by Inge Lindseth

Sports and the microbiome: Lie on the couch, take a probiotic, and become an elite athlete?

Microbiome research might seem a little crazy at times. Microbiome research on athletes no less

Here are two of the latest fascinating research findings on the microbiome and sports:

Finding 1: Researchers in Taiwan asked an Olympic Weightlifting Gold Medalist to donate poop for research purposes. (1) Some of the bacterial strains from the poop were thereafter transferred to a group of mice, that were tested in “Mice Olympics”, that is, the mice got tested for grip strength before and after the transferal of the “Olympic bacteria”. The result: The “Olympic” bacterial strains increased grip strength by as much as 30 percent compared to no treatment.

Finding 2: A second study (2) carried out by some of the same Taiwanese researchers as in Example 1, recruited 54 men and women to receive a probiotic supplement for six weeks. Before and after the probiotic administration test subjects underwent an exercise test. After the six weeks the probiotic supplemented subjects saw a whopping 50 percent increase in time to exhaustion in a treadmill test.

While time to exhaustion tests are not as clear cut in terms of understanding the true performance increase as time trial tests are (where a set distance is completed as fast as possible), to notice a statistically significant increase at all in endurance performance after a single short-term treatment is rare.

But these are just two studies – and this is too little to make the conclusion that science has convincingly shown that you can increase your performance by changing your microbiome. 


A lactate loving microbe

But, there are more findings that point to microbes playing a direct role in sports performance. One line of evidence has to do with possible mechanisms for performance enhancing effects of microbe related aspects. In 2015 researchers analyzed the feces of 15 marathon runners right after they had completed the Boston Marathon and found a boost in the presence of a certain microbe: Veillonella atypica. (3) This bacterium was also more prevalent before the marathon, as compared to non-athletes.

 Interestingly, the only source of energy for this microbe is something athletes are very familiar with: lactate. Veillonella atypica breaks the lactate down into the short chain fatty acids propionate and acetate. The researchers later introduced this bacterium to the intestines of mice, and saw an increase in endurance performance of these mice (3). Propionate infused into the gut also had the same effect.  A very recent study however identified acetate and butyrate as having endurance performance enhancing effects – but not propionate, thus leaving a need for future studies to clarify the picture. (4)

 Also, in the second Taiwanese study mentioned above lactate was implicated in the differences between groups. Both during and after the exercise test the blood levels of lactate were lower in the group that received the probiotic.


Is there anything that you can do already today to get a microbiome that increases your performance?

Before you try to change anything about your microbiome, it is helpful to know what your starting point is. Perhaps you already have a microbiome that is conducive to a good athletic performance?

Unfortunately, finding out how fit your microbiome is in terms of helping you perform is by no means a standardized procedure. There are no commercial providers that we know of that can do a meaningful analysis of sports performance specific aspects.

Therefore, general and up to date advice about how to take care of your microbiome such as what and when you eat is probably something you should try to adhere to before buying sports specific probiotics. To date there are no performance-enhancing probiotics on the market that are backed up by clinical studies. Also watch this video on our YouTube channel:

But, there will most certainly be exciting developments in this field in the years to come, and a personalized microbiome targeted approach with different types of microbe related products and diet changes that brings performance enhancing results is likely to be part of the future of sports.

Yet, just lying on the couch and taking a pill that makes you an elite athlete is however something still very much only for sci-fi stories.

Certification consultant for probiotics
Inge Lindseth
registered dietitian

Inge Lindseth is a registered dietitian from the University of Oslo with over 20 years experience in nutrition. His special areas are fasting, the microbiome, obesity, obesity, diabetes and autoimmune diseases. He has written two books on nutrition and published several peer-reviewed articles.

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