While you may not have a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences, just reading M&P every month gives you a one-up on most of your friends and family when it comes to knowledge of dietary supplements. Despite this, you’re probably still somewhat uninformed about probiotics. Sure, you know they’re beneficial, but did you know that they not only can boost your overall health and wellness but also can help you drop body fat, build muscle and enhance performance? Consider this your crash course — Probiotics 101. After reading this article, you’ll not only be well-versed in the science of probiotic supplements, but we bet that you’ll also soon be taking advantage of their benefits.
You are not alone. Even if you’re sitting in the most remote corner of the world, in a building all by yourself with no other living being for miles, you’re not alone. Your body is crawling with live microorganisms that you can’t see, feel or hear. And one place that is literally packed with them is your intestines. There are trillions of microorganisms living in your digestive tract. Some are beneficial to your health while others may be destroying it. This is where probiotics come in.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host. In supplement terms, the word probiotics typically refers to the beneficial bacteria that live in the digestive tract. These bacteria help to maintain or restore the normal balance between beneficial bacteria and harmful bacteria in the body. This balance can have a dramatic impact on health and even physique and performance.
Research into probiotic supplementation is fairly new, so we’ve only recently realized just how critical the balance of beneficial bacteria is to health, not to mention physique and physical performance. Now that we have a small glimpse into the benefits probiotics provide, scientists have been busy studying them for a better understanding. And while our grasp on probiotics is still in its infancy, here is what the research thus far suggests that they can do.
The most obvious benefit of probiotics is gut health. If too many bad bacteria flourish, it can affect how well the nutrients in the food you eat are absorbed. Enough good bacteria, however, and your intestines work the way they should. This may be because of probiotics’ ability to turn on certain genes in intestinal cells, as was shown in one study using a mix of probiotic bacteria. Probiotics also have been shown to help reduce abdominal pain, bloating and flatulence, along with other gastrointestinal symptoms. And if a dose of antibiotics is ever required, supplementing with probiotics can help prevent the GI problems that often follow. Irritable bowel syndrome is another condition that probiotics can ameliorate. Currently, the research suggests that probiotic supplementation can help keep irritable bowel syndrome in remission.
Another well-supported benefit of probiotics is their ability to boost immune function. Probiotics have been shown to help support key immune markers upon exposure to cold and flu viruses in healthy subjects. In fact, two probiotic strains were shown to increase immune function in healthy adults by about 50 percent. Another study reported that subjects taking a probiotic for 30 days had an increased T-cell production in response to adenovirus and influenza exposure. Meanwhile, Swedish researchers reported that subjects taking a combination of two other bacteria strains had reduced risk of catching the common cold and reduced duration of the cold when they were infected. Research suggests that another probiotic strain may reduce the days of respiratory symptoms in athletes over a four-month period of winter training, and there is evidence that yet another strain may reduce the incidence of urinary tract infections in athletes. While better immune function may not be something you think about until after you have the cold or flu, preventing or reducing the impact of these illnesses means you miss less gym time and your body can keep expending energy on muscle recovery and growth and not on fighting viral invaders.
But probiotics might do even more to assist with your fitness goals. Research suggests that the right strains may even aid fat loss. One study reported that gut microbial populations are different in obese and lean people. They also discovered that when obese people lose enough weight, their gut microflora change to resemble that in lean people. This research suggests that the gut microbes in obese individuals may allow them to extract more nutrients from food so that more macronutrients and calories are absorbed and fewer are lost through feces than in leaner individuals. Finnish researchers reported that women taking two probiotic strains during pregnancy and after had gained less body fat six months after giving birth. And French researchers found that mice fed a high-fat diet but given a certain bacteria for six weeks had lower blood glucose and insulin levels than those not getting the probiotic. They suggested that this may be because of the probiotic’s ability to reduce inflammation and could have implications in preventing metabolic syndrome, which is associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance.
Another area in which probiotics have proved beneficial is protein absorption. One study showed that the bodies of subjects who consumed a particular probiotic with a serving of protein absorbed more of the protein. Specifically, researchers found that the bacteria increased the body’s uptake of the branched-chain amino acid leucine by 23 percent, isoleucine by 20 percent, valine by 7 percent, glutamine by 116 percent, ornithine by 100 percent, tryptophan by 100 percent and citrulline by 128 percent. Being able to absorb more of the amino acids from the protein you consume can help increase muscle growth in the long run. And if you take BCAAs, glutamine and/or citrulline around workouts, taking it with a probiotic containing Bacillus coagulans BC30 can increase the BCAAs’ benefits and your results.
Probiotics also have been shown to improve the stress response to physical and mental stress, meaning they act much like an adaptogen. This suggests that they may influence neurotransmitters and hormones in the body, which could enhance mood and brain function. In fact, a study by Irish researchers found that mice given a particular probiotic had lower cortisol levels and fewer stress, anxiety and depression-related behaviors. Two studies by French researchers showed similar results in humans. And one recent study in male mice found that those getting a diet supplemented with probiotic-rich yogurt were more fertile and had larger testicles than those not getting yogurt. These results may be because of a higher production of testosterone in the mice getting the probiotic yogurt. The bottom line is that probiotics may help keep testosterone levels higher and cortisol levels lower, which can boost performance in the gym, along with muscle growth and fat loss, not to mention sexual function, overall mood and maybe even brain function.
Dosing Do’s and Don’ts
When it comes to supplementing with probiotics, the general rule, regardless of the species and strain you are supplementing with, is to take enough to provide 9 to 10 billion colony-forming units daily for about two weeks, then follow with 1 to 3 billion CFU daily for maintenance. Both doses should be taken with meals.
Confused about exactly what species of probiotic to take? Most probiotic supplements provide numerous different species, allowing for a range of benefits. But if you’d like to get specific, consult “Under Strain” to determine what benefits you’d most like to receive from a probiotic supplement and then find one that contains it.
And last, because probiotics need to be alive to offer benefit, you must keep them refrigerated. Read the label of your chosen supplement carefully for storage instructions.
There are so many different species and strains of probiotic bacteria that it can make even the most savvy supplement user confused. Consult this table as your probiotic bacterial species and strain Cliffs Notes for what each species and strain has been suggested to help with.
Bacillus coagulans BC30
Enhances amino-acid absorption, relieves abdominal pain and bloating, enhances immune function
Maintains better blood glucose and insulin levels, helps prevent fat gain, lowers cholesterol
B. lactis Bb-12 ATCC27536
Prevents tooth decay
B. longum R0175
Treats stress, anxiety, depression
Lowers cholesterol, prevents tooth decay, treats bacterial vaginosis
L. casei Shirota
Enhances immune function, prevents and treats urinary tract infections and gingivitis
L. fermentum VRI-003
Enhances immune function
L. fermentum RC-14
Treats bacterial vaginosis
L. helveticus R0052
Treats stress, anxiety, depression
L. johnsonii La1, Lj1, NCC 533
Treats Helicobacter pylori infections in the stomach
L. paracasei 8700:2
Prevents/treats common cold
L. plantarum HEAL 9
Prevents/treats common cold
L. rhamnosus GG
Treats infectious diarrhea, prevents/treats antibiotic-associated diarrhea, reduces
L. rhamnosus GR-1
Treats bacterial vaginosis
L. rhamnosus JB-1
Decreases cortisol levels and treats stress, anxiety, depression
Prevents antibiotic-associated diarrhea
Streptococcus salivarius BLIS K12
Prevents candidiasis (oral thrush)
Note: B. stands for Bifidobacterium; L. stands for Lactobacillus.