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The truth behind probiotics benefits for sports performance and more

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14 min read
cartoon of human with digestive system to illustrate probiotics benefits

What role can probiotics play when it comes to sports performance, and how can they help us overall? Whether we’re just keeping it casual with a jog every other day, or gunning for elite status in the athletic world, can probiotics help us achieve our fitness goals – and if so, how?

There is a definitive link between your diet and how well you perform at sport, which sounds pretty obvious, but this field of research is actually a fascinating area – and it all focuses on the gut microbiome. 

In short, your gut microbiome is a fantastically complex part of your body. Not only does it work tirelessly to digest the food you eat and regulate our metabolism, but it can also affect our behaviour, our emotions, and our overall health on any given day. Because of how influential our gut microbiome is, could feeding it with beneficial probiotics aid our sports performance? 

In this article, based on the podcast “What role can probiotics play in sports performance?” we aim to answer that very question. We sat down with Shane Durkee, VP of Platform Innovation, Capsules and Health ingredients, at Lonza, and Lindsey Toth, Director of Global Product Management for Nutrition Products and Services, to discuss the link between diet and sports performance.

Get the full experience by listening to the podcast of this article. 

The link between sports performance and the gut microbiome

What is the link between the gut microbiome and the sports performance chain? Does sports performance have an effect on our microbiome, or does everyone have similar goings-on within their guts? Shane Durkee explains that, although we’re constantly learning more things about how the human gut microbiome works, physically active people tend to have a very diverse gut microbiome compared to those who participate in less exercise. 

“It’s interesting, we think we know a lot [about the gut microbiome], but our assumption is that we know a little but it’s growing by the day. For example, we know that physically active subjects, including athletes, have a very diverse gut microbiota composition compared to sedentary individuals, and we know that these certain differences are largely driven by exercise and diet. 

“We also know that, in the research, we see active people have a higher level of health-promoting bacteria, they have increased diversity, they have an increase in metabolic pathways, such as amino acid synthesis, and they have an increase in metabolites that are driven by, or produced by probiotics, such as short chain fatty acids which we know have beneficial health effects.”

So, because our gut microbiome can be affected by physical activity in a largely positive way, which also leads to additional health benefits in the form of increased immunity from a diverse array of bacteria, is it possible to change your gut microbiome for a boost in athletic performance? What sort of things would an athlete need to eat in order to see any boost at all? 

According to Lindsey Toth, what someone will need in order to see a significant boost in performance will vary from person to person – what might work for person A may not work for person B, for example. Additionally, an increase in microbial diversity within the gut can lead to further benefits other than athletic performance boosts, such as increased immune health, improved gut function, and protection against harmful gut disorders.

“We’re better understanding the connection between the gut microbiome and sports performance more and more every day, and because of that, we also know that changing your microbiota can actually significantly improve athletic performance. 

“It does this by enriching microbial diversity, so this shift can result in increased immune health and improved gut function. It can stimulate beneficial metabolites that can help protect against other gut disorders, too. There’s an example of this where there’s a greater abundance of the species that’s been reported in elite runners, and this particular species has been shown to confer these metabolic benefits in these runners by transforming exercise-induced lactate into propionate, and this helps these runners continue to improve upon their athletic endurance. 

“I think the more and more we learn, the more we start to understand what those specific levers are that we can pull to change the gut microbiota, and it varies by person, it varies by the performance metrics that they’re looking at. Something that works for a tennis player might be very different from what works for a runner, and it’s going to depend on the goals that they’re looking forward to.”

How important is diversity in the gut?

Just a tiny improvement can mean the world in athletic performance – you may be able to run for longer, jump further, or throw something harder than before. As your gut microbiome can significantly assist athletic performance, is a diverse gut microbiome just as important regardless of if someone is an athlete? Shane Durkee explains that a diverse gut microbiome is key for everyone, not just for sportspeople, and this comes with a huge range of benefits not just to your physical health, but also to your mental health.

“It absolutely is, yes. Irrespective of whether someone’s an athlete or not, that diversity is very, very important. There are a few data points you can look to, so we know that diversity decreases with age. We know that a decrease in diversity is considered a sign of an unhealthy microbiome, and then these things have also been associated with the development of chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity. Having that diversity and gut microbes is beneficial, whether you’re an athlete or not.

