Probiotics and prebiotics play different yet significant roles for gut health and therefore impact athletic performance. But what’s the difference between them and which foods are the best sources?
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are living bacteria found in the gut created by the fermentation of foods. They provide many health benefits but are affected by heat and acidity and therefore probiotic levels alter over time depending on diet and lifestyle.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are non-living, non-digestible types of fibre that feed gut bacteria.
Prebiotics are not affected by heat, oxygen, stomach acids or enzymes. This means they reach the lower gut perfectly intact and selectively nourish only the good bacteria, not the bad.
Probiotics and prebiotics play a key role in gut health
Probiotics and prebiotics health benefits
Good bacteria in your digestive tract helps protect from harmful bacteria. They also trigger your immune system to regulate inflammation – which is at the heart of many chronic diseases.
Probiotics aid the formation of short chain fatty acids which are the main nutrient source for the cells of the colon lining. These cells create a strong gut lining to keep harmful bacteria and viruses from absorbing into your system, further reducing inflammation.
Much research has been done on the impact of probiotics and prebiotics on our bodies:
- A study from King Saud University showed probiotics prevent nectrotising enterocolitis, a serious disease affecting the bowels of premature infants
- A systematic review highlighted the efficacy of probiotics in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Another studied the relationship between probiotics and mental health and found “positive results on measures of depressive symptoms”
- Sleep quality has also been linked to gut health. Scientists at the University of Colorado conducted a study to find out if sleep can be improved by prebiotics: “We found that dietary prebiotics can improve non-REM sleep, as well as REM sleep after a stressful event”
- Professor Philip Burnet from Oxford University has discovered clear links between gut health and brain function and the impact on cortisol levels.
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Best probiotics sources
The best sources of probiotics to promote good bacteria are:
- Kefir. Probably the best source of probiotics, kefir has high levels of lactobacilli and bifidobacterial and is even well digested by lactose intolerant individuals. Many studies have proven it’s impact on gut health, such as this one, this one and this one
- Tempeh. A well-known plant based protein source originating from Indonesia, tempeh is a fermented soy-bean product
- Kimchi. Another fermented dish, this time from Korea, usually comprising cabbage and seasoning like garlic and ginger. It also contains the good bacteria lactobacillus
- Kombucha. A green tea fermented by bacteria and yeast, kombucha is widely available and many claim a range of health benefits
- Yoghurt. Made from milk fermented by good bacteria, yoghurt is associated with a range of health benefits. Be careful though: many yoghurts do not contain live bacteria and many are high in added sugar and sweeteners
Kimchi is a staple Korean dish comprising salted and fermented vegetables
Best prebiotic sources
You’ll find prebiotics in dietary fibre within fruits and vegetables. If you consume a healthy balanced diet high in fibre then you’ll be getting enough prebiotics. Oats, whole wheat bread, bananas, apples and plenty of leafy greens tick the box.
If you’re looking for an extra rich dose of prebiotics, you could consider some of these denser sources:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Raw leeks
- Raw onions
- Raw asparagus
- Chicory root powder
The Jerusalem artichoke is a major source of prebiotics
Probiotics, prebiotics and athletic performance
There are no direct performance enhancing effects or probiotics or prebiotics like there might be with caffeine for example. But there can be absolutely no doubt that gut health and endurance go hand in hand and that an athlete will achieve greater results if they have a healthy, properly functioning gut.
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