There are more than 100 trillion bacteria living in your body. You have more bacteria than cells, according to dairy industry website USProbiotics.org. Many of these bacteria are helpful, aiding in digestion, strengthening your immune system and keeping less-friendly bacteria in check. When harmful bacteria cause illness or infection, you might use an antibiotic to kill those bacteria. Unfortunately, some of the beneficial probiotic bacteria are also destroyed.
Probiotics can be incredibly beneficial for cyclists, says Dr. Ralf Jäger, who has been studying them as an inexpensive way to improve health. Probiotics, or live microorganisms that can be found in fermented foods or in pill form, help create a system of happy bacteria throughout your gut.
Yogurt or fermented foods, like sauerkraut or kimchi, are good natural sources for your probiotic fix. An easier and increasingly popular option, though, is to take probiotic pills. While pills used to be found only in super-specific health food stores, almost every major grocery store has at least a few options today. Your best bet is to opt for a probiotic sold in the refrigerated section; Whole Foods, for example, has a whole section of refrigerated space dedicated to probiotics. The refrigerated version—which tends to be slightly pricier—might be a better choice because probiotics are living organisms, and refrigerating them helps ensure potency. Some of the billions of strains of live bacteria and yeasts in an unrefrigerated pill might die during the hot transit to the grocery store, or just from sitting in a less-than-ideal temperature. Find a live strain, though, and in you’re in for a boatload of health benefits.
Athletes are lucky in that they tend to have better gut bacteria diversity, Jäger says, citing a 2014 study that compared 40 pro athletes’ bacteria with those found in an average population. Athletes also have higher levels of the specific probiotic Akkermansia, which past studies have linked with decreased risk of obesity and systemic inflammation.
Certain probiotics have been shown to reduce the number, duration, and severity of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) and gastrointestinal (GI) distress in athletes, which suggests that taking a probiotic regularly might help athletes stay healthier year-round and not fall victim to stomach bugs and sore throats when travelling for competition.
Keeping Barriers Up
Barriers in your gut keep liquids in their proper places, and some research suggests probiotics may help keep those barriers strong. Exercise-induced intestinal barrier dysfunction happens when the blood normally circulating in the gut is transferred to the muscles during exercise, and that leads to “leaky gut”, which Jäger says increases the permeability of the intestinal wall. Consequences include potential inflammation, intestinal complaints, sleep disorders, reduced recovery and performance, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and susceptibility to infectious diseases. A 2012 study showed that adding probiotics to a diet reduced the permeability of the gut, even during exercise.
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