The effectiveness of prebiotics and probiotics on athletic performance

A research review from the Performance Digest

James Morehen

By Dr. James Morehen
September 24th, 2019 | 4 min read

Contents of Research Review

  1. Background & Objective
  2. What They Did
  3. What They Found
  4. Practical Takeaways
  5. Reviewer’s Comments
  6. About the Reviewer

Background & Objective

Rather than a piece of experimental research, this article nicely collates evidence regarding the effectiveness of prebiotics and probiotics on athletic performance and explains the mechanisms by which they have their effect.

What They Did

This article explains how the collection of microorganisms in our digestive systems (known as the microbiota) contribute to a large variety of functions in our body. These functions include things such as inflammation, homeostasis, and the synthesis of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, GABA, and serotonin, which are crucial in neuromuscular control.

Furthermore, the authors present evidence for the effect of various probiotic interventions on the incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) and respiratory pathology, including how probiotic supplementation may aid in both athletic performance and recovery.

What They Found

Various strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium may exert a beneficial effect on the incidence of GI or respiratory illnesses in both male and female athletes from many sports. One piece of evidence demonstrates how daily probiotic supplementation during 3 months of exhaustive aerobic exercise in wintry conditions significantly reduces upper-respiratory tract illness incidence (i.e. colds) in trained athletes.

Evidence is also presented which suggests that the co-administration of two probiotic strains (Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus) may have anti-inflammatory effects following muscle-damaging exercise. In addition to this, it may also attenuate the reduction in muscle performance after exercise when compared to a placebo.

Practical Takeaways

First of all, it is important to understand the terms ‘prebiotic’ and ‘probiotic’ as they are sometimes (wrongly) used interchangeably.

Probiotics refer to the living cultures of bacteria that reside in our body and make up the microbiota. Prebiotics are types of fibre that
cannot be digested by our body and serve as a food source for probiotics. Sources that contain both prebiotics and probiotics are
termed ‘synbiotic’.

Probiotics do not require prebiotics to function, but there is some evidence that prebiotics may augment the function of probiotics. Now that you are familiar with the biotics, it’s important to understand that this article shows the potential benefits of incorporating probiotics into nutritional strategies for athletes. These may also be more useful for athletes who may find themselves at risk of developing GI or respiratory illnesses due to environmental conditions (e.g. winter), chronic high-intensity exercise, or a combination of the two. There is also emerging evidence for the role of probiotics for aiding recovery following muscle-damaging exercise, particularly when the time available to recover is short (e.g. during tournaments or multi-event competitions).

Probiotics can be purchased as supplements, but foods such as yoghurt and cheese, provide a great source of probiotics and may be incorporated into nutritional strategies to ensure a healthy microbiota is maintained and the protective effects are fully
utilised. Furthermore, the authors suggest how the microbiota can mediate psychiatric factors (e.g. stress and anxiety) via the synthesis of neurotransmitters – a link known as the “gut-brain axis” (as explained in this podcast). Although research in this area is still within its infancy, this potentially further emphasises the importance of maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal system. Suggestions could be made for athletes to increase diary intake to support an increase in naturally probiotics (see this video).

Reviewer’s Comments

Although Pane and colleagues are not providing us with any new experimental research, this presentation article provides a helpful collation of current evidence on the effects of probiotics on health and performance. Taking care of the microbiota and gut health can
often be ignored in order to prioritise training volume or adequate fuelling for performance without consideration of how these affect the gastrointestinal systems. However, with 30-50% of athletes reporting some kind of abdominal discomfort during exercise, it is undoubtedly an important factor of performance that should be regarded on an equal level to all other aspects of training and competition.

Evidence for the effects of probiotic supplementation is increasing, but there is still gaps in the literature regarding optimal timing and quantity of doses. This is something that should be calculated for individual athletes to suit their specific training and nutritional regimes.

Want to learn more?
Then check these out…

Watch this video
Read this article
Listen to this podcast

The full study can be read here.

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    James Morehen

    Dr. James Morehen

    Dr. James Morehen is a Performance Nutritionist for Bristol Bears Rugby Union. He is a SENr registered performance nutritionist and works privately with both elite athletes and individuals through his business Morehen Performance Ltd.

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