What are probiotics? Are they for you? Are they safe for athletes? This article covers all the need-to-know basics about probiotics from the most recent research.
What Is a Probiotic? What Do They Do?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can be found in food or supplements that may have a beneficial effect on our gut health. The micro-organisms found in our guts have the important role of producing vitamins, helping the immune system to defend against infection, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, and fermenting food we have eaten. By improving the diversity of these gut micro-organisms, you may also improve intestinal tract health (a fancy way to describe where food travels through the body and is absorbed), increase bioavailability of nutrients (just a big word to describe how much nutrients from the food we eat are absorbed by the body), reduce lactose intolerance, improve mental health, and reduce upper respiratory tract infections.
You can improve your gut health by increasing the amount of wholegrain and fibre you eat throughout the day. By including a large variety of wholegrains and fibre containing vegetables, legumes, and nuts, you can increase the overall diversity of the bacteria found in your gut. The more variety of bacteria in your gut, the greater the range of health benefits they can provide. A good aim to target is to include 30 different fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes each week.
Where To Find Probiotics?
Probiotics can be found in either food or supplements. Probiotic containing foods include yoghurt and cultured milk products, fermented drinks such as kombucha and kefir, fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and tempeh. As well as the potential added benefits of improving gut health, these foods are also high in protein and calcium, making them a great addition to your diet.
For athletes travelling, these foods may not be easily accessible due to needing refrigeration. This is where probiotic supplements come in handy as they are shelf-stable and can be easily stored and used at home and when travelling. Daily consumption is recommended as probiotics will pass through the intestine.
Should Athletes Use Probiotics?
An athlete’s immune system can struggle with excessive training loads, travel, disturbed sleep, psychological stress, and environmental extremes (such as heat), which can increase the risk of respiratory infections. Research has shown that in an athletic population, some probiotic strains can reduce the number, severity, and duration of these respiratory infections.
Some research has also shown probiotic use in a sporting context improves body composition and lean body mass, improves cognition and mood, reduces the likelihood of declining testosterone levels, and reduces stress hormones. Research has also shown that some probiotic strains can increase absorption of nutrients such as amino acids from protein as well as improving recovery from muscle-damaging exercise.
Currently, evidence is limited and not many studies have been completed on probiotic use in an athletic population. However, research completed so far does agree that probiotics may offer a small benefit in performance and recovery, but further research is needed and therefore there are no set guidelines for use in athletes.
Concerns of Using Probiotics?
There are some minor side effects that individuals may experience whilst taking probiotics. Symptoms include stomach rumbles, changes in stool consistency, and increased flatulence. However, these symptoms may be reduced with a slow, gradual introduction to probiotics over a week or two. People with a history of coeliac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are also at a greater risk of experiencing these side effects and symptoms.
It is important to store probiotics correctly as sudden changes in temperature, moisture and light can affect the live bacteria. Some studies have also shown low numbers of live bacteria in supplements, so it is encouraged to obtain probiotics through a reputable source. As an athlete, you should only be using batch-tested supplements to avoid doping risks, so talk to your sports dietitian if you are wanting to start probiotic supplementation.