caring for your digestion

Gut Gains: Are You Caring for Your Digestion?

Did you eat your bacteria today?
This sounds creepy but it’s actually crucial. We’re talking about probiotics- live microorganisms that, according to the internationally accepted definition, “confer a health benefit on the host.”

It may seem shocking to you that these little guys have such a great say in your health and performance. Notice, however, just how populated your own body is with these microbes. They outnumber your own body cells by ten to one. Their genes outnumber your own genes by 100 times! You could say we’re more bacteria than we are human. To be a healthy human, we need to make sure our microflora is healthy, too. In fact, more and more research is showing that they are just as important as any other organ in your body. You go to great lengths to take care of your heart, brain, liver, bones, or any other major organ in your body. Why not look at your microflora as any other important organ that keeps your body functioning?

As a serious athlete with serious fitness goals (optimal endurance, peak performance, and enhanced recovery), you’ve likely studied hard and planned wisely. You’ve sifted through thousands of options and selectively chosen the best gear for your sport. You planned out a proper diet to fuel your body and feed your muscles. You crafted your personal training program to build speed and endurance. There’s more to the picture, though. It’s time to think: bacteria, bacteria, and more of that good, friendly, intestinal bacteria. Whether you’re a Cross Fitter, marathon runner, beach body-seeker, or just trying to keep it real during your golden years, it’s time for a gut check. What do gut bugs have to do with your fitness, anyway? Plenty. What do you imagine your athletic performance could be like if you could train heavier without worrying about overtraining fatigue; if you’d never have to miss a workout because of illness or infection or interrupt a marathon because of the runs; if your digestion would be at peak efficiency for optimal nutrient uptake; or if your body could recover from your intense training sessions in reasonable time?

caring for your digestion

To be a healthy human, we need to make sure our microflora is also healthy.

Cheerin’ Up Depressed Immune Systems

Casual and long distance runners alike run a higher risk of catching minor illnesses, such as an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI).

Why are athletes so prone to colds? It may come as a shock to you but exercise can temporarily depress your immune system.

We’re talking heavy, intense, pushing-your limits, prolonged exercise. It could happen after even a single session, such as an intense ultra-marathon. True, regular exercise is better than NO exercise. Sedentary lifestyles no doubt increase the risk of infection. However, long bouts of exercise or intense training can wear down the immune system. Time and time again we see that athletes have a higher risk of infection and sluggish immunity during training blocks. This also happens around crucial events, such as difficult races or a series of races. When you go overboard on the physical activity, the number of white blood cells and antibodies circulating in your blood drops. Their function is also compromised. An increase in stress-related hormones and pro-inflammatory chemicals, such as cytokines, also stresses the immune system (9). There’s nothing fair about having to compete with a cold after weeks or months of training hard.

Probiotics reduce the risk of URTI’s. That doesn’t come as a surprise considering the gut houses 80% of your body’s immune cells. Therefore, a healthy gut microflora is a healthy immune system. Consider what happened during one Australian study. Elite long distance runners were either given probiotic supplements or a placebo for a 4 month training period. Those who took probiotics experienced no more than 30 days of cold symptoms, and minor ones at that. How did the placebo group fare? Well, not only did their colds last up to 72 days, but the symptoms were severe. It turns out the runners taking probiotics had higher levels of interferon, immune system cells that attack viruses (4). Less sick days. Less severe symptoms. Less intake of cold and flu medication. In other words, more time, energy, and focus on performance and better adherence to one’s training regime. These results were so astounding a follow-up study was completed. This study examined competitive cyclists taking probiotics for 2 months and found similar results (30% less respiratory infection). Any colds that were caught were mostly short-lasting and temperate in nature (5-8). To keep your immunity robust, you need to add probiotics to your game plan, especially if you’re prone to illness. Don’t let a respiratory infection keep you on the sidelines on game day.

caring for your digestion

A healthy colony of bacteria in your gut ensures efficient digestion. It also aids in the production of several vitamins, enzymes, and hormones.

The (microscopic) Athlete Inside You

Behold another reason these friendly tenants are a critical part of any sports nutrition plan.

For starters, probiotics are well-known to help maintain a healthy digestive system. We all know that digestion has everything to do with strength and performance.

If your digestion isn’t stellar, your performance won’t be either. Without healthy digestion, you cannot fully benefit from all the nutrients and micronutrients you consume for energy, recovery, muscle growth, and muscle repair. As an athlete, you have some of the highest nutrient needs around. A healthy colony of bacteria in your gut ensures efficient digestion. It also aids in the production of several vitamins, enzymes, and hormones.

