:

  • Sauerkraut (as long as it’s fermented and not just soaked in vinegar)
  • Pickles (as long as they are fermented and not just soaked in vinegar)
  • Tempeh (made from fermented soybeans, often used for veggie burgers)
  • Miso and Natt? (Japanese foods made from fermented soybeans)
  • Kimchi (a Korean dish made of fermented vegetables)
  • Kvass and Kombucha (two types of fermented beverages)
  • Cheese (certain unpasteurized soft cheeses, such as blue cheese)
  • Kefir (a fermented milk drink)
  • Skyr (a cultured dairy product from Iceland)
  • Yogurt (as long as it reads “contains live cultures” or “with active cultures” on the label)

It’s a long list, but these aren’t exactly common, everyday foods. At least not where I’m from.

Of the options, yogurt is my favorite. It’s easy to find and likely the least offensive to American taste buds and picky eaters.

The trick is that the yogurt must still contain live cultures. And it will say “contains live cultures.” Anything that says “made with live cultures” or other tricky/misleading wording is worthless. And if it’s pasteurized, definitely avoid it, because that process would have killed everything you’re looking for.

There are also products out there with added probiotics. An example would be the Kevita sparkling beverage, which I reviewed a while back. It’s a good drink but likely impractical as a daily source of probiotics. Expensive, too.

Make your own “Water Kefir” probiotic drink

For the more adventurous, consider making this as your probiotic supplement:

Just get yourself some “kefir grains” to begin your cultures and some sugar to feed them. There is some work involved but in the end it’s cheaper than buying probiotics supplements.

*There are no grains or dairy in this recipe.

Prebiotics (To Keep Your Probiotics Happy)

Prebiotics help make probiotics and keep them alive. The reason to eat prebiotics is to keep your probiotics happy. You could think of them as pet food!

The most common prebiotics are inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS.)

I’ve talked about these before in my analysis of yacon syrup. That happens to be very high in FOS.

You can also find prebiotics in many foods. Fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes all contain them. Here are some examples.

Food sources of prebiotics:
  • Whole grains (like oats, quinoa, and barley)
  • Fruits (like bananas)
  • Legumes (like black beans)
  • Vegetables (like artichokes, asparagus, yams, onions, and garlic)
  • Flax (like ground flax seed)

Next up, let’s see how to supplement with these…

Prebiotics and Probiotics Supplements

If you plan to supplement, there are many ways to do it.

You can get probiotics in pills, liquid, powder, and even gummy form. There are many, many different types (strains) of probiotics, which is why the bottles say how many billions of probiotics are in one serving! And of course, these all span a vast price range.

How do you find a good one?

With prebiotics, it’s not really a big deal. Most people choose to get them from food, which is what I suggest.

Probiotics, on the other hand, are very delicate. Most supplements require refrigeration and can’t be exposed to light or they will begin to lose potency immediately.

You need to choose a good brand. One way to narrow the field is to check the scores at LabDoor.com where they rate the claimed vs actual potency of certain brands, and rank them in order.

Another interesting discovery from LabDoor’s testing was that “gummy and chewable probiotics averaged 92% less beneficial bacteria than standard formulations.” So you might want to stick with liquids, powders, and capsules.

Finally, you want to buy it as close to the date of manufacture as possible. Easier said than done, I know. Ideally you can also keep it cool through the buying process. (LuckyVitamin.com shipped my probiotics with dry ice in the box.)

Take it with food? Or between meals on empty stomach?

Ah yes, the million dollar question. It’s probably the biggest source of confusion when it comes to this topic.

“Should I take probiotics with food or on an empty stomach?”

It’s confusing because you hear different answers from different people. Typically, probiotics sold in capsules or liquid form indicate that you should consume them on an empty stomach. But some experts say, make sure you take them with food.

But I’ve only heard a legitimate reason to support taking them on an empty stomach.

See, while most supplements benefit from time spent in the stomach as food is being digested, that’s not the case with probiotics. The issue is that probiotics are killed in the stomach.

So the question then becomes, “how do I get the probiotics past my stomach acid and into my small intestine as quickly as possible?”

An empty stomach would give you the fastest gastric emptying time, and thus, it makes sense to take probiotics on an empty stomach!

I’ve also heard the realistic approach, which is, “it doesn’t matter.”

And that’s what I believe to be the case, based on this insight from Kelsey Marksteiner, MS, RD. If you have time, listen to the interview. If not, I’ll sum up the important part.

It probably doesn’t matter when you take the supplement, because supplement manufacturers know what they’re up against, and thus they will use whatever strains of probiotics that are most likely to survive the longest in stomach acid and get to where they need to be.

How much do I take?

Doses are typically expressed in “billions of live organisms.”

A small, starting dose might be 5 billion. If you are looking to alleviate a specific health concern, you might dose at 10 billion or even 50 billion!

To determine your individual needs, I’d suggest talking to a Registered Dietitian.

Popular Probiotics Supplements

Here are three of the more popular supplements from top brands.

1. Good Belly Probiotics

I consider this the best bang for your buck at $20 per bottle (for a one-month supply). And thanks to the aluminum container and good science, you don’t need to refrigerate them. They’re my personal favorite. GoodBelly.com

This one is sold exclusively through Amazon.com.

2. Renew Life Ultimate Flora

This is a brand that I’ve heard great things about from multiple sources. They offer a full line of high-potency probiotics to choose from. RenewLife.com

Also available on Amazon.com.

3. Integrative Therapeutics Probiotic Pearls

A quality supplement at a value price. IntegrativePro.com

Also available on Amazon.com.

And here are more of the popular supplements, in list form because there are simply too many to describe in detail:

*Note that the listed products are just options, not recommendations.

 

Does Coach Levi recommend probiotics? You bet I do! By improving your gut health, probiotics also improve your metabolism, immunity, digestion, and overall health. And by improving your digestion, you should suffer less gastrointestinal distress during your big races, which means they can even improve your athletic performance!

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2 Comments
  1. Wow thanks for the tips! I’m glad you’re here to explain this stuff!

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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