Do these ‘friendly bacteria’ also boast fitness-boosting benefits? We found out
The link between the gut and a healthier body and mind has seen probiotics secure ‘super supplement’ status in recent times. But could upping your intake of this so-called friendly bacteria also play a pivotal role in your get fit routines too? Due to their far-reaching benefits, the answer points to yes.
Both direct and indirect in their effects, probiotics can act as a welcomed aid when it comes to physical and mental preparation on workout and rest days. Here’s how.
1. They aid better absorption of important nutrients
An effective way to fortify fitness reserves, probiotics provide a valuable helping hand for turning food into the most hard-working of fuels. “Probiotics play a crucial role in the way that we uptake, assimilate and even create nutrients in the gut which means we can absorb all of the nutritional value from our food,” explains nutritional therapist and GTG Expert Eve Kalinik . “Overall this translates to an improvement in energy, recovery and stamina, which are all key factors when it comes to gaining all the benefits from your workout.”
Aiding recovery is a fitness-boosting benefit of particular note. If the post-workout comedown leaves you flagging for a few hours (or days afterwards - we’ve all been there), probiotics can make the transition from workout to working day noticeably smoother and less painful. “They also have a role to play in reducing inflammation which means speedier recovery post-training,” explains Eve. “Furthermore, they synthesise some of the B vitamins that are crucial for energy,” she adds. By helping regulate stress hormones too, they can further contribute to reducing overall fitness fatigue: “Having a more balanced gut microbiome can help to manage the effects of stress, which even though is positive stress, can be the knock-on effect from hitting the gym,” says Eve. “This also helps the body recover much quicker after exercise and be ready for the next session.”
2. They can help boost your immunity
Sickness can often prove to be the most problematic of fitness-sapping hurdles when it comes to maintaining a consistent workout plan. However, according to Eve probiotics can help ensure these types of ill-fated side-effects are kept to a minimum: “Having a healthy microbiome is positively linked with a better performing immune system. If you are working out a lot, then it’s important to support immunity as this can be easily compromised if you are hitting the gym regularly.”
She adds, “During periods of exercise our immune system can be put under strain, particularly if you are regularly working out at high levels of intensity, so it’s important to ensure that immunity levels are at their peak. Since most of our immune system is located in the gut and modulated by the beneficial bacteria that reside there, probiotics can be a good way of ensuring that you have a good balance. This means that when our immunity levels dip a bit low, we have the reserves to quickly bounce back. This also prevents against getting infections and illnesses that can impair your training and/or take you out of the gym entirely.”
3. They can boost fitness motivation levels
“Since around 90% of our serotonin, dubbed the ‘happy hormone’ is made in the gut, it can certainly impact on mood if this is out of balance and may be one of the reasons you may not want to get to the gym in the first place,” explains Eve. With recent research indicating that a healthier gut could lead to a happier mind , probiotics could be just the extra push needed from a mental perspective to rekindle dwindling fitness motivation levels.
How to increase your probiotic strength
Probiotic and fermented foods should be your first port of call for boosting your levels of beneficial bugs. "Daily servings of probiotic foods are nature’s best way of delivering these," says Eve. “Yogurt and cultured dairy dates back thousands of years and was traditionally used for gastric remedies,” she adds. “Unfortunately a lot of the dairy we now encounter in the supermarkets is largely processed, but things like kefir, a fermented milk beverage, or unpasteurised full fat cheese can provide direct sources. Also foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso can all provide beneficial bacteria. And sourdough too. You can very easily make your own sauerkraut - here’s a link to my favourite family recipe .” Eve's top meal recommendation? “A gut-boosting post-workout brekkie could be something like sourdough spread with miso paste and topped with poached eggs and sauerkraut."
“Some of my go-to brands include Rhythm Health, Miso Tasty, Daylesford, Bio-tiful Dairy and Chuckling Goat. PLENISH also has its great WATER+ , £2.29, that not only provides beneficial bacteria, but also keeps you hydrated during your workout," says Eve.
To create the most fertile of environments for your population of probiotics to flourish in, also try to incorporate regular servings of prebiotic foods into your diet to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria. “These include onions, leeks, garlic, oats, bananas, asparagus, tiger nuts and chicory,” recommends Eve.
“A daily probiotic is going to help these levels stay in optimum range and, given the amount of stress the gut is under on a day to day basis, I consider this a worthy investment,” says Eve. With a plethora of probiotics on the market to help supplement your intake though, what should you be looking for? According to Eve, you want one that provides both quantity and quality. “You definitely want a multi-strain probiotic into the billions of CFU (which stands for colony forming units),” she advises. “Depending on the probiotic, you would take it in different ways, (e.g. with or without food) and some strains are more resilient to surviving the acidity of the stomach. However, one of my tried and tested with clients is Symprove , (from £79), a liquid formula that you take on an empty stomach which has good bioavailability so it reaches the gut with the microbes still alive. Sometimes people try to save money by spending less, but in this case it is worth investing in a good formula like this one.”
In terms of when to take a supplemental probiotic to better maximise your exercise routine specifically, timings are relatively flexible. “First thing in the morning is the best time generally to take your probiotic as it creates a good daily habit and you start the day knowing that you have done something positive for your body,” recommends Eve. That being said though, its benefits will be felt from a performance perspective no matter when you take it as it's more about its long-term advantages. “The point is you don’t need to time your probiotic around your workout as it will still support your overall health whether you prefer exercising earlier or later in the day.”
Are there any foods, supplements or medications which can reduce the efficacy of probiotics? “Yes, antibiotics are really the big one,” cautions Eve. “So if you are taking them, then just time your probiotics at least two hours away. There are many other medications such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) that can also alter the gut microbiome, but that’s why it’s important to somewhat counteract that with a good probiotic. Plus, you want to be careful of having protein powders that have a lot of hidden sugars in them as this can impact the gut too.”
With attributes that help aid both performance and recovery, the fact that probiotics can push fitness goals that one step further acts as a real incentive to up your levels. However, the wide-ranging nature of their benefits for boosting overall health in both the short and long-term makes it clear that their perks go beyond just what goes on in the gym. “For every one cell that we are human, we are 10 bacteria, so essentially we are more bacteria than human,” says Eve. “It is therefore important to nurture our beneficial organisms and help the body to function at its best (and that includes in the gym too!).”