Should I Take Probiotics?

Can taking probiotics make you perform like a pro athlete? Find out the answer from the results of this new study. 

What do yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha all have in common? All three fermented foods have probiotics or “good” bacteria that some studies suggest can help with digestion, boost immunity and even alleviate the common cold. Increasingly, though, probiotics are being added to protein powders, energy bars and other foods and marketed to athletes as a way to improve performance. Will they help?

One double blind study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2010, gave 20 healthy elite male distance runners either a placebo or a capsule containing Lactobacillus fermentum VRI-003. After four months, the athletes taking the probiotic reported less than half the number of days of respiratory symptoms (e.g. colds) than the control group. A 2011 study of 99 cyclists that was published in Nutrition Journal found those taking a probiotic (Lactobacillus fermentum) reported fewer colds and respiratory illnesses as well.

In 2014, a metastudy (a study of all the studies) commissioned by the Irish Sports Council concluded that though the research is still limited,  taking a probiotic could improve immunity in fatigued athletes, reduce the severity of GI disturbances and respiratory infection, and reduce the number of sick days in athletes training for endurance events. It found no evidence, however, of boosting performance.

That said, before you shell out for supplements or rush for foods such as Kraft Live-Active Cheese Sticks (yup, cheese sticks fortified with probiotics) consider that there are more than 500 different types of probiotics and no one is quite sure which ones work, how they work or why.

There’s no evidence that taking probiotic supplements is harmful, but the advice most nutritionists give: get your probiotics from foods that naturally contain them (such as low-fat yogurt or sauerkraut) as they also provide good nutrition.—L.L.

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.