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Probiotics and enhanced athletic performance.

Most of our athletic performance originates in the muscles, however, other bodily systems also contribute. Interestingly, our gut may have a larger contribution to our overall performance than you may have assumed.

The gut microbiome plays a role in our immune health, inflammatory response, development of specific diseases and on our mental and emotional health. The health of the gut may also be in part responsible for the development of anxiety and depression.

Antibiotics, herbicides, vaccines, pesticides and the tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals we may come in contact with all impact our microbiome.

The link between the gut and brain is well-established, yet it is often overlooked in the diagnosis and treatment of many health conditions. That is interesting because there’s plenty of research that demonstrates a link between inflammation in the muscles after significant exertion and the use of specific probiotics.

While intestinal health begins at birth and continues to grow and mature as we get older, it is never too late to address the health of the gut microbiome.  In fact, it’s better late than never.

Adding probiotics to our daily routine is an easy way of improving gut health and a step I highly recommend, whether you’re a performance athlete or merely wish to achieve better health.

Probiotics Can Reduce Post-Exercise Muscle Inflammation

Research shows that athletes will experience a drop in performance after exercise-induced muscle damage. This may happen after any type of exercise that puts stress on the muscle, such as weight lifting, a hard run or plyos jumping.

A recent study shows that taking a probiotic may help reduce the muscle inflammation, and thus improve performance in a subsequent session. Scientists from the U.S., New Zealand and Italy collaborated in this study, which involved 15 healthy men who were given a 21-day supply of probiotics or a placebo.

After 21 days, the men performed a muscle strength test known to induce damage to the muscle. Results showed that an inflammatory marker in the blood was decreased in those who had taken the probiotics.

The athletes who took probiotics also experienced better peak torque production within the first 72 hours post exercise, suggesting that probiotics improved performance. Another recent study using recreationally trained men, probiotics and protein supplementation delivered similar results.

The participants used either a protein supplement, or a protein supplement along with probiotics. After two weeks, measurements were taken of athletic performance and muscle damage following an exercise known to cause muscle damage.

The athletes who took the supplement with probiotics had reduced muscle damage, better physical performance and better exercise recovery.6 In still another study, which used kefir to deliver probiotics to the athlete’s system, researchers discovered a reduction in the measurement of C-reactive protein (CRP).

Better Digestion and Improved Absorption Promotes Performance

Probiotics also increase absorption of nutrients, which will improve athletic performance as muscle cells have a better nutrient foundation.

Nutrients improve recovery time and increase the consistency of performance over time. Improving nutrient absorption may also reduce the risk of illness and disease.

For the food to be broken down and used by the body, our stomach and intestines must do the work of digestion. As we age, our digestion’s system efficiency may reduce. This is likely to create an environment where a variety of digestive disorders are more likely.

Athletes with a heavy schedule may experience several similar issues, including gas, bloating, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting.

The incidence of gastrointestinal disorders usually ranges between 30 and 70 percent among endurance athletes, depending on the study and participants. Supplementing with probiotics improves healthy bacteria population within the intestinal tract and also improves digestion.

Probiotics also have a unique and significant effect on our emotional and mental outlook. When athletes experience an improvement in their mood, they are also likely to benefit from a boost in performance.

Physical Exertion May Have a Temporary Negative Effect on Digestive and Immune Systems

While mild to moderate athletic activities have a positive long-term effect on overall health, there is evidence that endurance events or short bursts of intense training, such as HIIT may increase immune-suppression temporarily. Respiratory infections and minor illnesses are commonly observed after competition, which is likely to reduce performance. 

This is because of physiological stress that taxes the immune system. Inadequate diet affects almost all aspects of the immune system, therefore adding a single nutrient may not be an effective means of addressing this challenge. Although elite athletes are not immune-deficient, the combined effects of small changes to the immune system may reduce resistance.

These temporary laps of immunity may last between 3 and 72 hours, depending on the level of exertion of the athlete, previous athletic ability and overall health. Many studies have evaluated the impact of sleep, nutrition, stress and training sessions on the decrease in immune status after prolonged exerting activity.

Probiotics, and a strong gastrointestinal microbiome, are key players in controlling and adapting our body to physical activity. Studies have demonstrated supplementation with probiotics reduces the frequency and severity of respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders in highly active athletes.

The connecting factor is a direct interaction between the gut microbiome and the immune system’s signals to the liver, brain and respiratory tract. While more studies are necessary, researchers recommend athletes use plant polyphenols and probiotics to help colonise and support their gut microbiome.

Improved Immunity = Better Performance

As well as helping modulate our gut microbiota, probiotics also offer a practical way of diversifying bacterial species and enhancing the gut and immune function. These friendly bacteria help protect the body from infection and are important for maintaining homeostasis.

Probiotics also have a capacity for modulating the immune function after exercise. This highlights a potential for usage, as probiotics from food and many supplements are known to be well tolerated. Without the difficulties from upper respiratory illness or gastrointestinal illness, athletes are able to continue training, consequently improving their performance.

Probiotics May Improve Heat Tolerance

Another benefit to increasing probiotics in the diet of an athlete is the increased ability to train in the heat. Researchers focused one study on the effect of a multi-strain probiotic supplement using 10 male runners over a four-week period.  They have found that probiotic supplementation increased the amount of time it took the runners to reach fatigue. Serum lipopolysaccharides increased post exercise in the control group, but the experimental group experienced a moderate to large reduction in pre and post exercise concentrations. Seemed that:

“Four weeks of supplementation with a multi-strain probiotic increased running time to fatigue in the heat. Further studies are required to elucidate the exact mechanisms for this performance benefit.”

How to Optimise Gut Health

It is estimated that about 80 percent of our immune system is located in the gut, which means that replenishing the gut with healthy bacteria may be one of the more important strategies that can be used to prevent most diseases. It may even improve athletic performance.  

We start with a critical reduction of sugar intake. Taking the best fermented foods and/or probiotic supplements is great, but failure to reduce the sugar intake will sabotage efforts to rebuild the gut flora. This would be similar to driving a car with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake at the same time. It creates a lot of noise, wasted energy…… but you’re not going anywhere with it.

Typical consumption of sugar virtually guarantees to have a huge quantity of pathogenic bacteria, yeast and fungi, no matter what supplements are taken.

Generally speaking, fermented, unpasteurised foods will provide a diverse range of beneficial bacteria. Some of the beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods are also excellent chelators of heavy metals and pesticides, which will also be reducing the toxic load. Healthy choices include:

  • Fermented vegetables (home made)

  • Lassi (an Indian yogurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner)

  • Fermented milk, such as kefir

  • Natto (fermented soy)


Fermenting Vegetables at Home

Fermented vegetables are an excellent source of healthy bacteria. In addition, they may also be a great source of vitamin K2 if you ferment your own using the proper starter culture.

Most high-quality probiotics supplements will only supply a fraction of the beneficial bacteria found in such homemade fermented vegetables, so it's the most economical route to optimal gut health.

I'm a major supporter of taking supplements (as I believe that not enough nutrients come from modern production of foods) and probiotics are up there on the top of the list.  We also need plenty of dietary fibre to grow and nourish a healthy gut microbiome. Good sources include: Psyllium seed husk, chia seeds, flax and hemp, Berries, Root vegetables and tubers, including sweet potatoes, onions and jicama, Cacao nibs, Vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, green beans, cauliflower, peas and broccoli and nuts such as Pecans and Macadamia.

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