Q: I’ve heard that probiotics can help me in training. What are the best sources, and how much do I need daily?
A: Probiotics are a hot topic at the moment, with mounting research supporting the notion that consuming probiotics regularly can improve health and well-being. Manufacturers and marketers have caught onto their benefits and, as a result, supermarket shelves are filled with new products touting their probiotic properties.
Here’s the lowdown: Billions of bacteria live inside our gastrointestinal tract. More than 500 of these microbial species are “friendly,” assisting in the function of digestion and supporting the immune system. Many factors can contribute to a disruption of the bacteria within our gut: medications, stress, fatigue, inflammation, nutritional status and even age. The resulting reduction in beneficial bacteria gives potentially harmful disease-causing bacteria the opportunity to flourish.
This is where probiotics come in. Ingesting certain foods or supplements containing healthy bacteria can help maintain good gut health. Just as important are prebiotics, the non-digestible food particles (think skins of fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts) that sustain or fuel the probiotics. Working together, prebiotics and probiotics achieve the best gastrointestinal environment for well-being. Improved health and a stronger immune system means you can train effectively and consistently without interruption due to illness and fatigue.
Here’s what to look for on the label when shopping for probiotics:
Live and active cultures. For probiotics to have any beneficial effects they need to reach the intestine alive and in sufficient numbers. Some products may contain cultures in insignificant amounts—or may have at some point contained cultures that have since been destroyed during the manufacturing process. For a product to claim it has live and active cultures it needs to show it has more than 100 million bacteria per gram at time of manufacture.
Culture count. Ingesting 1 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) per day is helpful for people trying to simply maintain gut health; you should ingest 10 billion CFUs per day if you’re trying to reduce the severity of a gastrointestinal illness.
Culture specificity. Some probiotics work best for specific illnesses, so variety is better. Look for one that lists multiple culture strains.
Pills or food? During times of stress—increased training load, family/work pressures, illness—it might be prudent to increase your consumption of beneficial bacteria, and you may need to supplement with pills or with specialty probiotic “shots” such as Yakult, DanActive or Good Belly Shots. Bacteria can also be concentrated and packaged into pills or tablets for an even greater concentration of CFUs. Strains and strain count vary greatly, as does recommended dose, so check labels carefully.
TIP: Because bacteria are sensitive to heat and light, many probiotics are found refrigerated and must be stored chilled, while others have been stabilized to be effective even at room temperature. Check the “use by” dates and use within the specified time for efficacy.
Pip Taylor is a professional triathlete and a sports nutritionist, and is currently completing her master’s degree in dietetics. She also offers personalized nutrition services for individuals, groups and clubs. Visit Piptaylor.com, or follow her: @PipTaylorRacing.