Microbiota in Sports: Effects of Physical Activity, Probiotics and Diet

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In this article, we will explore the importance of microbiota in sports. The human body is host to trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as the microbiota, which plays a crucial role in maintaining human health. Recent research has focused on the interplay between microbiota, physical activity, and diet, with particular attention paid to the effects of these factors on athletes. 

The composition of bacteria colonizing the gastrointestinal tract varies widely depending on factors such as genetics, lifestyle, use of antibiotics, and presence of diseases. In addition, diet is an essential factor in the species diversity of the microbiota. This article provides an analysis of the relationships between physical activity, diet, and the microbiota of the gastrointestinal tract in athletes.

Microbiota in Sports: Microbial Composition in Various Sports Disciplines

The composition of microbiota in the gastrointestinal tract can differ based on the type of physical activity an individual engages in. (1) Several studies have examined the microbial composition in various sports disciplines and identified specific bacterial species associated with high VO2 max. (2)

A diagram of V02 max and the differences in the composition of microbiota depending on the VO2 max
Source: Archives of Microbiology 

One study found that endurance athletes had a greater abundance of the bacterial genus Prevotella, which is known to be involved in carbohydrate metabolism and has been associated with improved endurance performance. Another study found that athletes who engage in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) had a higher abundance of the bacterial genus Veillonella, which has been shown to promote lactate utilization by the body, leading to improved exercise performance. (3)

In addition to these specific bacterial species, athletes with high VO2 max were found to have higher levels of the bacterial order Clostridiales and the genus Lactobacillus and Bacteroides. Clostridiales are known to be involved in short-chain fatty acid production, which can help improve exercise capacity, while Lactobacillus and Bacteroides are involved in the metabolism of complex carbohydrates and the regulation of the immune system.

Overall, these findings suggest that the composition of microbiota in the gastrointestinal tract is influenced by the type of physical activity an individual engages in, with specific bacterial species associated with improved athletic performance. (4)

Microbiota in Sports: The Microbiome, Probiotics and Sports 

A photo of a Lyvecap bottle on the tennis court displaying microbiota in sports.

Probiotics, or live microorganisms, have been shown to provide a range of health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. In recent years, research has focused on how probiotics can improve athletic performance by enhancing gut health and reducing inflammation.

Studies have shown that probiotics can improve an athlete’s VO2 max, time to exhaustion, and sprint performance. In addition, probiotics have been found to reduce the incidence of gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and nausea, which can negatively impact athletic performance. (5)

The use of probiotics in athletes is of great importance, as physical activity and diet contribute to a more significant variation in the composition of the intestinal flora in athletes compared to sedentary individuals. (6) During maximum exertion, visceral blood flow can be reduced by up to 80%, which can lead to bacterial translocation after exercise.(7)

Supplementing with probiotics or prebiotics, which stimulate the multiplication of beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, may help improve metabolism and increase immunity. Probiotics can also help reduce inflammation by reducing the level of zonulin, a modulator of intestinal permeability.

In addition to enhancing physical performance, probiotics may also have an impact on an athlete’s mental preparation. Another area of research that requires further exploration is the potential role of bacteriophages, viruses that specifically infect and kill bacteria, in enhancing athletic performance. Bacteriophages may influence the composition of the human microbiome and have the potential to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Microbiota in Sports: The Connection Between Diet and Microbiota

A photo of Shelby Rogers playing tennis

A high-fiber diet has been shown to increase the abundance of beneficial bacterial species, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are involved in carbohydrate metabolism and immune regulation. These bacterial species can also help produce short-chain fatty acids that provide energy for the body and support gut health. (8) Therefore, it’s important for athletes to consume a diet that is rich in dietary fiber to support their gut health and athletic performance.

In contrast, a diet that is low in fiber and high in fat and protein can negatively impact the diversity and abundance of bacterial species in the gut. When we eat a lot of protein without enough fiber, microbes have a hard time breaking down the protein without producing potentially adverse chemicals. This can result in an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, leading to inflammation and other gut-related health issues. Therefore, athletes should also eat a lot of fiber when consuming high-protein diets to reduce the adverse effects. (9)

In addition to a high-fiber diet, athletes can also benefit from consuming probiotic-rich foods and supplements. Probiotics can help restore and maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. These microorganisms can be found in foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha. However, the most effective way to receive a consistent amount of live bacteria is through clinically-proven probiotic supplements. 

The Takeaway

A photo of the Lyvecap bottle laying on the ground with a green and blue background

In conclusion, the microbiota, the collection of microorganisms living within the human body, plays a critical role in overall health, including the health and performance of athletes. Physical activity and diet can both have significant effects on the composition and diversity of the microbiota and therefore influence athletic performance. (10)

The research indicates that regular exercise, particularly high-intensity exercise, can positively impact the microbiota by increasing microbial diversity and reducing inflammation. Additionally, a balanced diet, with a focus on nutrient-dense, whole foods, can also support healthy microbiota

These findings suggest that promoting healthy microbiota through physical activity and diet may provide an additional tool for optimizing athletic performance and overall health. Future research should continue to investigate the intricate relationship between microbiota, physical activity, and diet to understand further how to maximize the benefits of healthy microbiota for athletes and the general population.

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