7 Amazing Benefits of Eating Fermented Foods for Athletes
Have you become aware of the buzz that’s currently surrounding fermented foods? It seems these probiotic-packed foods are all that health aficionados are talking about lately.
Are you confused about what the benefits of eating fermented foods are and why they’re being touted as having such astonishing health benefits?
If so, lets talk.
Fermented foods suddenly seem to be everywhere. These guys have moved from obscurity to being one of the most popular food categories. Health shops have whole sections devoted to them, and now run-of-the-mill grocery stores are stocking up.
We’re going to give you a full breakdown of all the amazing fermented food benefits so you can finally understand what the hype is all about. Even more, we will show how they can drastically improve your recovery and performance.
What are Fermented Foods?
Fermented foods encompass a wide range of different foods. You are probably aware of the more obvious categories such as yogurt and aged cheese. You may even know that wine, craft beer, and chocolate, for example, are produced through a process of fermentation and are rich in natural antioxidants (antioxidants promote heart health and fight disease).
The secret behind the value of these foods is that they contain live bacteria. If you’re wondering why this is important, the answer is found in your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). When you learn that what happens in your gut has a profound impact on your overall health, you’ll have a more clear idea of why fermented foods can play an important role in overall fitness and general well-being.
The Process of Fermentation
Fermentation occurs when microorganisms (organisms so small they can be seen only through a microscope) such as bacteria or yeast convert carbohydrates into smaller molecules to form alcohol or organic acids. This occurs under anaerobic conditions (which means there’s no oxygen present).
Alcoholic fermentation results from the metabolism of sugars and starches, which are broken down into carbon dioxide and ethanol by using these bacteria and yeast. This is the type of process that produces bread, as well as beer and wine.
How Fermentation Helps Digestion and Health
As far back as the 19th century, scientists were studying microorganisms in the human GI tract. And guess what they’ve discovered?! There are over a trillion bacteria found in the gut, known collectively as the biome or microbiome. The biome contains both good and bad strains, and these need to be kept in balance.
As a result, studies have found that the microorganisms present in healthy people are different from those who are sick.
Researching the good and bad bacteria was the beginning of the understanding of ‘probiotics’ – which are now known to be essential for optimal digestion and health. The word is derived from the Greek ‘for life’ which underlines the importance of these bacteria. It was then found that fermented foods contain a large supply of natural probiotics.
So, as an athlete, could fermented foods help you? Is there a link between probiotics and improved health and performance?
Here are 7 amazing benefits that you can obtain through eating fermented foods – all of which are linked to your gut health and to the power of probiotics.
7 Ways Eating Fermented Foods Helps Athletes:
1. Gut Health is an Essential Part of Athletic Performance
Many athletes focus on their muscles as the key to their athletic performance, but the gut actually makes a much greater contribution to overall performance than you might think.
One of the most important aspects of a healthy gut microbiome is diversity. The trillion bacteria in your gut are essential for your health. It is estimated that about 90% of these bacteria are “good”, while 10% are “bad”.
The trick is to keep the balance. Humans tend to experience health problems when the ratio changes. You have, for example, about 30 different strains of probiotics in your body, but at least 5 different strains are needed for effective health.
The gut balance is easily disturbed by stress, poor diet, and certain medications. When you digest food, you need to have certain enzymes available. If you’ve been taking antibiotics, or even if you’ve been eating the wrong foods, the good bacteria in your gut might have been destroyed along with the unhealthy bacteria. A modern American diet, often filled with processed foods in addition to food treated with pesticides and herbicides, (check out our GF pasta post for more info on the danger of the pesticide glyphosate found in most American wheat), and the tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals you may come into contact with, all have an impact on the health of your microbiome.
It’s a delicate process trying to work out what is best for your system. Unfortunately, as an athlete, your training and workouts can also affect this balance. Athletes often experience GI tract disturbances. These may appear in the form of gas (including belching), bloating, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, reflux, or just general abdominal pain and heartburn. Any of these symptoms can be experienced in a variety of sports. Between 30 and 70% of endurance athletes are said to experience GI disorders.
