Probiotics are all the rage today — whether they be in the form of foods naturally rich in this beneficial bacteria (such as yogurt) or specific supplements standardized to specific strengths. And with good reason, your body is home to more than 100 trillion microorganisms. This means that the bacteria in your body outnumber all your cells by 10 to 1!
The vast majority of these bacteria reside in your gut. About 70 percent of them represent healthy (“good”) bacteria, while the remaining 30 percent are “bad” and are detrimental to your system. The flora in your gut perform a variety of functions that are essential to your health. In fact, it’s estimated that 70 percent of your immune cells are located in your intestinal tract, making the health of your digestive system essential to overall bodily health.
Research shows that the health of the digestive system dramatically affects digestion and absorption of nutrients, immune function, skin health, cognitive ability, metabolism and even muscle mass, body composition and endurance. Probiotics help regulate the balance of microbial cells — bacteria and yeast — that exist there. An imbalance in the gut microbia can lead to diarrhea, constipation, inflammatory bowel and other gut ailments, plus numerous health ailments stemming from a compromised immune system.
Gut microbial balance is adversely affected by poor diet, infections, antibiotic treatments and other external factors. To restore this balance, ingesting live probiotic bacteria is vital. Probiotics are measured in colony-forming units (CFU), which determine how much of the bacteria can divide into colonies in your system. Typically, the higher the CFU, the more beneficial the food or supplement (to a point, which will be explained later).
Foods naturally rich in probiotic “bugs” include yogurt, kefir, raw cheese, sourdough bread and various fermented foods such as apple cider vinegar, kombucha and kvass. However, because you’d have to consume significant amounts of these foods on a daily basis to achieve adequate quantities of beneficial bacteria, supplementation via probiotic capsules, tablets or gummies is generally required for improved health.
PERFORMANCE, IMMUNITY AND BODY COMPOSITION
Athletes have extremely high nutrient requirements because of the stress of high-intensity training, competition and an overall active lifestyle. The preponderance of protein intake and high amount of carbohydrates necessary to fuel activity puts added strain on the digestive system, plus can upset microorganism balance by reducing probiotic counts. This is aggravated by sheer caloric intake, which often takes the form of fast food or similar, less-than-optimal choices. Over time, this becomes chronic and food intake doesn’t equate to nutrient absorption, which may lead to a catabolic effect on muscle tissue and can adversely affect overall performance.
Protein intake is one issue of vital importance to athletes because of its role in recovery and muscle building. Because your body can only digest about 25 grams of protein at a time, the more you are able to absorb amino acids from what you consume, the greater your anabolic growth potential. Emerging research demonstrates that probiotics play a key role in the muscle growth process and improved recovery by increasing uptake of amino acids in the small intestine. For example, the BC30 form of the probiotic spore Bacillus coagulans was shown in research to increase protein uptake, leading to reduced muscle damage, decreased muscle soreness and improved recovery among athletes.
In addition, the athletic and fitness activities we pursue to improve our bodies and competitive performance also can have an adverse effect on immune response. For instance, an athlete can be more prone to bacterial and viral infections for up to 72 hours after training. This happens because the body is subjected to acute changes in the secretion of antibodies during intense activity.
Probiotics can help because they adhere to the gut lining and create a barrier of sorts that helps prevent the adhesion of pathogens that will make you sick. They also bolster that critical 70 percent of the immune system found in your digestive tract, which means enhanced recovery and recuperation from intense activity.
What’s worse, the sport or activity you choose can exacerbate problems in your gut. For instance, it is estimated that 30 to 60 percent of long-distance runners are impacted by gastrointestinal discomfort. Because blood flow is directed to muscles during extended running bouts, reduced blood flow in the digestive tract leads to malabsorption of food. It can be so bad that many runners are afflicted with acute diarrhea.
For all these reasons, use of daily probiotics (whether from food or supplement sources) is a proven way to improve your fitness and athletic performance. In addition, improving and maintaining immune system health is critical for long-term athletic success by maximizing recovery and minimizing lost training days because of illness or malaise.
