Gut health seems to be priority number one these days when it comes to nutrition, with a healthy gut being linked to a range of digestive, health and immune system benefits. Prebiotics and probiotics play a major role in helping our gut bacteria to stay balanced and healthy. If you’ve never heard of them, it’s time to get yourself acquainted, especially if you like to stay fit and well.
Probiotics are good types of bacteria that can be added to our gut by eating or drinking them. Good bacteria is our body's friend, helping our digestion, immune system and a range of other health ailments. Illness, medications, processed foods and a low-fibre diet can all contribute to an imbalance of good and bad bacteria. Probiotics can help to re-establish the balance in favour of good health.
We can add good bacteria using probiotics, and if we then feed our gut bacteria well, they will thank us by producing compounds that can benefit our health. So it's not just adding probiotics to our existing gut ecosystem, but fuelling our gut bugs to improve the gut environment.
A healthy gut bacteria ecosystem = a healthy body.
Prebiotics provide non-digestible fibre that is the perfect fuel to feed our gut bugs. Examples include bananas, asparagus, artichokes, chicory, leeks, onions, legumes, wheat bran, barley and oats. Our overly processed world means that we often don't consume adequate prebiotics from food, which can lead to an increase in bad bacteria, and potentially increase inflammation in the body (inflammation is now being linked to range of chronic health conditions).
Benefits for athletes
Many athletes who train hard will find they are prone to the common cold, often just before an important competition or game. A study by Gleeson et al in 2011 found an up to 50% reduction in frequency of upper respiratory tract infections in athletes when Yakult (probiotic drink) was consumed daily. For athletes who are training hard, competing or travelling, the last thing you need is to get sick, and daily probiotics are an easy way to help.
What about supplements?
So, eat more prebiotic fibre. Consume probiotic foods and fluids. Do we need probiotic supplements as well? The amount of live bacteria in foods such as yoghurt, probiotic drinks and fermented foods may not be enough for a clinical effect, but could it be enough for general good health? There are no clear guidelines about the specific bacteria dose to take for different purposes and health conditions, although general recommendations can be made. Side-effects of supplements are common, including increased gas production, bloating and stool changes initially, so it is best to introduce gradually over a number of weeks.
Probiotic supplements may be useful:
- During and after a course of antibiotics, which kill both good and bad bacteria
- After food poisoning or a bout of gastro
- For individuals who are prone to recurrent colds/infections
- Athletes doing high levels of training
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Women suffering from candidiasis (thrush)
The amount, type and form of probiotic will vary for individuals, as will the duration of intake. A probiotic supplement should be used in conjunction with other dietary strategies for optimal results. In the future it is very likely that different strains will be recommended for different purposes and we may be prescribed specific bugs to boost our individual health.
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