Often, we associate bacteria with negative effects on our immune system, but that’s not the case when it comes to probiotics. These powerful microorganisms help your gut maintain balance (and there are tons of benefits of probiotics for athletes). Here's everything you need to know about keeping a healthy gut throughout your training.
What Are the Benefits of Probiotics for Athletes?
Why Athletes’ Guts Need Help
The beneficial bacteria known as probiotics support your microbiome — the community of bacteria that exists within your gut — which, in the long run, supports immune function.
But the thing is, athletes tend to struggle with poor gut function and increased inflammation throughout the body. Why? Experts hypothesize that the strain that extensive training puts on athletes’ bodies may be to blame.
“There may be a link between vigorous exercise that athletes do, and some kind of microbiome alteration,” Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, a nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition, explains.
Probiotics for Athletes: Endurance Exercise and Gut Health
Running (specifically long distances) can be especially rough on the gut, Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, cookbook author, and certified athletic trainer adds. Distance running not only dehydrates you faster but also diverts blood flow from the organs to the muscles, which can lead to digestive issues, she says.
The effect? In one recent study, researchers found that although marathon runners didn’t lack diverse gut bacteria, they had fewer gut bacteria in their microbiome after a race than they did before. Those conducting the study suspect that digestive changes aside, metabolic changes in the blood and muscles during hard-core distance running also impact the gut bacteria.
Experts believe that the inflammation triggered by endurance exercise may also be problematic. While this exercise-induced inflammation (in the right doses) is necessary and beneficial, it often kicks into overdrive in endurance athletes. And considering at least 70% of the immune system resides within the gut, this spells trouble for our microbiomes.
“Endurance athletes may experience more of a depressed immune function than those who undergo normal physical activity due to a constant ‘turning on’ of the inflammation response,” Maggie Luther, ND, Care/of's Medical Director and Formulator, says.
However, the workouts themselves aren’t the only factors influencing athletes’ microbiomes. Other factors include:
How Athletes Can Add Probiotics to Their Diet
Though more research will illuminate the exact relationship, athletes’ guts and immune systems can certainly benefit from increasing their probiotic intake. In fact, a few small studies suggest that probiotics can assist the body in recovering from fatigue due to intense exercise.
To up your intake, most dietitians recommend opting for fermented foods (which provide probiotics) over probiotic supplements, which are often recommended for people with inflammatory bowel disorders. Often, these fermented foods provide additional beneficial nutrients, such as the protein and calcium in Greek yogurt.
Experts don’t know exactly how many additional probiotics athletes need (the ‘perfect’ microbiome is still a bit of a mystery!), but one or two daily servings of fermented foods can only help your nutrition and gut microbiome, Moreno says.
For breakfast, consider a smoothie made with yogurt or kefir, or drinking some kombucha. For lunch, try using kefir as the base of a creamy salad dressing by adding fresh herbs, garlic, honey, and lemon.
“For dinner, cube up some tempeh [made from fermented soy] and toss it into a stir fry,” White suggests. “Or, crumble and sauté it with seasonings for a plant-based taco filling.”
If you do choose to use probiotic supplements (like when traveling or have limited access to fermented foods), make sure the supplements contain two types of bacteria: lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. According to Luther, both of these are needed in different regions of the digestive system.
However, since there are so many different supplements out there, talk to your healthcare provider before starting to take probiotic supplements.
Probiotics for Athletes: The Bottom Line
Athletes, if you want to keep your health in tip-top shape, your top priority is to nourish your microbiome and maintain healthy habits every day — especially on days that you train.
“An athlete can support his or her microbiome by hydrating properly, getting adequate sleep, controlling stress, and consuming a variety of fiber-filled plant foods (which contain prebiotics, the food source for probiotics), and some fermented foods as well,” Moreno says.