Taking probiotics has become one of those things we’re all told to do, but most of us don’t do it. But if your profession or lifestyle depends on your physical wellbeing, you may want to take probiotics very seriously.
Probiotics not only maintain good every day health, they’re invaluable as a means of functional nutrition for athletes. Probiotics support energy levels, immune health and optimal athletic performance. And with plenty of evidence to show that health problems start in the gut, it makes sense for an athlete to keep their gut microbiota as healthy as possible.
Everyone who is physically active – whether an Olympic athlete or just a daily jogger – should take their wellbeing seriously. This begins with their gut health.
Taking probiotic supplements and eating fermented foods are the best ways to support the healthy bacteria species in the gut. Because athletes are highly dependent on their physical performance and immune health, they should support their body’s nutritional needs with a healthy dose of probiotics every day.
Here are five reasons athletes should take probiotics!
1. Improve Gut Health
Your gut is the center of your health and wellbeing. If your gut is compromised in any way, your athletic performance will be, too. This is because your immune health is closely tied to the strength of the membrane surrounding your gut.
If your gut lining is damaged, it can become ‘leaky’, causing harmful toxins to pass into your bloodstream. Your immune system has an inflammatory response to these toxins – and inflammation is the precursor for other health disorders.
Clinical trials have shown that taking probiotics is a powerful way to improve gut barrier health in endurance athletes1.
Studies involving multi-strain probiotics that included L. acidophilus, B. lactis, and B. bifidum were able to significantly improve irritable bowel syndrome symptoms and reduce the incidence of a strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, enterococci.
Probiotics are also a proven means of reducing pathogenic strains of bacteria and yeast such as Candida albicans. Microorganisms like Candida live naturally in everyone’s gut, but it can cause a number of health issues if it grows out of control.
2. Preventing Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) are one of the most common illnesses affecting athletes. This can have a recurring negative impact on health and performance, especially during intensive training periods. Long-distance runners, for example, tend to experience URTIs more frequently in the days following a competitive event.
This is when probiotic supplementation can be a particularly important strategy for maintaining immune health and reducing an athlete’s susceptibility to illness2.
Studies in elite athletes have now shown that there is an increased risk for URTIs in those with low levels of IgA, an antibody that plays a major role in the immune function of mucous membranes. Low levels of IgA can also decline during a training period.
But when athletes take probiotics containing different strains of Lactobacillus, they are far less likely to suffer from URTIs. One study found that athletes taking a probiotic with L. casei for just 8 weeks had significantly fewer URTIs and reduced symptom severity and duration. Another study showed that taking L. fermentum for one month decreased the number of days of URTI and severity of symptoms in distance runners.
3. Probiotics Reduce Inflammation
Typically, healthy athletes do not experience high levels of inflammation unless injured. However, research suggests that inflammation can develop over time and lead to poor health, lower levels of physical activity, and a higher susceptibility to diseases related to chronic inflammation, such as cardiovascular disease and mental disorders.
One of the biomarkers for systemic inflammation is serum C-reactive protein (CRP), which is found in high levels in many chronic conditions, such as heart obesity, type II diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
A recent review found that probiotic supplementation can help to lower CRP levels. This appears to be due to the way in which probiotic bacteria reduce inflammation by preventing or repairing gut permeability. This in turn can prevent pro-inflammatory responses from the immune system. As an added bonus, probiotics can boost levels of short-chain fatty acids which also have important anti-inflammatory properties.
4. Energy and Endurance
Gut microbiota can have an important role in controlling an athlete’s oxidative stress levels and inflammatory responses, as well as improving metabolism and energy expenditure. This is particularly important following intense exercise.
One recent study that compared gut microbiota of elite rugby players with non-athlete healthy men showed that the rugby players had lower levels of unhealthy bacteria and higher levels of healthy bacteria the non-athletes.
After, each group then underwent a training program and the gut microbiota of both groups was analyzed, it was found that the increased levels of exercise (from infrequently to frequently) resulted in greater diversity of bacterial species. The researchers concluded that having a healthier gut microbiota environment is both a result of regular exercise and also supports better energy levels.
Other research has noted that a healthy gut microbiome with the right balance of healthy bacterial strains is vital for energy and endurance. For a start, these ‘good’ bacteria are found to communicate with numerous cells in the body in helping to regulate blood sugar, which prevents fluctuating energy levels. Probiotic bacteria also produce B-vitamins, which play a major role in energy production.
5. Better Nutrient Absorption
Athletes undergoing intensive training need a steady supply of nutrients. Like any individual, an athlete’s dietary and supplement strategies can have a major influence on their physical performance.
Many professional athletes have personalized nutrition plans in order to optimize their health, body composition, and exercise performance. These plans will typically comprise of dietary recommendations as per their genetic profile and training regime. Of course, no healthy diet will be of any use unless the athlete can absorb it properly!
Probiotics are key to proper nutrient absorption. When your gut is functioning properly, you’re better able to absorb nutrients from the food you eat. And when you’re absorbing the right nutrients, you’re supporting every other bodily function – including your energy levels.
Healthy gut microbiota produce their own digestive enzymes, which also help to optimize nutrient absorption and enhance performance. There is also increasing evidence that probiotics and prebiotics both help to improve the absorption of micronutrients from ingested foods.
Some of the most important of these include calcium and iron, which are vital to healthy cell repair in athletes. One study in women showed that their absorption of iron improved significantly after taking probiotic supplements containing Lactobacillus plantarum3.
In addition, the increased production of short-chain fatty acid due to the probiotic and prebiotic fermentation reduce pH levels in the gut. This is important because it increases the solubility of minerals in the gut, and also helps to enlarge the absorption site for intestinal cells.