As an added bonus, probiotic supplementation has also been shown to have a beneficial effect on body composition. In one clinical study, female athletes who consumed a specific form of the highly beneficial Bacillus subtilis probiotic (DE111) over 10 weeks postworkout with a protein drink significantly decreased body-fat percentage. In addition, they also performed better in the deadlift exercise during weight training.
WHICH ONES AND HOW MUCH?
So the evidence is clear — probiotics are key to improved athletic performance, recovery and overall health. To take full advantage of these beneficial bacteria, finding the right probiotics for your needs takes a little research. It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all supplement.
From the CFU standpoint, more is not always better. While supplements with 10 or 15 billion CFU are generally more powerful than ones with 5 billion, ingesting too much in supplement form can actually cause stomach upset — the exact opposite of the intended result. Experts say 50 billion is probably the maximum daily amount needed, although this might be excessive for many people.
As to which probiotics you should use, this can depend on the specific effect you’re seeking. While all of them enhance digestion and improve immune response, some are more effective than others. And several have very specific researched benefits for athletes. What follows are some popular probiotic strains and the specific sports and fitness benefits they can impart. Fortunately, multiple strains are often packaged together for greater benefit. Just be sure the benefits you’re seeking can be matched to the probiotics (and adequate CFU count) in the products you purchase.
TOP PROBIOTICS FOR ATHLETES
Lactobacillus acidophilus. This is the most researched and proven probiotic, having been the subject of thousands of studies. It provides many benefits, including digestive health and pH balance, improvements in blood pressure and production of enzymes that help in milk digestion. It is also critical in nutrient absorption, immune response and the ability to fight bacterial, fungal and viral infections.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus. This probiotic helps to inhibit bacterial infections. One patented strain of rhamnosus known as Lactobacillus gg is best known for stimulating the immune system, fighting allergies, reducing systemic inflammation and improving blood sugar control.
Lactobacillus plantarum. This bug has been shown to increase iron absorption and improve iron levels. It also has a powerful effect on the immune system and can help reduce the risk of acquiring the common cold. Better yet, research suggests it may help you decrease bodyweight and build muscle mass in as little as six weeks of consistent use. Finally, this bug was shown in a clinical study to increase physical endurance, especially when exercising in heat.
Lactobacillus helveticus. Because it can improve sleep quality and duration, this probiotic is beneficial for recovery for hard training athletes. It is also shown in studies to reduce blood pressure and increase calcium levels in the blood.
Bifidobacterium bifidum. Found in the large intestine, bifidum helps modulate the immune system and decreases inflammation throughout the body, including the musculoskeletal system. In addition, it helps fight candida and other yeast overgrowth.
Bifidobacterium breve. Good news for athletes — this probiotic has been shown in clinical settings to reduce inflammation and improve inflammatory response to exercise, both during and after training. As a result, it may play a critical role in recuperation from intense workouts and help improve recovery after training.
Bifidobacterium longum. This strain of Bifido helps influence fermentation of amino acids and carbs in the gut, which helps with muscle maintenance and energy levels. Fermentation breaks down the macronutrients so they can be absorbed and assimilated more easily.
Bacillus coagulans. This is actually a probiotic spore (lactic-acid-forming bacterium) that is designed to pass through the harsh acidity of the stomach and then become active when it enters the large intestine. It is known to improve immune health and enhance response to respiratory tract infections. Better yet for athletes, one such Bacillus coagulans spore (BC30) was shown in clinical research to speed recovery and reduce muscle damage when supplemented with protein.
Bacillus subtilis. This probiotic assists with digestion by producing enzymes, thereby helping with the digestion of proteins, lipids, amylose, pectin and cellulose. While supporting immune health, it also stimulates the growth of Lactobacilli in the gut. One particular Bacillus subtilis spore (DE111) was shown in separate clinical studies to optimize complex carb and fat digestion, improve body composition and promote regularity among long-distance runners.