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Why Endurance Athletes Need Probiotics

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Everything endurance athletes need to know about probiotics. What are the benefits of taking a probiotic and how to choose the right supplement?

Although probiotics have been top of mind in recent years, they are still a confusing topic. Maybe it’s because the science on probiotics is new and ever-evolving. Or maybe it’s because there are so many different areas of study that it’s difficult to know what’s fact and fiction. 

Because I think this is a really interesting and important nutrition topic, I decided to break down all that the science says about probiotics, specifically for athletic performance. 

fermented foods in glass jars

What are probiotics?

Within the body, there are both beneficial and harmful bacteria. Probiotics are live “good” bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally occur in the body. They work to fight off the “bad” bacteria and keep you healthy. 

There are over 100 trillion probiotics in the body, and 70-80% of them reside in the gut. There are also probiotics in the vaginal canal, on the skin and in the mouth. 

Around 70% of the immune system is found in the digestive tract, making probiotics an essential part of overall immune health. When bad bacteria increases in number, it’s the probiotic’s job to eliminate these invaders and restore the correct balance. Not to mention that since most of the probiotics live in the gut, they play a large role in digestive health. 

A common misconception is that you have to take a probiotic supplement to populate the microorganisms in the gut. But that’s untrue! Probiotics naturally occur in the body, and you can achieve a healthy balance by eating many fiber-rich plant-based foods.

What are the benefits of probiotics for athletes? 

Probiotics, the “good” bacteria in your gut, are beneficial for many reasons, including the fact that they can defend against many harmful pathogens.

There is a lot of research being conducted to determine how probiotics contribute to improved health. Studies show that probiotics are closely linked to: 

  • Reducing the risk of antibiotic diarrhea and infectious diarrhea 
  • Improving intestinal and digestive health 
  • Easing lactose intolerance symptoms 
  • Strengthening your immune system and immune response by inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria. As a matter of fact, research has found that the probiotic strain S. salivarius K12 may target the organisms that cause strep throat, stopping the infection before it starts
  • Improving mucosal barrier function, which is associated with potentially reducing the severity and protecting against allergies
  • Potentially reducing the symptoms of digestive disorders like ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Impacting brain health and boosting your mood. The microorganisms in the gut have an impact on the brain through something called the gut-brain axis.
  • Boosting oral health. The mouth is full of bacteria, which can become unbalanced from poor diet and excessive consumption of sweets, disease, smoking, or drugs. Having a good balance of healthy bacteria in the mouth can prevent cavities and fight gum disease.
probiotics

Foods with probiotics

We will get to whether or not you should take a probiotic supplement in a minute, but first let’s talk about foods that contain these healthy bacteria. Specifically, fermented foods are some of the best sources of probiotics. 

You may be wondering how fermented foods contain probiotics in the first place? In general, fermentation is part of the cooking process that creates that food. For example, the production of yogurt relies on the fermentation of milk by good bacteria, like lactic acid and bifidobacteria, to turn it into a thick and creamy product. 

In other foods, like sauerkraut, the fruit or vegetable contain beneficial bacteria on their surface. When you add salt and let it sit, that bacteria begins to ferment and convert to sugar, giving off beneficial probiotics. 

If you’re unsure whether or not a food has probiotics, look for the words “fermented” or “live active cultures” on the label. 

Probiotics are abundant in foods like: 

  • Greek Yogurt
  • Kombucha
  • Miso
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Pickled vegetables 
  • Sourdough Bread 
  • Milk
  • Tempeh
  • Buttermilk
probiotics and athletic performance

How probiotics affect athletic performance

My recent article ​​Is There a Link Between Gut Health and Athletic Performance? takes a deep dive into the association between gut health and improved athletic performance. In the article, I look at studies that suggest a link between gut health and athletic performance. 

But first, let’s go back to the source of good gut health–probiotics. 

Healthy digestive tract

Probiotics are directly linked to healthy digestion. Obviously, digestion is how the body processes food, but at a deeper level this means food is broken down completely, absorbed efficiently, and eliminated properly. Plus, a healthy gut and digestive system reduce the risk from foreign substances, which can penetrate the gut lining.

In other words, taking in probiotics can help athlete’s utilize their food for fuel and  to prevent inflammation in the body. 

Increased absorption of nutrients

Studies suggest that certain probiotic strains can increase the absorption of nutrients like amino acids from protein. This is especially important for athletes who need these key nutrients for performance and recovery. 

Dietary protein plays a role in maintaining muscle mass and responding to stress. When the body is under stress, it breaks down amino acids to mitigate that strain. Eating enough protein spares muscle tissue from breaking down and, therefore, lessens muscle wasting. 

So maximizing amino acid absorption is incredibly beneficial not only to respond to stress from over training, but also to prevent muscle tissue from breaking down– all of which improves athletic performance. 

Eating a balanced diet with plenty of protein and probiotics plays into building a healthy athlete’s body with plenty of muscle mass. 

woman running in the sun

Healthy immune system

Intense training can also depress the immune system. Almost 70% of the immune system is located in the gut, and the probiotics that reside there play an important role in fighting off disease. 

As stated earlier, there is research to suggest that eating a certain strain of probiotics may defend against strep throat and other common illnesses. For athletes who train intensely, eating probiotics can prevent you from getting sidelined by an annoying cold.

Antioxidant capabilities

Certain strains of probiotics may also have antioxidant capabilities. After a heavy workout, the body produces free radicals, which cause oxidative stress and inflammation. Some inflammation is helpful in the recovery process, but too much can lead to long-term negative consequences.

Eating foods with antioxidants reduces the effects of inflammation and clears free radicals from the body. Certain strains of probiotics may increase antioxidant absorption, which helps resist oxidative damage, reduces inflammation and hastens the recovery process. 

supplement capsules

What to look for in a probiotic supplement

The age-old question about probiotics is how to pick out a supplement that is right for you. It’s a difficult question to answer because there are many different probiotic organisms and factors affecting probiotic efficacy.

Most probiotic supplements contain the genus Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium or Saccharomyces boulardii. These are widely accepted as the most common strains.

Also, consider why you’re taking a probiotic supplement. If it’s for immune health, look for one that has been studied for immunity. The bottle should tell you what the probiotic is targeting, such as digestive health, women’s health, immunity, etc. 

If you’re not sure how to choose a probiotic, ask your health care provider about one that is right for you. Be sure to choose a probiotic that contains both live and active bacterial cultures. 

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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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