Can Probiotics Help Athletes?

Kerry Beeson BSc (Nut. Med.) Nutritional Therapist

This is a question retail staff are increasingly hearing, especially those that work in shops with a large focus on sports nutrition.

As all athletes already know, it’s vital that you take care of your body; if you are driving yourself to your physical and emotional limits on a regular basis, you need to ensure that your body can take the (literal and figurative) pressure. It is important to look at humans as the multi-faceted beings that they are, and to recognise that a number of different factors must be considered in order to achieve your ideal condition. We recommend a number of things to help you keep your mind and body in tip-top shape, so you can always give your best performance.

Probiotics for athletes

High quality probiotic strains from a reputable supplier are tested to reach the intestines and to enhance the immunity and healthy performance of the gut. Some research1 exists to suggest that probiotic supplements can be an effective way of enhancing the body's absorption of vitamins and nutrients into the bloodstream; this of course includes protein which is essential to build muscle. Furthermore, probiotics help the body to produce digestive enzymes that digest proteins which may otherwise be tough to break down and absorb. Athletes could gain more from protein powders, shakes and bars by improving the protein absorption, using probiotics.

Increasing evidence supports the idea that maintaining a healthy balance of beneficial microflora in the gut can support immunity,2,3 leading to fewer illnesses and keeping the body at its best. For this reason athletes often take probiotic supplements as well as staying fit and healthy.

What's more, many mainstream protein shakes and powders are known to cause symptoms of gastrointestinal discomfort such as gas, bloating and diarrhoea, often due to intolerances to ingredients, or the sudden increase of fibre levels. This may be partly why probiotics are increasingly being incorporated into the protein formulas, in order to support gut health. This is a good sign that people are becoming more aware of probiotics and their uses.

Finally, there is more research to support the idea that athletes are more susceptible to leaky gut. Health professionals can visit the Professionals site to read more about leaky gut. This may be due to the increased stress on the body4 and altered blood flow away from the gut towards working muscles. Probiotics can help here, as they have been shown to improve intestinal lining function in athletes.5 Furthermore, many athletes also experience IBS, again due to the fact that extreme exercise is considered to be a physical stressor, causing blood flow to be redirected and a decrease in digestive activity.6 The strain Saccharomyces boulardii has been shown to be helpful at improving diarrhoea-related symptoms.7 Healthcare practitioners can visit this strain's entry in the Probiotics Database for more information about related research using Saccharomyces boulardii. 

woman lifting barbell

Probiotics can be beneficial to athletes in a number of ways

Healthy mind, healthy body

The rise of sports psychology as a discipline is indicative of the integral role the mind plays in the health and success of athletes. Mental health disorders are prevalent amongst sportspeople, as demonstrated by an Australian study8, where almost 50% of athletes studied were experiencing at least one kind of mental disorder, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders. However, there is much stigma surrounding discussions about mental health amongst elite athletes, because sports, by its very nature, is so competitive, and there is a huge focus on maintaining ‘mental toughness’. Therefore, it can be viewed as a weakness to admit to having mental health problems. However, mental health often manifests itself in physical symptoms, such as lethargy, nausea/vomiting and even gastrointestinal dysfunction in the form of IBD9 (healthcare practitioners can see more information about IBD). Therefore, it is imperative that athletes look after their mental health as well as physical health, because the two are thought to be very closely linked. See more about the gut-brain axis.

Timing is key

There is lots of information available about what kinds of foods athletes need to eat, but actually the time and frequency at which you eat is also instrumental in an athlete’s health. When exercise is part of your regular routine, your body is primed for either fat gain or loss depending on the time of day. Therefore, if you don’t look into ‘nutrient timing’, then you might actually hinder your workout progress. For example, whilst carbohydrates are an important part of a sportsperson’s diet, it is advised that you eat them in the three-hour period following a session of exercise, as this is when they are best digested. Additionally, you might consider eating a small, slow-energy-release snack, such as trail mix, before long periods of exercise, as well as hydrating pre-, during, and post-workout.


  1. Sheridan, P. et al., (2014). ‘Can prebiotics and probiotics improve therapeutic outcomes for undernourished individuals?’; Gut Microbes, 5(1): 74-822.
  2. Markowiak, P. and Śliżewska, K., (2017). ‘Effects of Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics on Human Health’; Nutrients, 9(9): 10213.
  3. West, N. P. et al., (2009). ‘Probiotics, immunity and exercise: a review.’; Exerc Immunol Rev, 15:107-264.
  4. Lambert, G. P. (2009). ‘Stress-induced gastrointestinal barrier dysfunction and its inflammatory effects.’; J Anim Sci, 87(14): 101-85.
  5. Lamprecht, M. et al., (2012). ‘Probiotic supplementation affects markers of intestinal barrier, oxidation, and inflammation in trained men; a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.’; J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 9(1): 456.
  6. Costa, RJS. et al., (2017). ‘Systematic review: exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome-implications for health and intestinal disease.’; Ailment Pharmacol Ther, 46(3): 246-2657.
  7. McFarland, L. V., (2010). ‘Systematic review and meta-analysis of Saccharomyces boulardii in adult patients’; World J Gastroenterol, 16(18): 2202-22228.
  8. Gulliver, A. et al., (2015). ‘The mental health of Australian elite athletes’; J Sci Med Sport, 18(3): 255-2619.
  9. Bannaga, A. S., and Selinger, C. P., (2015). ‘Inflammatory bowel disease and anxiety: links, risks, and challenges faced’; Clin Exp Gastroenterol, 8: 111-117