Winter is coming, and with it: cold weather, flu season, and intense winter training. Any three of these alone can mean increased risk of colds, flus, and slower recovery times after training. Together, they may be the Chicago Cubs to your Cleveland dreams of glory: doom.
Wait? What does training have to do with this? One of the many functions of your immune system is to fight those nasty bacterial and viral invaders and ward off things like the flu and the common cold. Over the long-term, exercise reduces the risk of illness, but in the short-term it reduces the activity of the immune system, also known as ‘exercise-induced immune-depression.’
So what, right? It’s just a cold! Not according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, which analyzed elite athletes over five years of competitive seasons (Raysmith & Drew, 2016). Training availability alone accounted for a whopping 86% of successful seasons. Every modified training week significantly reduced an athlete’s chance of having a successful season. Performance hinges on days affected by (or lost to) illness.
While nutrient timing and macro/micronutrient intake can play a large role in helping you fight off these pesky upper respiratory tract infections, the power of probiotics is often overlooked. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that we get from cultured and fermented foods like Greek yogurt or sauerkraut. Bacteria make up what is referred to as our “microbiome,” which is referred to by many physicians as a kind of organ in the body.
In our guts, this collection of healthy bacteria breaks down fiber, produces vitamins and fatty acids, helps with bowel movements, affects blood sugar regulation, and even communicates with our brains. Further, these bacteria crowd out nasty invaders and stimulate our immune systems. And we can use them to fight for us.
Research emerging over the last ten years suggests that probiotic ingestion can reduce your risk of illness by 30-47%, decrease symptom severity, and nearly double your rate of return back to health when you do catch a bug.
Some food sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, sour cream, aged cheese, some sourdough breads, buttermilk, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha and fermented vegetables.
Technically, you only need a couple tablespoons of probiotics to get a complete dose. And the more variety, the better, since we get different kinds of bacteria from different foods. Shoot for one to three servings per day. It's easy enough to do a Greek yogurt parfait or throw some kraut on a salad or burger. You can take probiotic supplements, but there's a huge range of effectiveness – some are good and some are a huge waste of money, so get help before going this route.
And finally, don’t forget about prebiotics. While the term probiotics refers to those healthy bacteria we get from food, prebiotics refers to the food that the bacteria feed on to survive – basically, fiber. Make sure you are getting the right amount of vegetables, whole grains and beans in your diet to provide sufficient fiber to support your healthy gut bacteria and stop that cold before it stops you!
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Scott is a nutritionist at and co-founder of ViTL Nutrition – a nutrition counseling practice outside of Seattle, Washington. He works with athletes and teams to optimize performance by transforming the science of nutrition into individualized strategies and delicious foods. He is also the co-creator of the award-winning Baseball Nutrition Institute – an online and mobile nutrition system designed to empower elite ball players to take control of their performance without breaking the bank.