Bacteria related to athletic performance discovered
Thursday 24 August 2017

Scientists in the US have identified a particular type of bacteria that is linked to improved athletic performance and helps the body recover from hard exercise. It’s thought that probiotic supplements could be developed based on this finding. But what is the evidence around probiotics and health?  

Marathon runners

Researchers from Harvard Medical School have looked at the bacteria that is present in the highest performing athletes to try and find out what makes them different from others, and whether it is something in their biology that is making them so fit and able to excel in relation to athletic ability.

To investigate this, they collected faecal samples from 20 high-performing athletes who were training for the 2015 Boston Marathon. Samples were collected one week before the race and one week after. They then looked at the types of microbes that were present, and compared these before and after the race.

They found that there was an increase in certain types of bacteria after the athletes had run the marathon, especially when compared to the bacteria present in non-athletes.

Lactic acid

The microbe they found is one that breaks down lactic acid – the substance that is produced during physical activity and which causes fatigue and muscle soreness. The scientists believe that high levels of this particular bacteria mean that the marathon runners were able to push harder during the race – and so theorise that it is that bacteria which helps athletic performance and recovery.

The bacteria was then looked at in a lab; n a test tube, the bacteria also effectively broke down lactic acid. Further research is now being done on mice to look at how this bacteria affects lactic acid.

The same scientists also did experiments on different types of athletes to see whether there were any differences in the type of bacteria found in people who took part in different sports. They found that ultra-runners (who run races longer than a marathon) had an especially high concentration of a type of bacteria that can help break down carbohydrates and fibre. Interestingly, this type of bacteria wasn’t found in rowers.

Gut bacteria

The researchers, who presented their findings at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society, said: “The bugs in our gut affect our energy metabolism, making it easier to break down carbohydrates, protein and fibre.

“They are also involved in inflammation and neurological function. So perhaps the microbiome could be relevant for applications in endurance, recovery and maybe even mental toughness.”

The research has led to the idea that probiotic supplements could be developed that may help athletes recover from hard workouts or more efficiently convert nutrients to energy.

Probiotics

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are usually added to yoghurts or made into tablets. It is thought that they may help restore the natural balance of bacteria in the gut (the stomach and intestines).

Gut bacteria changes over time and so researchers have been looking into how the presence or absence of certain bacteria could be connected with conditions or traits such as obesity, anxiety or skin problems.

Mixed evidence

However, it is a contentious area as there isn’t much evidence to confirm whether probiotics do in fact treat the conditions the claim to or not. For example, there’s no evidence to suggest that probiotics can help treat eczema, although there is some evidence that they may help prevent a serious intestinal disease in premature babies and infectious diarrhoea.

Researchers have recently explored the possibility of using probiotics to reduce the risk of infection with the bacterium clostridium difficile.

It had been claimed that probiotic yoghurts can boost the immune system, but these claims can no longer be made, according to the European Food Safety Authority, as there is a lack of evidence. Research found that in healthy children, probiotics had no effect on antibody levels or the number of infections they got.

The research continues into the role of bacteria and probiotics in our health and wellbeing, and now also in our athletic performance and recovery.


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