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Plenty of attention has been given to probiotics, and for good reason—the beneficial bacteria in your gut has been linked to a range of benefits, from better immunity to deeper sleep to a sunnier mood. But increasingly, there’s growing awareness that those good bugs can work even harder if they’re fed properly.
We spoke with Mary Purdy, R.D.N., dietitian and author of The Microbiome Reset Diet, and Sarah Berry, Ph.D., senior lecturer in the department of nutrition sciences at King’s College London, to find out what prebiotics are, how they can help with your riding performance, and what the best sources are.
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are plant fibers that aren’t digested by the body, so instead, they travel to your lower digestive tract, where they form a tasty buffet for your healthy bacteria, according Purdy. That makes your good bugs thrive and get stronger, as well as multiply, she says.
When that happens, those bacteria are better at digesting and breaking down food to make it usable as fuel for our bodies, she says. When certain bacteria consume the undigestible parts of the food we eat—including prebiotics—they produce lactic acid, which supports digestion, and short-chain fatty acids, a substance needed by the cells lining your colon.
What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Prebiotics?
If you’re skimping on the healthy foods and not getting enough prebiotic material, it can lead to what’s called “dysbiosis,” which is an imbalance in your gut microbiome. Short-term, that can kick off uncomfortable gastrointestinal issues, but longer-term, it might become chronic and lead to more serious issues like inflammatory bowel diseases, according to Purdy.
Dysbiosis can also have a ripple effect. Since gut health is crucial for your overall health—such as immunity, heart function, and brain health—being unbalanced for too long could lead to conditions like autoimmune disorders, obesity, depression, dementia, and type 2 diabetes.
Although regular exercise can help mitigate these risks to some degree, dysbiosis is likely to have a profound effect on athletic performance over time, Purdy says, since a diverse microbiome and an effective metabolism share a well-established link.
“Individuals with a less diverse microbiome also tend to have more systemic inflammation, which and be linked to heart and joint issues, as well as insulin resistance and high cholesterol,” Purdy says.
She added that the gut microbiome is also responsible for the synthesis of vitamins, such as biotin, B12, folic acid, thiamine, and vitamin K, which all play important roles in energy production, nerve function, and bone health. Without them, cyclists might find themselves feeling fatigued more quickly, experiencing more muscle pain, and dealing with joint issues, she says.
It’s important to give your beneficial bacteria the best possible environment to thrive—and that’s where increased prebiotics come in.
How to Load Up on Prebiotics
Much like probiotics, you can find prebiotics in some supplement formations, but it’s best to get them from foods, Purdy suggests. That way, you can take advantage of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that go along with whole-food options, as well as polyphenols (micronutrients in plant-based options that have antioxidants linked to an array of health benefits.)
Top choices for prebiotics:
If you’re branching out into the less-familiar parts of the produce section, prebiotics are also abundant in Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, dandelion greens, burdock root, jicama, and seaweed.
Playing around with a breadth of prebiotic options is useful for figuring out which options make the most sense for you, Berry says, since some of these foods can cause bloating and gas, or, more positively, can give you more energy and better bowel health.
“The microbiome is unique to each individual,” Berry says. “Due to the personalized nature of your gut bacteria, a personalized approach to what you eat is the best way to positively impact your health.”
Maximize Your Gut Health Even More
As the good bacteria in charge of balancing gut flora—and reducing GI symptoms in cyclists along the way—probiotics are found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kefir, and yogurt.
When you’ve got your mix of prebiotics and probiotics right (when you have a happy gut), you’ll achieve a good blend of postbiotics, which include any material left over after the bacteria use what they need. Much like the other biotics, postbiotics play a significant role in supporting a healthy digestive system and enabling the microbiome to thrive.
You can increase postbiotics with the same type of foods used for probiotics, which means boosting your consumption of fermented options can be even more powerful.
In general, Purdy suggests, variety is key. You’d get bored eating the same meals all the time, and your gut bacteria are no different. They thrive with novelty, especially if fiber is involved.
“Don’t get too stuck on only one type of vegetable, one kind of nut, or one class of grains,” Purdy says. “Diversity of diet equals diversity of microbiome, which equals a happier, healthier you. Shoot for an array of color and texture and a mixture of foods each day that provide both fiber and a plethora of polyphenols, and your bugs will likely sing.”
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