It starts with a growl. And progresses to “walkie talkies.” Then comes the feeling that you better find a porta-potty – stat! Besides being inconvenient and draining, an unhealthy gastrointestinal (GI) system can be downright embarrassing. If it wasn’t bad enough to have those symptoms in the comfort of your own home, it’s even more embarrassing to be out running - miles away from home - and realizing that something is about to go very, very wrong. To complicate matters, experiencing these symptoms just once can make a runner too nervous to run with friends, and even panicky when it comes to racing with a pack.

Certainly there’s a wide variety of reasons why GI distress happens. Too much fiber the morning of? Too much cheese and butter at the pre-race dinner? Or maybe it was that 24oz of fruit juice you downed before heading out? These sorts of culprits can be easy for runners to identify (and never make the mistake again). But what about experiencing run after run where you planned ahead, avoided all mishaps, and still fell victim to GI distress? If this scenario applies to you, it may be time to fix your gut in addition to fixing your diet.

It turns out there’s hope for the intestinally challenged. Prebiotics and probiotics (terms associated with certain foods that can actually balance the gut microflora) are thought to provide certain distinctive benefits to the gastrointestinal system and are available in different food sources, which can be part of a balanced and healthy diet. What’s the difference between the two?

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Prebiotics are, by definition, non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria. Essentially, prebiotics are the “food” for probiotics. These two types of foods work together to balance out the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Common forms of prebiotics include fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). You might find them on the food label listed simply as FOS or GOS or you might see the ingredient Inulin, which is a more common form of FOS. Then again, inulin is also called chicory root or chicory root fiber, which is a popular fiber supplemental additive in many food items that would not normally be considered high in fiber, such as yogurts and baked goods. It adds fiber without adding any adverse textural or taste components. However, some evidence suggests that binging on foods that contain lots of inulin may increase the risk for stomach discomfort (so best to avoid a heavy dose of this ingredient prior to your run). As for GOS, it’s naturally occurring in human milk and commonly added to infant formula but can also be found in other foods. It’s an excellent source for health-promoting bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli and has been found to help alleviate constipation symptoms in infants and possibly in adults too.

If you want to consume prebiotics but aren’t looking to add in a supplement or fortified foods, never fear. Prebiotics can be found in several different fruits and vegetables, including onions, leeks, bananas, garlic, asparagus, soybeans, whole wheat foods, and artichokes. Aim for a variety of these foods every day to help keep the GI tract healthy.

On the other hand, probiotics are living microorganisms, just like the bacteria in your gut. Which is likely one reason why probiotics are beneficial. Extra healthy bacteria enhances and replaces the good bacteria in your body that is naturally weakened by a variety of things, including stress, illness, antibiotic use, and surgery. Probiotics are commonly used in the United States to treat symptoms related to diarrhea (both infectious and antibiotic), Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Current research is looking at the safety and effectiveness of probiotic use pertaining to Helicobacter Pylori (stomach ulcer bacteria), tooth decay, respiratory infections, and skin conditions like atopic eczema.

Currently, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are two of the most common forms of probiotics in the US and the ones you’re likely to see included in your favorite yogurt or keifer. Not all products should be considered the same, however. Kerri Haynes, a registered dietitian in Dayton, Ohio recommends in order to find a product with strong probiotic potential, choose one labeled with “live and active cultures.” She adds that the ingredient label will identify the types of bacterial strains available in the product as well. Products from the brand Stonyfield Organic include this verbiage and, if you’re looking for a convenient, tasty way to enjoy yogurt, kids of all ages like their new pouches. Additionally, kefir is a yogurt-like product with a thinner texture and tangy taste that is available and typically contains multiple strains of bacteria making it a probiotic powerhouse. Haynes suggests blending it with fruit in a smoothie or trying it in place of milk on cereal. Kefir can be purchased in larger container sizes or individual bottles, making it a great on-the-go option that’s rich in probiotics as well as calcium and protein.

Haynes recommends choosing a diet rich in foods that showcase prebiotic and probiotic ingredients because they add not only the potential for GI relief but also increase antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals in the body which are proven to help the body become stronger and more efficient. Choose a balanced and healthy diet to help the body maximize its potential and performance.

At the end of the day, by simply adding in some fortified foods or simply boosting intake of foods you already enjoy, you can build a better gut, strengthen your immune system, and potentially run less often to the bathroom and more often towards the finish line.

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