Fermented foods will help put your system back in balance. These foods, filled with probiotics, are easier to digest. This saves your body energy, along with the benefit of having additional vitamins and minerals released so that you can assimilate them. Probiotics will help you to maintain homeostasis by assisting the ‘good bacteria’ to prevail. Thus, fermented foods could provide you with an easy way to improve your gut health and derive all the corresponding benefits.
2. Probiotics Have a Positive Impact on Muscle Damage
Research shows that athletes experience a drop in performance after exercise-induced muscle damage. This may occur after any type of exercise that stresses the muscle, such as weight lifting, over-training, or a hard run.
Studies have now demonstrated a link between muscle inflammation after significant exertion and specific probiotics. The good news is that using a probiotic can actually reduce muscle inflammation and can thus improve your next performance. Several tests have been carried out in the US, New Zealand, and Italy, each proving that those who had been given a probiotic had decreased inflammatory markers. In addition, tests have shown that those athletes who took probiotics had reduced muscle damage, improved physical performance, and better exercise recovery. Equally encouraging was a reduction in CRP (C-reactive protein). CRP is a blood marker for inflammation in the body, and a reduction can potentially lower the risk profile for cardiovascular disease.
3. Improved Digestion and Increased Absorption
Interest in nutrition and its impact on sporting performance is a science in itself. A better nutrient foundation for muscle cells is what all athletes strive for. Thus, whether you are a competing athlete, a weekend enthusiast, or just someone who tries to exercise daily for health, a nutritionally adequate diet is the key to improved performance.
Probiotics improve digestion and, more importantly, enhance absorption of nutrients. Furthermore, better nutrient absorption speeds up recovery time. Over time, it could also increase the consistency of your performance. When you’re well nourished, there might also be a reduced risk of contracting an illness or disease.
One of the most valuable features of fermented foods is that they can be broken down more easily into nutrients required for digestion. You may be eating well, but might find that your body isn’t able to process this food optimally. Anything which improves the bioavailability of the minerals and vitamins in your diet will have a positive effect on your health, and fermented foods take the cake.
4. Strengthening the Immune System
Astonishingly, scientists now believe that an estimated 80% of your immune system is located in your gut. This means that re-seeding your gut with friendly bacteria that will protect your body from infection is one of the more important strategies you can use to prevent disease.
Many sports health practitioners feel that physical exertion may have a negative short-term effect on your digestive and immune system. Moderate exercise is not the culprit here, as this has a positive long-term effect on your health. Rather, it’s the shorter bursts of intense athletic activity or training. This is perhaps why many athletes experience respiratory infections and other illnesses after a competition, which can reduce performance.
While the reason for this negative impact is not entirely clear, it could be the result of physiological stress that taxes the immune system. This period of altered immunity is usually for a brief window between 3 and 72 hours, and would depend on your actual exertion, athletic ability, and overall health. 
This is where probiotics come into play, as a strong GI microbiome plays a vital role in adapting your body to physical activity. It has been established that the gut microbiome sends signals to your liver, brain, and respiratory tract. Studies have also demonstrated that supplementation with probiotics reduces the frequency and severity of respiratory and GI tract disorders in highly active athletes.
The connection between the gut and immunity and how it works still needs further research however, in the interim, many studies recommend that athletes use probiotics to help colonize the “good bacteria” in their guts, thereby assisting their immune systems.
5. Probiotics May Improve Athletic Performance
The points above show how probiotics can improve your overall health, nutrition status, and immune system. When an athlete experiences enhanced recovery (and less fatigue), improved immune function, and maintains a healthy GI tract, there is no question as to why fermented foods could be seen as making a significant contribution to improved athletic performance.
Illnesses such as an upper respiratory tract infection, or an GI tract disorder, are the bane of an athlete’s existence. These health disparities usually mean that training should be reduced or suspended. Thus, if probiotics are able to improve the immune system, athletes are able to continue their training and improve their performance.
