Lynda Murray

The Dietitian Magician®

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A Spoonful of Bacteria Lessens Athletic Ailments

Athletes often juggle training sessions, frequent episodes of dining out, and the pressure of competition.  These demands combined with the stress of daily living can make athletes more susceptible to illness.

Athletes often spend months or years training for an event. Fees have risen in the past decade requiring a small loan to afford transportation, lodging, entry fees, specialized equipment and in some cases licensing fees. After setting their sights on a marathon or triathlon the last thing they want to be sidelined with is an illness. Wouldn’t it be great to discover the “fountain of health” that would make colds and coughs a thing of the past for harried athletes? 

Who is at highest risk of illness?

My masters thesis at the University of Northern Iowa investigated the number of upper respiratory tract infections (colds) in runners. I demonstrated that immune function is often jeopardized for athletes at the highest echelon of their sport. Like so many researchers before and after me, we documented that a moderate level of exercise appeared to be protective for immune function. People exercising at the elite or very strenuous level (think marathoners and triathletes) often suffer from jeopardized immune function. People who are very sedentary (think sofa spuds, sitting office onions) suffer from impaired immune function. People who get moderate exercise (think 30-60 minutes on most days) seemed to get ill less often.

Enter Probiotics

Researchers at Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, found that a daily dose of “healthy bacteria” significantly limited the number of illness days for the marathon runners in their study.

Despite small numbers in the study (20 healthy elite distance runners) the incidence of cough and colds averaged 30 days for those taking probiotics versus 72 days for those taking placebo (sugar pill).

The runners averaged 62 miles of running a week during the four-month period the study was conducted. Blood tests showed that levels of interferon gamma, a substance secreted by T cells doubled in the athletes given the probiotics. Interferon gamma, plays a key role in fighting viral infections.

What are Probiotics?

Probiotic" means "in favor of life". The term was first used in 1910, by a Russian physician who promoted his theory of a prolonged life and improved health.  He suggested that aging is a caused by imbalances in intestinal bacteria.  He suggested that this process could be halted by ingestion of bacteria. Almost a century has passed since he introduced his theory of aging, however, in some aspects his ideas ring true. Consumption of “friendly” bacteria does extend life in animal experiments.

How do bacteria fight bugs?

I was raised that bacteria were like the boogie man. Best to leave them alone. Scrub up and send them on their way down the drain. Sometimes I find myself shaking my head that I am now encouraged to drink or eat the very substances  I learned to avoid in elementary school in the seventies.  “Bacteria don’t have feet” my teacher taught me. “They are like little hitch-hikers, jumping onto hands, elbows, feet” wherever you were touching they were there hoping for a free ride.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Now we are encouraged to consume bacteria. Research has isolated over 400 species of bacteria in our own gut. The mouth, stomach, intestines are full of the creepy crawly things….and most of it is good. These invisible critters help to digest food, to support intestinal integrity, strengthen immune function and lesson cases of occasional diarrhea.

Other benefits of using probiotics may include reduced bad breath, better weight management, reduced gas and bloatedness, reduced incidence of colon cancer and improved bone health.

Can probiotics help me?

Probably. There is emerging research showing that probiotics can improve the health of the general population. Specific studies point to benefit for infants, athletes, and for people engaged in stressful jobs. The mechanism on how this “friendly bacteria” achieves its positive effect is yet unknown.

Where do I get “good” bacteria?

You can’t just drive to the “bacteria barn” and stock up on these live cultures, but a trip to your local supermarket should suffice. It is possible to ingest adequate healthy levels in family-friendly meals or snacks. Try some of the products listed below:

  • Attune bars
  • Dannon Activia yogurt
  • Dannon DanAcitve yogurt drink
  • Blue Bunny Lite 85 yogurt
  • Rachel’s probiotic yogurt
  • Kraft Live Active cheese cubes
  • Stoneyfield Farms yogurt
  • Yo Crunch naturals yogurt
  • Nancy’s organic soy yogurt
  • Laloos goat’s milk frozen yogurt
  • Good Belly organic fruit juice
  • Kasha Vive cereal
  • Kakuit dairy beverage
  • Post Live Active cereal in Nut Harvest Crunch or Mixed Berry Crunch flavors

Bacteria broadens its scope

Expect the list of tasty products containing probiotics to grow in the future. Newer items include milk, juices, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and nutrition bars. Since probiotics are living organisms, you want to make sure the little buggers are alive. A dead healthy bacteria won’t contribute to your success as an athlete or as a T-ball coach. Viability is key.

Caution on heat-treated foods, such as cookies or and snack foods. Due to mass extinctions of the good bacteria during processing, most are not good candidates.

All products containing probiotics should be refrigerated to prevent deterioration of the bacteria. The shelf life of the product, regardless whether it is cereal or frozen yogurt, will be shorter than a product without probiotics.

Reharvest your bacterial garden

It has been estimated that we consume 1 million times less healthy bacteria per day than our ancestors consumed. Overtime, even those of us with the best bacteria arsenal may need help. There is a tendency for healthy bacteria to decline in number over time. Lifestyle choices can hasten the loss of bacterial life with stress, bad diet, antibiotics and other drugs being chief culprits. 

If you decide to try probiotics, start small. Add in one serving a day for a week or two and monitor how you feel. Because probiotics only live in the intestine for a limited time, it is important to keep “weeding” your garden gut of the unfavorable bacteria by keep reintroducing the “good guys”.  Keep it up and I may see you at the starting line of a race this summer instead of side-lined due to illness.

Lynda Murray

Lynda is an award winning dietitian and a leading advocate for nutritional health and wellness.

Lynda Murray

Lynda is an award winning dietitian and a leading advocate for nutritional health and wellness.