Athletes are often told to take probiotics to improve their gut health, but what if they’re not a good fit?

Who is and who isn’t a good candidate for taking probiotics? And how do you know which ones will work best in your body?

So should athletes take probiotics becomes even more important as it’s important to understand that not all probiotics are the same? Some of them may be helpful in one person but not another, and they can also come in different formulations (i.e. capsules, powders, liquids).  So knowing which ones will work for you is key.

Probiotics may be helpful for some people, but there are three main reasons why they aren’t working in others. They don’t contain the right strain(s) of probiotic bacteria, or not enough of them to make a difference.  They’re also missing other ingredients that help with absorption and gut health (i.e. prebiotics, vitamins and minerals).  Or the formulation isn’t best for your digestive system or your body’s needs.

Do you have any digestive problems?

The first thing to do when considering whether or not it’s appropriate for an athlete to take probiotics is to determine why the person might have digestive problems. If it’s because of diet, then changing that could be enough. But if there are underlying issues like Crohn’s disease or colitis, antibiotics use, or other factors, then probiotic supplementation may be necessary. Those with celiac disease should avoid all sources of gluten as well as any products containing malt.

Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Washington, D.C., who specializes in sports nutrition, says that anyone training at an intensity level of six to eight hours a week for more than three months should consider taking probiotics. “Muscle recovery can be compromised by gut issues,” she explains. “When the body is exposed to high levels of stress, such as during endurance training, it can lead to overuse injuries and a compromised immune system.”

The need for probiotics before sports

Taking probiotics throughout a specific period of time before a big race could help reduce the risk for injury and illness by supporting gut health. The brain-gut connection is a two-way street.

The brain has the ability to send and receive messages that affect everything from how we feel emotionally, to how we digest our food, to how fatigued we get during exercise. That’s why Scritchfield says an athlete may benefit from taking probiotics if they experience gastrointestinal problems or feelings of anxiety.

Many studies have been conducted that suggest probiotics can reduce stress levels, but have not shown a direct relationship between mental health and athletic performance. However, there are sports-specific claims that indicate probiotics could enhance an athlete’s ability to perform better due to the way they may regulate inflammation in the body. Other studies show direct benefits to intestinal health.

So far there’s no conclusive answer on the degree of benefit that probiotics may provide. There are several factors to consider when looking at the research, such as the type of probiotic used and the dosage of bacteria that was administered. Until more conclusive evidence is available, athletes should take a cautious approach to probiotics.

“Most studies have been conducted in healthy people who don’t have compromised immune function. I’m not convinced there is a benefit to taking probiotics for someone who has a strong immune system.”

Jason Edmonds, registered dietitian, Strength and Conditioning Coach, University of Alabama

There’s also a lack of diversity in study participants, which limits how useful those results might be. People from different spots on the globe have significantly different microbial profiles that can affect what works for their bodies and minds. “Probiotics work differently in different people,” adds Edmonds.

For that reason, it’s not a good idea to take any probiotics before consulting with your doctor — even if you just want to see whether taking them will improve your gut health. More research needs to be done before we can say what type of probiotics are best for certain conditions and specific populations.

Until then, there are things you can do to make your digestive system healthier naturally, including getting more sleep, managing stress levels, eating a diverse variety of plant-based foods with lots of prebiotic fiber (such as onions or garlic), avoiding antibiotics whenever possible, and taking a regular probiotic supplement.

If you decide to take a probiotic

If you choose to take a probiotic, look for one that doesn’t contain gluten or dairy derivatives or any artificial colors or sweeteners. You also want to make sure that the label states that it contains live, active cultures and each serving has at least one billion organisms.

“There is a need for extensive research to determine which strains of probiotics work best and what dosages would be most beneficial for athletic performance,” Scritchfield says. “Given this research is in its infancy, I would recommend that athletes consult with their physician before taking probiotics.”

Use of probiotics as part of your dietary supplements to aid in sports recovery - should athletes take probiotics
Use of probiotics as part of your dietary supplements to aid in sports recovery

Use of probiotics to help your recovery

Probiotics can also be beneficial for recovery if your muscles are in the process of self-repairing after strenuous exercise. Your body starts to use glucose during intense cardiovascular or weight training, which burns up all your glycogen stores and then the glucose is used as a source of energy. The downside to losing all that glycogen is that your muscles can become damaged because they have no fuel left.

If you keep your glycogen stores topped up with regular doses of fibre, which is broken down into glucose, this should not happen and your body will feel less fatigue towards the end of your workout. Another plus is that you will be burning more calories and in turn, losing more weight. Fibre also helps maintain a healthy digestive system and can reduce constipation, bloating and even diarrhoea, so it’s important to get enough of it if you want to improve your health.

Probiotics may help with this as it is a good source of fiber, but make sure you don’t introduce too much fibre into your diet too quickly. If you do decide to try a probiotic make sure it contains the following bacteria: Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus Acidophilus.

You should also be drinking plenty of water during your workouts to avoid dehydration, which can also lead to cramps. I prefer to take a break from training for a few minutes and eat something that contains protein or take a protein shake then carry on. Protein is important because it helps repair your muscles but don’t overdo it as this could have the reverse effect if you take too much.

One last thing, you should always stretch before and after your workouts. If you don’t then your muscles can become stiff which will slow down recovery time or lead to injury. Make sure that every part of your body is stretched out including shoulders, upper back, lower back and legs because these areas tend to get tight with training. It’s also important to stretch your abs and the muscles in your face because they get used during any activity you do.

In conclusion

Should athletes take probiotics?

So determining as an athlete whether you need to take a probiotic or not will come down to your knowledge of your digestive system and whether it is compromised in any way that would impede your performance.  If you have a chronic issue regarding digestion it is worth investigating whether a probiotic would help.

This course of action will naturally involve an element of trial and error to find what suits you best and as always do this with the consultation of your physician.


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