Special Edition: Sports Nutrition

Immense potential: Can microbiome science and probiotic developments drive sports nutrition gains?

By Nathan Gray contact

- Last updated on GMT

Insights gained from developments in microbiome science could have huge potential to boost sports performance through nutrition — with recent findings showing the make-up of our gut bacteria can help shape elite athletic performance and sports recovery.

Sports nutrition has been one of the fastest growing categories in the nutrition market in recent years. However the growing interest in gut health, the power of probiotics and the importance of the microbiome, means that the nutrition world may be starting to look beyond 'protein and performance' for its innovation. 

But there is 'immense potential' for the two worlds to come together and create something very special, according to experts speaking at the recent IPA World Congress + Probiota in Barcelona - where a number of sessions explored the potential for using probiotics and the microbiome to aid sports performance and recovery.

"I think there is immense potential with probiotics in sports. Not only for elite athletes but for your average fitness individual,m and people interested in being fit,"​ explained Wiley Barton from the Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ireland.

Last year, Barton and his colleagues published work​ that shed new light on how physical fitness boosts our gut bacteria - and showed that that the microbiome of elite international rugby players is primed to aid tissue repair, to harness energy from diet, and aids the 'high cell-turnover' evident in elite sport.

"Intriguingly, it appears that there are difference in the microbiome of really rigorous people, who have been pushing the limits of physical fitness for decades, and your average, more tame, fitness individual,"​ Barton told us. 

"I think there are a lot of challenges in figuring out the beneficial microbiota, versus some that may that actually may not be contributing to health within these groups."

Adding to the debate, Dr Jonathan Scheiman of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard - and co-founder and CEO of Harvard spin-out company FitBiomics explained that his research group and company have been sequencing the microbiome of elite athletes "to identify and isolate novel probiotics."

Scheiman and his colleagues are looking to isolate and purify novel bacterial strains from elite athletes that will then be used as nutritional ingredients to help boost performance and recovery in both athletes and also the general population, he said.

"We're basically looking at the most fit and healthy people in the world, [asking] what are some of the bacteria that aids in endurance, strength, recovery and maybe mental toughness ... and then again, can we now provide those to the masses in the form of a probiotic,"​ said Scheiman - who notes that much of his day-to-day job now involves collecting and analysing stool samples from elite athletes.

"I think over the past five to ten years we have learned that basically our microbiome greatly influences every aspect of our lives, so I think it's natural that ​[there is a] progression from just looking at diseased physiology may be looking at really fit physiology and what we could learn from beneficial phenotypes,"​ he added.

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