Probiotics and Gut Health For Athletes

It’s commonly reported in athletes and the general population that gastrointestinal (gut) issues are a problem that interferes with daily life and exercise performance. Within the gastrointestinal tract, over a thousand different species of bacteria (microbiota) exist. This is comprised of tens of trillions of micro-organisms which makes up an essential component of gut health and functioning.

Why is the gut microbiota important for athletes?

  • It helps the body digest certain foods that the stomach and small intestine have not been able to digest.
  • It helps with the production of B and K vitamins.
  • It plays an important role in the immune system.
  • Ensures proper digestive function.
Diet plays a large role in regulating the composition and metabolism of your gut microbiota. Therefore, suggesting that the quantity and type of foods can dictate the variation and number of bacteria found in the gut.
Poor gut health may result in poor gut microbiota population and diversity (decrease in beneficial bacteria) which has been linked with the development and maintenance of certain health risks such as;
  • Respiratory and gastrointestinal conditions
  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes/Metabolic conditions
  • Non-alcoholic liver fatty disease
  • Allergic conditions
  • Increased cholesterol

Increasing the number and population of beneficial bacteria has been shown to:

  • Produce vitamins
  • Improve immune system
  • Inhibiting potential pathogens.
  • Increase nutrient exchange; digestion and absorption of foods.
  • Improves the integrity of the gut wall structure, i.e. leaky gut.

Factors that decrease the diversity and population of the guts microbiota:

  • Antibiotics
  • Western styled diet
  • A non-varied diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Too much exercise and overtraining
  • Stress
  • Hygiene

Ways of improving the diversity and population of the gut microbiota:

  • A varied and well balanced diet
  • Include prebiotics (fermentable fibre) to promote the growth and activity of certain bacteria.
  • Include probiotics (live microorganisms) to regulate the immune system, maintain digestive health and balance the gut microbiota.

In the case of probiotic intake/supplementation, the likely improvements seen are through the interaction with:

  • Gut microbiota.
  • Interactions with the mucosal immune system.
  • Immune signalling to a variety of organs and systems

If looking to supplement with probiotics, the two mostly associated strains associated with decreased risk of respiratory tract infections are:

  • Lactobacillus
  • Bifidobacterium

Considering that probiotic supplementation is cost-effective, and appears to be safe, it is advisable that athletes should supplement with a daily dose of ~10 billion live bacteria if:

  • Travelling abroad to location where hygiene and food availability is poor. consider supplementing approximately 2 weeks prior to departure to colonise the gut.
  • Prone to illness and experience frequent respiratory infections. This is most common during periods of heavy exercise loads where overreaching/overtraining is observed

Improving gut health will unlikely increase exercise performance directly, however it may decrease the recurrence of getting ill and missing weeks off training or competition. Therefore the training block will be more effective, thus resulting in improved subsequent performance in competition.

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