An Athlete’s Guide to Probiotics

There are trillions of bacteria in your intestines, and their health can make or break your training. Here’s what you need to know about the supplement that can turn bad bugs good.

By Carey Rossi | May 17, 2016

You have more than a trillion bacterial bugs living in your gut that help determine your health. Not only are they crucial in the process of breaking down the foods you eat so you can absorb nutrients that benefit your muscles, but they also play a role in your overall health including immunity, mood and more. Too bad they don’t always cooperate: “Ninety percent of the bacteria in your intestine is good and 10 percent is bad,” says Shekhar Challa, M.D., a board-certified gastroenterologist in private practice in Topeka, Kan., and author of Probiotics for Dummies. “The problem is when the ratio changes.”

Unfortunately, that ratio can easily get thrown off due to diet, stress, illness (especially the antibiotics used in treatment) and exercise. Yep, your workouts can actually harm that delicate balance. Luckily, you can ensure that your gut’s good bacteria prevail by adding probiotics to your diet.

“A probiotic is a collection of actual living organisms [that’s important for digestive health],” explains Ryan McNally, ND, assistant professor of naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University California in San Diego. “When people use the term probiotic they’re referring to one thing, but in reality it’s millions of things because of the different species and strains of probiotics, each with a different property.” Walk into any Vitamin Shoppe and you may see probiotic supplements refrigerated or available as capsules, gels, powders or pearls, and labeled with strange verbiage such as “live cultures” or “CFU” (colony forming units). They’re also found in yogurt with live and active cultures, and in fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and miso. Even though research examining probiotics’ effects on athletes is scarce, the science conducted with probiotics and the human gut is totally applicable. Athletes are humans, too.

Finding The Athletic Advantage

“Probiotics are the vitamins of the future,” Challa says, adding that everyone should be popping probiotics just like many of us throw back a multi every day (and it isn’t only because he’s the founder of the probiotic maker Probulin). Probiotics can help restore your gut to that all-important 90:10, good-to-bad bacteria ratio that allows the body to perform efficiently not only in the gym but also via healthy metabolic, digestive and immune systems.

It’s like this: When your gut performs optimally, you can absorb more nutrients — think vitamins and minerals — that can help fight off the free radicals that want to do your body harm. In addition, good bacteria help the body synthesize folate and other B vitamins that you need for energy and other processes, Challa says. Since active individuals invest considerable time and money on proper food intake and supplementation, ensuring maximum uptake by way of a probiotic is a no-brainer. By simply adding these gut-enhancing critters to your diet, you upgrade the efficacy of everything else you eat or drink toward muscle growth and repair and performance enhancement.

But the primary reason to take probiotics, according to McNally, is for digestive health. If you travel a lot or suffer from any kind of gastrointestinal issues such as chronic constipation or diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease, the little bugs in a probiotic supplement might bring you relief. “You have 30 strains of probiotics in your body,” Challa says. “Diversity is important: You need at least five different strains in your probiotic [for it] to be effective.

Second comes the rationale for why everyone should probably pop a probiotic: It may increase immune function. How? “We don’t really know as much as we would like, but it has something to do with where the outside meets the inside,” McNally says. “The food that we eat, the fluid that we drink, contacts our inner world at the border of our intestinal lining.” In fact, a preliminary study in an August 2015 issue of Cell Reports found that the intestine wall responds to good bacteria — in this study’s case lactobacilli — by gearing up to protect it from environmental stress.

For athletes, then, swallowing a bunch of beneficial live organisms may help reduce stress on the immune system as you hammer your body in the gym. “The benefit is going to depend on how much exercise you are doing,” McNally says. “The people who do regular intense training are depressing the immune system. Probiotics may help improve recovery times and decrease the frequency of colds in this population.” All of which means fewer days lost to Nyquil.

This probably won’t be the last you hear about probiotics and your microbiome, which is the collective term for the 100 trillion microbes in and on our bodies that aid digestion and contribute to an array of other functions including weight and metabolism, allergies and even mental health. “Every year that goes by we will see more and more research about this continue to grow,” McNally says. “We are really at the infancy of our understanding of probiotics and prebiotics.”

CFUs? Live Cultures?

Knowing how to decode probiotic supplement labels can help you choose a good one.

CFU or Colony-Forming Units

This is how the strength of the probiotic is measured and refers to the amount of bacteria a product has. Challa believes you’ll benefit from 2 billion to 20 billion CFUs per day. As for products touting more than that, he suggests leaving them at the store.

Live Cultures

This is just another way of saying bacteria. In a marketing sense, when you see a refrigerated bottle of live cultures, you might think they are more alive than the room-temperature ones. Not so, Challa says. “To keep the cultures alive, just make sure the temperature of the bottle doesn’t fluctuate.”

Those long scientific names They’re the species and strains of bacteria in the product. Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus are the big three that have the most research behind them, McNally says. (And when it comes to labeling, they tend to get Beyoncé-esque billing: L., B. and S., respectively, followed by the name of the strain. For instance, L. casei is Lactobacillus casei.) But that doesn’t mean other strains aren’t helpful, it just means science hasn’t yet gotten around to asking (and answering) specific questions about the millions of probiotic species and strains out there.



About the Author

Carey Rossi

Carey Rossi

Carey Rossi is a journalist specializing in health, fitness, nutrition and mind-body topics. Her career has run the gamut of working in an immunology lab, launching a women's fitness magazine and being the news editor at a health website. Her work has appeared in Oxygen, Fitness, Fit Pregnancy, Glamour, Health, Prevention, Self, Shape plus a dozen more publications and websites. You can follow her @CareyRossi or +CareyRossi.