Data presented at the International Probiotic Association’s World Congress held in California last year supports the use of probiotics for sports nutrition and their possible ability to enhance athletic performance in both elite athletes and weekend warriors.
The presentation noted that while it is commonly known that exercise can suppress the body’s immune response and ingesting large quantities of protein can cause gastrointestinal distress, many experts agree that both problems can often be improved by taking a probiotic supplement. Add increased endurance and faster recovery to this list and athletes of all levels may have found that a probiotic supplement is the perfect workout partner.
Two studies done on the Japanese supplement, Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics, discovered that both elite athletes and those with moderate exercise routines might benefit from this probiotic formula. When study participants took a daily dose of three capsules on an empty stomach for three weeks, the athletes experienced significant support for the two main measures of athletic performance: VO2 max and anaerobic threshold.1,2
In the U.S., doctors are speculating about why such athletic performance benefits could be conveyed by beneficial bacteria. The most obvious answer is that probiotics, long known for their role in healthy digestion, are simply helping the athletes absorb key nutrients more effectively on a daily basis.
Today’s diets tend to be less than friendly to probiotic health, explained Ronald Hoffman, MD, founder and Medical Director at the Hoffman Center in New York City and an accomplished athlete himself who has completed the New York Marathon and dozens of triathlons.
“Combine that with the specific demands and dietary limitations that athletes put on their systems, and you can understand why they can run into challenges with getting fuel to their muscles during activity or deal with compromised muscle contraction and fatigue,” said Hoffman. “Probiotics can help with the basic goal of enhancing nutrient uptake. Better nutrient absorption equals more overall energy.”
The probiotic formula used in these studies is a Japanese natural vegetable blend, fermented by 12 probiotic strains. The end result is a substance that contains probiotic support along with a lot of the natural byproducts of fermentation. That includes vitamins, 20 amino acids and minerals such as iron, phosphorus, potassium and sodium.
Those are components all produced by beneficial bacteria—not only do those byproducts help the probiotics take root, the human body also benefits from the concentrated nutrients. According to Dr. Natalie Engelbart, founder and clinical director of Alternative Health Solutions in Texas, this may be key to the connection with athletic endurance.
“These components are especially important in producing red blood cells,” Engelbart explained. “And red blood cells are the oxygen carriers. That explains the effects on VO2 max when taking the supplement. The study subjects experienced an 8.4 percent increase in hemoglobin levels and saw VO2 increases of 30 percent.”1,2 That effect on blood production might also explain why the study found some support for efficient removal of lactic acid out of the blood stream.
Engelbart described how the mineral ratio in the fermented product was also ideal for supporting the synthesis of ATP—the body’s cellular energy. That could result in overall enhanced aerobic performance.
These were small studies (under 50 participants), but the results were significant enough that the topic definitely warrants further research.
1 PS Wood, R Grant, J Clark. “Efficacy of OHHIRA Mountain Extract (OM-X) on Physical Performance and Selected Markers of Health Status in Males.” Research conducted at the University of Pretoria, Institute for Sports Research, Pretoria, South Africa. (2009).
2 M Kawasaki, I Ohhira, N Araki, OK Inokihara, T Matsubara, H Iwasaki. “The Influences on the V02 Max of Athletes Taking (Ohhira) Lactic Acid Bacteria.” Research conducted at Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts, Kurashiki, Japan; Research Institution of Okayama Life Science, Okayama, Japan; and Sanyo Gakuen University, Okayama, Japan. (1997).