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February 2017 

Everywhere we turn we seem to hear about the continuous praise and craze around the benefits of probiotics. But what is fact and what is hype? Could it be an athlete’s solution to maintaining and boosting overall health an immune function? Let’s be frank, the thought of ingesting live bacteria may not seem like something any athlete or consumer would want to do. To answer those questions, let us first describe what they actually are, what they (can) do, and what types are best for different types of conditions. Based on the current scientific evidence, we will also review three main potential benefits of probiotics for athletes during training, travel, and competition.

What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are “good” microorganisms such as bacteria or yeast with proven health benefits when taken in the right amounts. They work to keep the gut and colon healthy by balancing good and bad bacteria. They can be found naturally in some fermented foods such as: yogurt, kefir, kombucha tea or drinks, and kimchi. They can also be added to other foods as well as in a supplement form, containing billions of bacteria.1 However, in order for probiotics to work well, it is important to get the right probiotic (strain), the right dose, and taken for the appropriate amount of time.

There is still some debate about the optimal duration of supplementation and the potential benefits of selecting and mixing specific bacterial strains with or without prebiotics, which are essentially the “food” for the probiotics, found in: bananas, inulin found in grains, chicory root, onions artichokes, and leeks.
There is modest scientific evidence suggesting supplementing with at least 100 million colonized forming units (cfu)/day is needed in order to achieve some of the health benefits. However, the dose can vary depending on the health conditions. Some of these may include:

Improving gut health, reducing upper respiratory tract infections, and more recently noted; for potentially improving recovery after strength training.1,2,3 Probiotics can be of particular benefit for athletes who have weakened immune systems due to heavy or prolonged training, traveling, or training in cold climates or at altitude, and for those who experience gastrointestinal discomfort.1 A Canadian research team found that 17% of developing athletes between the ages of 14-18 are already occasionally supplementing with probiotics.4

Gut Health
The most common and well documented benefit of probiotics is improving overall gut health. Including probiotics as part of an athlete’s diet can increase the amount of beneficial bacteria colonies found in their intestines, thus reducing gastrointestinal discomfort caused by disturbances to diet while travelling or restrictive diets. In other words more friendly bacteria in the gut means less occupancy for pathogenic (bad) bacteria, preventing any unwanted bugs in the intestine. These friendly bacteria not only eliminate unwanted bacteria in the intestine, but also help digest food and produce vitamins that were not available to us without their help. Probiotics can also improve gut health via various mechanisms, which boost the immune system by breaking down dietary fat into smaller chains that act as messengers in our body, signalling our immune system to boost its defenses in our gut as well as other areas of the body.1

Upper Respiratory Tract Infections

The second well documented benefit of probiotics is the reduction in the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). Many athletes are annually burdened with the common cold or other viral infections that have negative impact on their training or competitions. Allergies or cold weather during the winter months combined with increased ventilation rates while exercising can cause irritation and inflammation to the upper respiratory tract. Respiratory problems can disrupt training, or cause an athlete to miss competitions. The same mechanism with which probiotics boost the immune system in our gut by breaking down dietary fat into smaller chains, signalling a stronger immune system response, happens with the respiratory tract as well. The respiratory tract has a protective mucus lining that protects our body from pathogenic invaders. When the immune system is functioning well, this mucus lining has antibodies and white-blood cells that can destroy pathogens, preventing unexpected downtime.1

Improved Recovery from Strength Training
A third and more recent area of research is the potential benefit that probiotics may have on recovery after strength training sessions. A research team has been investigating the effect of adding specific probiotics to protein during recovery. Adding the probiotic, Bacillus coagulans, to protein during recovery can increased the amount of protein digested and absorbed. This probiotic is able to help digest the protein, increasing the amount the body is able to absorb. Athletes have reported a reduction in perceived muscle soreness after heavy strength-training and the ability to perform better during a second workout after a rest period than if protein was taken alone. Although the reduction in perceived soreness has been validated by measuring specific markers in the blood, indicating a reduced amount of muscle damage, there is minimal research in this area and it needs to be explored further before it can be recommended for this purpose.3

Suggested Use
Athletes can see benefits in as little as seven days of supplementation, although there does not seem to be any concerns with regular probiotic use, with as little as a week to start seeing results.1 Choosing a regular time to take a probiotic will help increase successful adherence. When starting probiotics, an athlete may feel a little gastrointestinal discomfort from gas, this is normal and should pass in a few days. It takes time for the body to adjust to its new bacterial friends, so try it during a training period first. Store in a cool dry place. To determine which strains of probiotics are beneficial for which athletic condition, refer to Figure 1.

Probiotics may play an important role in the common goal to maintain and/or improve an athlete’s immune system during heavy or prolonged training cycles, during travel, or during the winter months, but it does not replace an adequate diet that meets all of an athlete’s nutritional requirements. For an athlete’s immune system to be functioning at its peak, it needs to have sufficient energy, carbohydrate, protein, and micronutrients for cell repair and synthesis.2

The Bottom-line
Probiotics are a low-risk supplement that can be of benefit to keep athletes healthy, boost immunity, and maintain and/or improve training adaptations. Aim for a multi-strain culture supplement and try to enjoy naturally fermented foods every day.

References
1. Pyne, D., West, N., Cox, A., Cripps, A. (2015). Probiotics supplementation for athletes – Clinical and physiological effects. European Journal of Sport Science, 15(1), 63-72.
2. Gleeson, M. (2016). Immunological aspects of sport nutrition. Immunology and Cell Biology, 94, 117-123.
3. Jager, R., Shields, K., Lowery, R., De Souza, E., Partl, J., Hollmer… Wilson, J. (2016). Probiotic Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086 reduces exercise-induced muscle damage and increases recovery. PeerJ, 4:e2276.
4. Parnell, J., Weins, K. Erdman, K. (2016). Dietary Intakes and Supplement Use in Pre-Adolescent and Adolescent Canadian Athletes. Nutrients, 8, 1-13.

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