“There’s mental health, there’s anxiety, and you’re seeing some development of probiotic strains to reduce cholesterol. So you get into the heart health element. And as science develops, it’s just going into more and more areas.”

How the sports probiotics supplements industry is growing

Supplements are a huge industry – helping people to get their daily dose of vitamins, minerals and more, in order to provide a boost to their health and even their physical appearance. But did you know that you can supplement probiotics – not just in the form of biotic yoghurts and the like? The probiotic supplement industry is growing, and it is an exciting world to be aware of – especially for athletes. 

Lindsey Toth explains that, amongst all the exciting research out there helping the development of sports probiotics, some innovative supplements have already been launched which provide benefits to both those who wish to enhance their athletic capabilities and those who are looking to boost their immune health. 

“There are a lot of really interesting players, and a lot of interesting research going on out there. There are all these very interesting benefits that are very niche to somebody’s performance goals that are cropping up related to ingredients out there, and sports nutrition and active lifestyle nutrition are huge core focus areas for Lonza. We’re excited to continue to deep dive into those areas and innovate for the supplement industry. We’ve launched a couple of really interesting products that … deliver these cool benefits. Some of these purchase drivers around clean label sustainability, plant-based, things that hit both the consumer spectrums whether you’re elite or recreational.”

So, how can these probiotic supplements assist in sports performance, how exactly does it work? Lindsey goes on to say that these new sports supplements utilise some very well-known ingredients which already promote good gut health and that, by supplementing, athletes can see some pretty remarkable benefits.

“The two ingredients we’ve launched that I’m most excited about recently are TWK10 sports probiotics, so this hits on the gut microbiome, it’s a very unique probiotic, it’s actually sourced from Taiwanese kimchi, and it delivers an increase in exercise endurance by up to 75%, which is a huge benefit. 

“The other is oceanic marine phytoplankton, which is actually a marine microalgae that has both sports as well as beauty benefits rooted in a very high antioxidant content … it’s been shown to increase muscle strength by up to 30%. So two very different benefits, but both clinically proven and rooted in some really hard-hitting science that helps to drive innovation in the supplement industry for all sorts of different consumers.”

Are the benefits of probiotics universal?

Our gut microbiomes are unique to each of us, it’s almost like a fingerprint with how different we are within. However, because of this diversity when it comes to our gut microbiomes, how can we be sure that supplementing will benefit everyone? Will probiotic supplementation have the same effect on everyone, or could it actually not do anything for some people? 

Shane Durkee explains that, even though people have vastly diverse and different gut microbiota, probiotics have had a positive effect on a wide number of consumers over a long time and that clinical trials have shown that the latest developments have had positive effects on a large number of people with vastly different gut microbiomes. 

“If you look at probiotics and the way they’ve evolved over time, you [can see that] probiotics have an effect on immunity in a positive way for a large number of individuals, even though they have a diverse microbiota. Then you look at gut health and you find a strain that has a large effect on a large part of the population. 

“One of the other things we’re seeing is this idea of moving from broad-range probiotics to what we could call precision probiotics. So, you can take a person’s genotype or phenotype into consideration, you can do microbial analysis, the faecal sample, if you will, and look at the diversity, and then create a strain that’s going to have a specific effect on the gut health or immunity or other health benefits. 

“In this case, where it’s exercise endurance when you go into the clinical model, you’re going to have a diverse group of subjects. You’re looking to reach statistical significance in that group of subjects which helps tell you you’re going to have a positive effect on quite a number of people, even though each of them may have an individual microbiota fingerprint.”

Lindsey Toth further elaborates, explaining that the current developments of probiotics are designed to give a broad range of benefits to the largest number of consumers possible. Rather than turning them into the most elite athletes in the world, they are instead designed to boost the health of average people. 

“The science is really fundamental and is helping us to make sure these ingredients and supplements are going to give the broadest benefit to the broadest range of people. So, with TWK10, some of our clinical studies were done on healthy, untrained males and females.  

So, it’s not the Lindsay Vons of the world that we’re testing these benefits on, it’s those people who are heading to the gym a couple of times a week that are very recreational in nature so that we can make sure that these are giving benefits to those of us who are out there and working to better ourselves for that 75% vast lift versus the minutiae [of people].”

7 further health benefits of probiotics

As probiotics are able to be consumed through fermented foods and supplements, ensuring you get a healthy amount of them in your diet can help to promote healthy gut bacteria and a slew of health benefits. 

