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Gut Check: Should You Take Probiotics?

  • By Susan Lacke
  • Published Dec 3, 2013
  • Updated Feb 12, 2014 at 12:25 PM UTC
Photo: www.shutterstock.com

This good form of bacteria can help endurance athletes recover from workouts and boost their immunity.

Probiotics, the “good bacteria,” have been marketed as a cure-all for many ailments, from the upset stomach to the common cold. These tiny microorganisms, whose name originates from the Greek words “for life,” maintain the health of the body.

More than 500 different types of bacteria reside in the digestive system, working together to aid in digestion, nutrient absorption, and immunity. In recent years, health and wellness claims have spilled over into the sports performance realm, with studies showing promising effects of probiotics on training, racing, and recovery.

“There is no direct link between probiotic use and performance that can be quantified to date, but the secondary health benefits of probiotics, which include enhanced recovery from fatigue, improved immune function and the maintenance of a healthy gut, can improve general well being,” says Kim Schwabenbauer, a Registered Dietician, USAT coach, and professional triathlete, “This, in turn, could improve performance in training and therefore, on race day.”

Immunity Boost

Though exercise can boost immunity, particularly long or strenuous efforts can deplete the body’s ability to fight off illness. A daily dose of “good” bacteria could help to fight off “bad” bacteria.

“There’s some evidence that the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections, or the common cold, can be reduced in athletes with probiotic supplementation,” says Dr. Mike Gleeson, Professor of Exercise Biochemistry at Loughborough University, “as well as influence some aspects of immunity in athletes.”

In a study published by the British Journal of Sports medicine, high-mileage runners given a capsule containing Lactobacillus fermentum experienced only 30 days of respiratory illness symptoms during a four-month testing period, compared with 72 days for those who took a placebo. A 2012 study identified two specific strains, Bifidobacterium animalis and Lactobacillus paracasei, which improved immune function in healthy adults by an average of 50 percent.

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Relief From Runner’s Trots

If you experience gastrointestinal issues (nausea, bloating, diarrhea) while training or racing, probiotics may help lessen the severity of your symptoms. In a study of marathon runners, the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG was found to shorten the duration of GI symptom episodes.

Heat Help

Training for a hot-weather race? Probiotics may help you go the distance. Australian researchers recently discovered that supplementation with a multi-strain probiotic allowed runners to endure hot and humid conditions for longer than those who took a placebo. During a four-week study, athletes who supplemented with Lactobacillus, Bifdobacterium, and Streptoccus strains increased the amount of time they could run in the heat before feeling fatigued.

Probiotic … Chocolate?

Thanks to clever marketing, most consumers can identify yogurt as a source of probiotics. However, probiotics have begun making appearances in a rapidly growing list of fortified products such as chocolates, juices, and cereals.

Despite claims made on brightly colored packaging, the simple presence of probiotics in a product does not guarantee its usefulness. Strains can often be destroyed by heat and processing of food products, rendering them ineffective. Further, most probiotics have a limited shelf life, even with ideal conditions such as refrigeration.

Increase your confidence in the probiotic contents of your food by looking for fresh, perishable products with “live and active cultures.” Natural sources include yogurt, Kefir, sauerkraut, miso, and buttermilk.

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Should You Supplement?

Though it is possible to get probiotics from real-food sources, Gleeson stresses daily supplementation is still needed in order to achieve a “sufficient dose of probiotic bacteria.”

Probiotic supplements exist in a variety of forms, from capsules to fruit chews to beverages (such as Yakult, which Gleeson recommends). Schwabenbauer suggests selecting a product with a broad range of probiotic strains and the highest amount of probiotic organisms in a daily dose. It’s also important to identify the strains aligned with your desired outcomes.

“The health effects resulting from probiotics are considered to be strain specific, meaning that certain strains produce certain results, and those results only,” says Schwabenbauer. “It’s important to know what you’re taking, and if it’s addressing your most pressing issues. Look for products with strain-specific research right on the label or online.”

Timing Is Everything

Gleeson says most studies have their subjects taking probiotics twice per day, with a morning and evening meal, though he says that isn’t a hard and fast rule. What’s more important, he says, is that they are consumed daily.

The offseason is a good time to experiment with probiotic brands and establish a habit of supplementation. It takes at least 14 days for probiotics to colonize in the gut and start working, so taking them a week before a race, or beginning a supplementation in the middle of an illness may not produce the results the athlete is hoping for.

“I really use them all season long, especially in the winter, to help with immunity and overall well-being,” says Schwabenbauer. “But about 12-14 weeks out from the ‘A’ race is where every little bit helps!”

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