Probiotics for sports nutrition in its ‘early days’ but only a matter of time, say ESSNA

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Probiotic use amongst athletes is not quite a 'must have' but a small and growing number are using them for immunity, digestion and their potential effects on health and body composition.

According to Mark Gilbert, vice-chair for European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), probiotic use in relation to enhancing sporting performance is in its 'early days,’ but growing interest, particularly in this sector means its adoption is just a matter of time.   

“Active people tend to have a greater interest in general wellbeing and use more supplements than the general public,”​ he said.

“Once the science starts to hit social media and if future results are positive, I would expect this to grow quickly.”

Mark Gilbert
Mark Gilbert vice-chair, European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA). ©MarkGilbert

Gilbert, who is due to speak at HiE in Frankfurt later this month, points to relatively few scientists studying probiotics as a sports nutrition-focused product.

However, his experiences seemed to indicate the opposite as he commented on its use as “popping up on more and more on colleague's radar,”​ adding that he fully expected this area of study to grow robustly.

Indeed, figures from the European Commission (EC) have shown the number of health-related microbiome projects almost doubling in the last three years, with EU funding almost twice that of non-health related gut research.

According to EC, 73 microbiome health projects received €167.2m in grants between 2014 and 2017 – up from the €153.4m given to 40 projects between 2007 and 2013.

“The huge hidden diversity of 100 trillion bacteria coupled with the isolated position of metagenomics are examples of developments driving this increase in funding,”​ ​said Dirk Hadrich, European Commission officer in the health directorate`s innovative and personalised medicine unit.

“Maturity of analytical technologies, expansion of metagenomics into other areas, hope on the potential of microbiome data and trends in big data sets are other observed trends in gut research.”​

Probiotics, health and sports performance

Gilbert’s presentation, entitled ‘Probiotics, health and sports performance​,​’ will discuss research that has demonstrated the possible effects bacteria has on exercise performance and recovery, in addition to digestion and absorption of nutrients.

While the scientific community acknowledges the real effects of pre and probiotics on the microbiome and subsequent benefits to health or wellbeing, Gilbert is still mindful of the challenges that lie ahead.

“The biggest hurdle to efficacious pre/probiotic formulation is that everyone's microbiome is different, with different amounts and ratios of bacteria, etc.”

“While science has demonstrated that some bacteria are broadly 'good' or 'bad' for some outcomes, science has only a small fraction of the evidence necessary to 'prescribe' the most beneficial type and amount of each pre/pro-biotic to a given patient,”​ he added.

“There are also issues with viability and delivery of the probiotic to the site of action intact and in adequate numbers with many products.”

These views are echoed by University College Cork’s professor of psychiatry Ted Dinan, who highlighted the development of a polybiotic, would be made more difficult by the uncertainty of strains’ specific roles.

“The challenge initially is to make sure that these strains are not antagonising each other,”​ he explained. “They need to be co-operative if possible but certainly that they can survive together.”​

“You don’t want to have a polybiotic with five strains of bacteria, of which three are knocking each other out. So by the time the polybiotic reaches the intestine there are only two strains left.”​

Professor Dinan, highlighted dose considerations that despite the breadth of microbiome studies remains a matter of debate.

“We don’t know what the appropriate dosage should be​,”​ he said. “We tend to use 108​​ - 109​ ​Colony Forming Units (CFU) but there aren’t any adequate dosing studies.”​

The gut and personalisation

While there are still issues to be ironed out, there is no doubting the potential of probiotics. While its possibilities have been applied to the gut health arena, Gilbert also discusses its application to another emerging sector that also has individualism at its heart.

“There are now companies measuring people's microbiome and recommending personalised prebiotics, probiotics and diets.

“Due to the fact that the microbiome can change substantially in a short time with alterations in nutrition, supplements, antibiotics, etc, many companies are doing ongoing, regular testing and altering recommended intakes based upon the changes.

“Of course, FMT (introducing another person's faeces into the bowel) is being used clinically for resistant bacterial infections and studies have shown positive results in some cases with IBD (Colitis, Crohn's, etc), so in these senses, it has been demonstrated that a significant impact can be achieved.”

In looking towards the future, Gilbert concludes with his thoughts on one other major hurdle that needs addressing in order to pave the way for the probiotics’ ‘enhancement’ of sporting performance.

“You can't use the word 'probiotics' in Europe...which is a bit frustrating and there are virtually no allowable claims and certainly not for sports performance,”​ he said.

“In the EU, you can't even make sensible and truthful claims, which characterise the 'potential' evidence-based benefits that 'might' be available to consumers.”

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