That Anxiety-in-your-Gut Feeling

You’re in the middle of a run on race day and … nature’s calling!

It happens every time. Though this topic is often kept in the shadows, it’s one of the most common complaints of athletes, especially endurance athletes.

The runs! It’s as if you’re just not a true athlete if you don’t get the runs! You’re not alone. Unfortunately, the GI tract of most athletes aren’t always up to par. An estimated 30-90% of distance runners complain about intestinal issues related to exercise (10). As one Boston marathon legend by the name of Bill Rodgers put it, “More marathons are won or lost in the porta-toilets than at the dinner table.” Upper abdominal issues include nausea, stomach pain, stomach cramps, vomiting, bloating, burping, heartburn. Lower abdominal symptoms include diarrhea (even bloody), side aches, urgency, and flatulence. But why? Every time you get your muscles moving and heart rate up, your body reroutes most of its blood flow to the muscles and heart. That leaves less blood flow to the GI tract. Even the skin receives a measure of this shunted blood in order to help cool the body. So, instead of abandoning the race, what can help stop these “bathroom issues?” Probiotics can heal the intestinal lining and tame the inflammation that causes distressing GI symptoms. They help eliminate gas problems and acidify the colon. An acidic environment prevents bad bacteria from thriving.

caring for your digestion

Getting adequate probiotics likely won’t happen by chance, though. It helps to make it a daily habit, especially if you’re planning a period of heavy training or getting ready for a major event.

Bacteria – Your Competitive Edge

Who knew these tiny microorganisms would be the secret to taking your performance and training to new heights!

The truth is your demanding and cutting-edge training regimen just isn’t complete without them. Some of the most common groups of bacteria with health benefits are strains from Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.

Getting adequate probiotics likely won’t happen by chance, though. It helps to make it a daily habit, especially if you’re planning a period of heavy training or getting ready for a major event. Whether it’s cold season or competitive season, make sure you’re replenishing your intestines with a constant supply of probiotics. The delicate, natural balance of beneficial bacteria in your gut can be disrupted by an unhealthy diet, obesity, excessive hygiene, or the use of antibiotics. In fact, aging alone can gradually lead to bad bacteria crowding out the beneficial bacteria.

When choosing your personal arsenal of beneficial intestinal bacteria, consider the following:

  • Probiotics can be taken in food form from cultured (unsweetened) yogurt with live cultures, acidophilus milk, kefir with live cultures, fermented foods such as pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, miso soup, tempeh, kimchi, or kombucha tea.
  • Probiotic supplements may be taken daily. A broad-spectrum supplement that includes a variety of species in one supplement is preferred. A supplement should have at least 1-5 billion viable organisms.
  • Some products contain single strains of probiotics. Research clearly shows mixed strains are more effective (11). Make sure your supplement includes a variety of different strains. Different strains colonize different parts of the gastrointestinal tract, acting in different ways to improve your GI health.
  1. Lactobacillus acidophilus, for example, occupies the upper GI tract and aids in nutrient absorption. In athletes, L. acidophilus helps reverse fatigue and immune system stress from overtraining (15).
  2. Bifidobacteria bifidus occupies the lower intestinal tract and is involved in healthy digestion of dairy products. Make sure to include a blend of these strains.
  3. B. longum, a third strain to look out for, helps reduce inflammation, scavenges toxins (12), and helps preserve intestinal wall integrity, preventing bacteria from entering the bloodstream.
  • Like all living things, bacteria need their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Feed your microflora with prebiotics, natural food ingredients that promote the growth of probiotics in your gut. Incorporate prebiotics into your meals with foods such as artichokes, asparagus, garlic, onions and leeks, bananas, chia seeds, dandelion greens, soybeans, whole wheat foods, and even honey. All these foods contain a type of indigestible fiber your bacteria friends need to work, live, and thrive. As a plus, prebiotics can improve your GI health and enhance calcium absorption (12).
  • During heavy training periods, especially 2 weeks before a major competitive event, remember that safe and gradual use of a probiotic supplement may increase your resistance to infection. In addition to the three strains mentioned above, look for an L. fermentum strain for increased immunity, especially if training for endurance events (14).

About the Author

Gerry MortonGerry Morton, CEO of EnergyFirst, holds an MS in Nutrition and is an experienced athlete who has competed in 30+ marathons and 4 Ironman triathlons. Gerry is an excellent source of information on nutrition, supplementation, and exercise. Read his blog at


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