Fortunately, there are studies in place proving this concept. Endurance swimmers and highly trained rugby players given probiotics (in the form of yogurt and other fermented foods), were found to have a reduction of upper respiratory illnesses versus a control group. For swimmers, improved performance was noted and it was suggested to be due to their ability to avoid illness. They were also able to demonstrate improved peak oxygen uptake, better known as improved VO2 max.
In addition to reducing the amount of missed practice (as a result of illness) and improving VO2 max, a 2014 study analyzing the effect of probiotic supplementation in runners found incredible results. The results demonstrated four weeks of probiotic supplementation significantly improved running time to fatigue, reduced inflammation, and decreased gastrointestinal discomfort symptoms when compared to placebo supplementation.
Isn’t that exciting??
So, as discussed, there are a number of ways that reduced illness, improved endurance, and increased peak performance may be achieved by including a variety of fermented foods as well as probiotic supplementation.
The health of your gut may also play a role in anxiety and depression. Whether you realize it or not, anxiety and depression can play a major role in athletic performance. Avoiding burnout, staying focused, maintaining calm in the peak of a game and even basic mental fitness is often the difference between winning and losing a close game.
The link between your gut and brain is now widely-recognized. Much of an athlete’s prowess is related to a mental state of calm, focus, lack of fatigue, and confidence. Fermented foods and probiotics can have a significant effect on your emotional and mental outlook. They have been proven in animal studies to help improve the balance between the “gut-brain-microbiota axis”. This balance is recognized as an important regulator of intestinal physiology. “Exposure to psychological stress causes activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and causes altered intestinal barrier function, intestinal dysbiosis, and behavioral changes.”
In other words, when the brain is stressed, so is the gut.
Mental stress sends signals for digestion and gut function to slow down or stop. When this happens, nutrient absorption decreases leading to reduced recovery, increased fatigue, and so on.
In the end, just remember, gut health is highly linked to brain health and vice versa. Through the benefits of fermented foods and probiotics, you can improve your gut health with the potential of drastically improving athletic performance. Without a healthy gut, your ability to reach your potential is severely limited.
6. Probiotics Improve Intense Exercise Tolerance
Much is being learned about the type of stress that the body undergoes during physical activity. What is becoming clear is that probiotics can play a key role in controlling and adapting your body to exercise.
A lot of athletic activity either takes place in the heat or it is created as a byproduct of movement and intense competition. Those who train in the heat often become fatigued more quickly leading to reduced performance compared to comfortable conditions.
It’s now known that GI function becomes compromised during intense training, which, not surprisingly may be further exacerbated by heat. Together, this can severely stress the immune system.
When this situation continues, it can affect the walls of the GI tract. ‘Leaky gut’ is the term given when the walls of the GI tract become weak or even perforated. This then allows harmful bacteria to move from the GI tract into the bloodstream.
Research has shown that probiotics improve an athlete’s ability to train in the heat through reduced fatigue. Even more importantly, runners who regularly used a probiotic demonstrated reduced gastrointestinal permeability. So, fermented food benefits may be seen both in the short-term (reduced gastrointestinal permeability) as well as long-term (improved recovery, reduced risk for illness, improved gut-brain-microbiota health).
7. Probiotics Help Remove Toxins
Those that focus on the gut will know the mantra of “getting nutrients into the body and getting toxins out”. A toxic gut releases chemicals into the portal vein, which then transports them to the liver. The liver then needs a vast amount of energy to rid itself of these toxins. If it becomes too overloaded, it will release these toxins into the body.
If your body is already overloaded with toxins, often times one of the most harmful decisions you can make is to begin a detoxification program. When this is done, your organs of elimination, which are already impaired, will have to cope with even more toxins in your bloodstream. Unfortunately, this could potentially make you feel more sick than you thought possible. Nonetheless, it’s important to remove these toxins as this will greatly improve your health, which again, is essential to your ability to achieve peak performance. The key is to make subtle, but consistent dietary changes on a daily basis instead of drastically changing your routine all at once.
