Do Athletes Need Probiotics?

Physical activity can result in changes in cardiovascular fitness, musculoskeletal health, metabolism, and the gastrointestinal system. A healthy gut microbiome can help performance and recovery by improving nutrient absorption, modulating immune response, and decreasing the risk of infections and gastrointestinal problems. Read more to learn about the potential benefits of probiotics for physically active people and athletes.

Key takeaways:

Physiological and psychological stressors affect metabolism and the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems. Athletes' bodies respond to stressors by adapting to certain physiological changes.

Alongside other lifestyle factors, nutrition is critical to supporting physically active individuals and athletes for optimized health, performance, and recovery. Probiotics can help athletes improve their gastrointestinal and overall health by improving gut microbiota.

Challenges faced by athletes

Being an athlete requires physiological and psychological strength. Athletes encounter many stressors, including high training load, competition, constant travel, and physical and mental stress.

Alterations in gut microbiome

Prolonged and intense physical activity has been shown to alter gut microbiota. Research showed that athletes have increased microbiome diversity but reduced relative abundance of short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) and lactic acid-producing bacteria, which both are beneficial for gut health. The study concluded that intense exercise may adversely affect the gut microbiota.

Gastrointestinal problems

Doing high-demand and prolonged exercises can cause stress on the gastrointestinal system, resulting in symptoms such as abdominal pain, colic, flatulence, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. In fact, exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome is reported to affect the majority of athletes.

Increased risk of infection

Low-intensity exercises can improve gastrointestinal health and reduce transient stool time, which means less contact with pathogens.

However, high training load can also influence the digestive tract's immune system, which is a crucial first defense mechanism to pathogen attack in the gut.

Potential benefits of probiotics for athletes and active individuals

According to the Australian Institute of Sport, probiotics can be beneficial for athletes who:

  • Have a history of gastrointestinal problems
  • Follow a proper diet but have GI issues
  • Experience intestinal and respiratory system-related symptoms during exercise

Probiotics may improve nutrient absorption

Nutrient absorption is crucial for athletes to recover and perform better. Some probiotic strains (including Bacillus coagulans strains) have been shown to increase amino acid, peptide, and mineral absorption by supporting the optimum development of villi.

Probiotics may support the immune system

Athletes are more likely to experience immune depression due to excessive training load, psychological stress, and frequent travel.

Athletes may experience exercise-induced infections, especially upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). Illnesses disrupt athletes' fitness, so prevention can be beneficial to maximize performance by supporting the immune system. Specific probiotic strains can decrease episodes, severity, and duration of URTI.

Probiotics may enhance recovery and performance

Anti-inflammatory probiotic strains can improve recovery by improving low-grade inflammation.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition stated that appropriate supplementation of probiotics can improve athletes' body composition, muscle mass, and cortisol levels, promoting better sports performance.

Concerns about probiotics for athletes

Among the options available, probiotics have emerged as a topic of increasing interest, promising potential benefits. As with all dietary supplements, there will be certain aspects you should consider:

  • Side effects. Some people may experience mild symptoms such as changes in stool and flatulence. In those cases, gradual administration of probiotics over one to two weeks is recommended.
  • History of diseases. Athletes with conditions or diseases may benefit from being extra cautious before taking probiotic supplements.
  • Insufficient products. Products have different probiotic formulations, and more research is needed to identify strain-specific effects and proper dosage for the intended use. Taking probiotics containing insufficient species or doses can lead to a lack of results.
  • Individualistic variabilities. Besides strains and doses administered, individualistic variabilities also contribute to the efficiency of probiotics supplements.
  • Lack of evidence. Although some studies suggest benefits for athletes in certain cases, evidence is lacking for the use of probiotics as a part of sports nutrition. Therefore, a personalized approach to athletes is a must for a sports dietitian and doctor.

The importance of nutrition for athletes

Although healthy eating recommendations for a healthy person apply to athletes, they need to replace nutrients burned or lost due to intense training load. Athlete's nutrition also changes based on their sports, types of training, and individualistic variabilities.

A healthy and balanced diet supports the healthy gut microbiota of athletes. Before considering probiotics, it's recommended to optimize nutrition. Then, if needed, probiotics can be used under the recommendation of a healthcare professional.

Therefore, an athlete's general health, nutrition, and lifestyle should be considered holistically to determine if probiotic supplements can benefit an athlete's health and performance.

Low-intensity physical activity can improve the gut microbiome, while the intense training load and prolonged exercise routines of athletes can alter gut microbiota, resulting in increased gut permeability. In both cases, probiotics can improve health; however, the support of a healthcare professional is recommended to determine the best probiotics that suit your individual needs.

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