When it comes to fitness and athletic aptitude, we often look to a person’s physique, as in, "He has the perfect runner’s body" or "She is built for swimming." And, to a degree, this may be true—some people are born with a body type that is particularly conducive to a certain sport or activity (If you’re tall and have ever been asked if you play basketball, you know what we mean!).
But what if I told you that what’s inside your body—deep within your gut, in fact—also plays a significant role in both your athletic capacity and performance, whether you’re a professional competitor or a weekend warrior? It’s true: Groundbreaking new research shows that the particular organisms dwelling in (or missing from) your microbiome may hold the key to enhancing performance and endurance.
An athlete's gut is different from a nonathlete's.
Unless you're like me and spend a lot of time researching the mighty gut microbiome, you may be tempted to think that the bacterial populations residing in our bodies are all the same. But this is far from true! In fact, our microbiomes are incredibly unique and can even be used to identify us as individuals, much like fingerprints. And even though the makeup up of our gut bacteria can change hour to hour and day to day based on what we eat, how much sleep we get, our stress levels, and numerous other lifestyle factors, the unique fingerprint of our microbial mix stays relatively stable over time.
Why does this matter? Well, this remarkable individuality also applies to groups of people. For instance, obese individuals tend to have identifiable proportions of certain bacteria in their guts that are different from the proportions in thin people. The same can be said for people who live together, people of similar ages, and even people who live in specific geographic locations—portions of their microbiomes resemble one another's, for better or worse. Now we know that the same holds true for athletes: Their microbiomes are distinctly different from those of nonathletes, and some of the beneficial bacteria that call an athlete’s gut home have very specific functions that can improve athletic performance.
Your microbiome will thank you for moving your body.
One thing is clear, at the most basic level, research shows that the more active you are, the more diverse your microbiome will be. Scientists have discovered that the athlete’s microbiome isn’t just more diverse; it’s also functionally different from that of sedentary subjects, with specific bacterial strains that assist with cell and muscle turnover, tissue repair, and the ability to harness maximum energy from foods.
In one study, professional and amateur competitive cyclists who trained rigorously for 16 or more hours per week had a high percentage of Prevotella in their guts (around 12 percent, much higher than the 0.15 percent most people harbor), a genus that could help with amino acid synthesis for improved recovery. What’s more, the professional cyclists showed high levels of M. smithii, a strain of bacteria involved in methane metabolism that may make bacterial fermentation in the gut microbiome more efficient, leading to an increase in short-chain fatty acids, reduced recovery time, and improved race performance.
In another trial, researchers tested fecal samples of runners both before and after running the Boston Marathon and found that the post-race samples included particularly high amounts of a type of bacteria that break down lactic acid, which can lead to muscle soreness and fatigue. The scientists also compared the gut bacteria of ultramarathoners to those of elite rowers and found that the ultramarathoners harbored a species of bacteria that the rowers didn’t—one that helps break down carbohydrates and fiber, very important during a 100-mile race but perhaps not as crucial during rowing.
So, not only do athletes tend to have more diverse, specialized microbiomes than nonathletes, but the gut bacteria of elite athletes seem to be, in some sense, sport-specific! And if you think about it, the implications are astounding. Fast-forward a few years and we may be able to pick our probiotic supplements based on our favorite sporting activity, choosing strains that can most readily support and guide our bodies toward the finish line.
How probiotics can enhance your athletic performance.
Although we don’t have enough information to tailor a sport-specific soccer or football microbiome quite yet, the great news is that targeted probiotics can enhance everyone’s performance, from professional athletes and hard-core fitness enthusiasts to gentle joggers and mindful yogis.
Intrigued? Here are five ways beneficial bugs go above and beyond to help you reach all your athletic goals, big and small:
1. They will boost your immunity.
Heavy training and prolonged exercise can suppress your immune function, putting you at increased risk for a cold, the flu, and other viruses and infections. Fortunately, probiotics have been proved to reduce both the incidence and severity of the upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) that are so common in athletes. And research shows that just one month of probiotic supplementation can increase an athlete's depressed antibody levels from intense training. Certain specific strains, like L. plantarum 6595, have even been clinically shown to be especially effective at enhancing immune function and can help to ward off URTIs during the two- to eight-hour "open window" of immune sensitivity that occurs after intense or prolonged exercise.
2. Your energy and endurance will get a boost.
Without adequate energy levels, it’s very difficult to find the motivation to exercise—no matter whether your goal is a 2-mile run or a 200-mile bike ride. A healthy population of probiotics in your gut helps you absorb all the nutrients you need to keep going strong. Some strains of bacteria manufacture short-chain fatty acids that your body can use for energy, giving you an additional boost for optimal performance. When it comes to endurance, it’s no surprise that beneficial bacteria play a role as well—four weeks of supplementation can increase the time it takes runners to fatigue in 95-degree heat!
3. Beneficial bugs will improve your digestion.
It’s no secret that athletes often experience digestive distress while training or competing—this is often due to increased intestinal permeability (aka "leaky gut") that allows toxins and pathogens to seep through your gut barrier into your bloodstream. The result? You experience the dreaded diarrhea, gas, bloating, and cramps that can quickly derail your race. Repopulating your gut with targeted probiotics not only improves your overall digestion, but the friendly flora work to seal your gut barrier from leaks, so you can sail through without any time-busting pit stops!
4. You'll recover more quickly.
Competing successfully in any athletic endeavor is just as much about the recovery as it is about the training. Most of us have been there at some point; you train a little too hard and don’t give your body the time it needs to recover, and suddenly—wham!—you get injured and are out of the game. By decreasing inflammation, increasing antioxidant levels, and supporting ongoing bone and joint health, probiotics enable your body to repair and recover in record time.
5. Probiotics will support your emotional health.
Intense exercise not only puts physical stress on the body, but the ensuing stress response—which involves a roller coaster of neurotransmitters that affect your minute-to-minute emotions—can often induce emotional stress, leading to issues with fatigue, insomnia, and depression. When you consider the adage that "90 percent of sports performance is mental," you’re doomed to come in at the back of the pack if you can’t get your mind in the game. The good news is that probiotics support your mood and mental health by regulating and producing a large number of mood-acting brain chemicals and hormones, like serotonin, GABA, cortisol, and oxytocin.
Researchers are just beginning to look into how an athlete’s microbiome becomes so brilliantly specialized, and many questions remain. Are gifted athletes born with this microbial mix that enables them to surge ahead of all their competitors? Or, do years of training, focus, hard work, and microbe-friendly lifestyle choices cultivate the bacteria needed to compete at a high level? What role does a top athlete’s strict diet play in which bacteria flourish in their gut?
As we all excitedly await the answers, we can rest assured that we have the knowledge and tools today to take our gut health—and thus our athletic prowess—to the next level. By supplementing with a high-quality, effective probiotic designed specifically for athletes, incorporating an organic prebiotic powder into your diet to give your beneficial bacteria all the support and fuel they need, and living a gut-healthy life that keeps your friendly flora thriving and at the top of their game, you’ll be well on your way to giving your body and microbiome the support they need to snag that participant ribbon—or go for gold!
Ready to prioritize your microbiome health? Here are seven simple ways to do it.
And are you ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.