Fortunately, fermented foods have been found to be excellent in helping remove toxins. Not only have they been found to be helpful in removing toxins, fermented foods have been found to contain bacteriocins which show anti-microbial effects, sphingolipids which have an anti-carcinogenic and anti-microbial effect, and bioactive peptides which exhibit anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, and opioid antagonist effects to name just a few benefits!!
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Are probiotics and fermented foods the same?
Through explaining the benefits of eating fermented foods, we have highlighted the value of probiotics. However, it’s important to consider whether probiotics and fermented foods are one and the same thing. Fermentation-associated microbes share many of the beneficial traits of probiotics, but not all of them retain a high probiotic content. Some products, like certain types of sauerkraut or pickles, will not contain live cultures. Why? Because the organisms have been removed to extend shelf-life. Also, heat can destroy these organisms so that a fermented product like sourdough bread may no longer contain live cultures.
Scientists such as Robert (Bob) Hutkins, a Professor of Food Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, feels that it is important to address the “common misconception that fermented foods are the same thing as ‘probiotics’—the latter being live bacteria that confer health benefits when consumed in adequate numbers”. He explains that many fermented foods do contain live cultures, including yogurt and other fermented dairy foods. Therefore, not all fermented foods qualify as probiotics and not all probiotics can easily be obtained without a healthy variety of fermented foods.
So, as we have stated in previous posts, it is important to place priority on a whole-foods and a “clean-eating” approach to achieving optimal performance.
Supplements are just that- supplemental to a healthy diet. With that said, if you’re an athlete that either does not enjoy fermented foods, has a hard time incorporating them into your diet, or you’re simply looking to achieve peak performance, supplementing with a probiotic is recommended. My favorite is Ther-biotic Complete by Klaire Labs and the best price is found by ordering through Wellevate.
Determining a specific type of probiotic that is best for your unique immune system may vary, therefore, I encourage you to see a functional medicine practitioner. A qualified practitioner can order specialized GI testing to help fine-tune a protocol to your physiology and training demands.
Also worth noting: In certain situations, athletes who have dealt with chronic gut issues may experience negative side effects from beginning a probiotic-rich protocol. If you feel that you fall into this category, please consult your registered dietitian or physician before initiating a new regimen.
Getting the full benefits of eating fermented foods
Scientists and health practitioners predict that the array of fermented foods in grocery stores and health outlets will continue to grow in the years ahead. After all, there is already so much to choose from, including kimchi; miso; sauerkraut; lassi, an Indian yogurt drink; fermented milk, such as kefir; natto, which is fermented soy; and many other varieties.
The taste of fermented foods can be slightly foreign to the Western tongue, but there is no doubt that the benefits are profound. As you can see, there is a wealth of scientific confirmation for the indisputable value of fermented food for the promotion of health and wellbeing.
The most important factor is to ensure that the fermented foods you’re eating have a high probiotic content. Be sure to shop carefully and double check labels. This is the best way to ensure that you’re deriving the maximum benefits and experiencing the type of athletic improvements that have been highlighted in this article.
We hope through understanding all of the benefits, you start to incorporate fermented foods into your diet on a weekly basis. Over the long term, there can be drastic improvements in your health and muscle recovery.
If you would like to read more about some powerful foods that you can easily incorporate into your diet, check out our posts on The 4 Unbelievable Benefits of Maca Root and 9 Incredible Health Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar. Regularly incorporating these, along with fermented foods, can really help you get a leg up on your competition. Who doesn’t love reducing fatigue, the frequency of illness, soreness, and improving performance?!
- Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 2009; 7(1): 24-30
- Nutra Ingredients, Probiotics May Reduce Post-Exercise Inflammation, Offer Performance Benefits
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 2013; 7(1): 51
- Medical Journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Aug 2013; 27(3): 141-146