Many studies show that an imbalance of bacteria within your digestive system can be linked to disease, whereas a good balance can promote healthy weight loss, digestive health, immune function, and more. 

So, other than benefitting athletes and providing a boost for sports purposes, what else can probiotics benefit?

Balance the friendly bacteria in your digestive system

Probiotics include good bacteria which are the live microorganisms that can provide health benefits when included in your diet. The health benefits these provide are thought to result from the ability of probiotics to restore the natural balance of your gut bacteria – an imbalance which could be caused by illness, medication, poor diet, and more which leads to an abundance of bad bacteria. 

If your gut microbiome has too many bad bacteria, this can cause problems such as digestive issues, allergies, mental health problems, obesity, and more. In order to treat your gut with more probiotics, they can typically be found in fermented foods and even supplements.

Supplementing can improve some mental health conditions

An increasing number of studies are finding links between gut health and mental health, with both human and animal research finding that probiotic supplements are able to improve some mental health disorders. 

A review of 15 human trials found that, by supplementing with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains for 1–2 months, the subjects were able to improve anxiety, depression, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and even memory.

Another human-based study followed 70 chemical workers for six weeks – with those consuming a probiotic supplement or 100 grams of probiotic yoghurt per day experiencing greater benefits towards their general health, depression, anxiety and stress compared to those who didn’t.

Probiotics can keep your heart healthy

LDL cholesterol and blood pressure could also be lowered by ingesting certain probiotic strains – with some probiotics helping to reduce cholesterol by breaking down bile, which is mostly made of cholesterol, found in the gut. 

By breaking down bile in the gut, probiotics can prevent your body from reabsorbing it and turning it into cholesterol within the blood. 

One review of five different studies found that, by eating a probiotic yoghurt for 2-8 weeks, total cholesterol could be reduced by 4% and LDL cholesterol by 5%. 

Probiotic consumption may also lower blood pressure, as a review of 9 studies found that probiotic supplementation had the potential to reduce blood pressure, but only modestly. To experience any sort of benefit of lower blood pressure, supplementation would need to exceed 8 weeks and 10 million colony-forming units (CFUs) daily.

Reduce the severity of allergies and eczema

Some strains of probiotic bacteria may help to reduce severe cases of eczema in children and infants, with one study finding that symptoms improved for infants who were fed milk supplemented with probiotics compared to those fed regular milk. 

A different study followed children of women who took probiotics during their pregnancy – finding that the children ended up having an 83% lower risk of developing eczema in their first two years of life. 

Lessen the symptoms of certain digestive disorders

Millions of people around the world suffer from digestive disorders, such as IBS, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. Certain types of probiotics from the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains have been found to improve the symptoms of mild ulcerative colitis in people – with one surprising study finding that supplementing with E.coli Nissle was just as effective as medication drugs in maintaining remission in people with ulcerative colitis, however, this appears to have little effect on symptoms of Crohn’s disease

Probiotics may provide benefits for other bowel disorders, too, such as aiding with symptoms of IBS, whilst also having been shown to reduce the risk of severe necrotising enterocolitis by 50%.

Probiotics boost your immune system

Are you looking to give your immune system a boost and inhibit the growth of harmful gut bacteria? Probiotics may be the answer. Some probiotics have been shown to promote the production of natural antibodies found within the body – whilst also providing a boost to immune cells like the IgA-producing cells, T lymphocytes and natural killer cells. 

A large review of multiple studies found that taking probiotics reduced the likelihood of developing and the duration of respiratory infections, with one study involving over 570 children finding that taking Lactobacillus GG reduced the frequency and severity of respiratory infections by 17%. Additionally, the probiotic Lactobacillus crispatus has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing urinary tract infections in women by up to 50%.

Prevent and treat diarrhoea 

Interestingly, probiotics are renowned for their ability to prevent or reduce the severity of diarrhoea – which is a common side effect of taking antibiotics due to the negative influence on the balance of good and bad bacteria within the gut. 

Studies suggest that probiotic use is associated with a reduced risk of antibiotic-induced diarrhoea, with one study finding that probiotics reduced this form of diarrhoea by 42%. Additionally, probiotics can help with other forms of diarrhoea which aren’t caused by antibiotics, such as infectious diarrhoea being reduced in duration by an average of 25 hours, reduced risk of travellers’ diarrhoea by 8%, and diarrhoea from other causes by 57% in children and 26% in adults.

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