What are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms found naturally within the digestive tract that, when maintained at adequate levels, are thought to support intestinal health and enhance immune function. Most probiotics are bacterial, thus the nickname friendly bacteria, and originate from the Lactobacillus (lactic acid bacteria, LAB, L.) or Bifidobacterium (B.) family. Over 500 types of bacterial species exist with each exerting a unique health benefit by helping fight the growth of harmful bacteria and yeast. Strains of the Bifidobacterium family accounts for nearly 25% of all probiotics in the body and are found primarily in the large intestine; species of LAB are generally found in the small intestine. Probiotics can be added to the diet from such foods as yogurt, cultured milk products, and beverages as well as taken in capsule, tablet, and powdered form.

What is the difference between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Probiotics should not be mistaken for prebiotics, which is complex sugars called fructooligosaccharides that serve as fuel for bacteria already present in the digestive tract. Products containing both pre- and probiotics are often labeled as synbiotics.

How do Probiotics work?

Immune functionality after intense exercise is suppressed, making the athlete more vulnerable to contraction of upper respiratory tract infections and gastrointestinal illness. Reducing the occurrence of these illnesses is a high priority as full recovery from each bout takes away significant time from training and competition and thus can negatively affect performance. Probiotics may provide added nutritional support in the intestines, where more than 70% of the body’s immune defenses work to fight against harmful microbes that can contribute to infection, thereby helping reduce the incidence of illness during heavy training and competition.

What are the performance benefits?

Probiotics may aid the overall health of an athlete, helping to protect against and reduce symptoms of gastrointestinal and upper respiratory tract illnesses. There is some evidence to suggest that bifidobacterium probiotics can provide some relief for such symptoms as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea, common among athletes affected by irritable bowel syndrome.

Results examining the efficacy of probiotic supplementation are promising. Research showed the oral administration of L. fementum at a daily dose of 1.26 × 10 (10) over 30 days during winter training cut the number of days of respiratory symptoms in elite male distance runners by over half. There was also a substantial downgrade in the severity of respiratory illness compared to the placebo. Research also indicates a reduction in the frequency of upper respiratory tract illness in recreational endurance athletes after 8 and 16 weeks of supplementation with L. casei shirota.

The most potent probiotic supplements will contain more organisms, expressed in terms of billions of organisms or CFUs per serving; products containing a range of 250 million to 20 billion organisms are considered ideal for therapeutic benefit. Each strain of bacteria will elicit a unique health benefit, with bifidobacterium seeming to benefit intestinal health and lactobacillus benefiting both immune functionality and intestinal health. To ensure optimal passage of the bacteria through the stomach, select products with an enteric coating.

Probiotics are considered safe for use, with minimal side effects reported. However, athletes with milk allergies should be aware that some probiotic products, especially those made with lactobacilli or bifidobacterium, may contain a trace amount of milk proteins and thus may trigger allergic symptoms.