Whether you’re a runner, swimmer, CrossFitter, or snowboarder, chances are you love to be in the zone. Indeed, there’s nothing like that tunnel-vision phenomenon where time collapses, sound fades away, and you have the satisfaction of performing well and crushing your personal best.
But, there’s also nothing quite so frustrating as being relegated to the sidelines with upper respiratory issues when you’re at the peak of your game—it can be incredibly discouraging to have to take time off and lose the progress and momentum you’ve worked so hard to build up.
You see, despite being physically fit and healthy, athletes are actually more likely to experience upper respiratory challenges than non-athletes...and here’s why.1
Heavy Exercise Can Suppress the Immune System
While moderate exercise can enhance immune function, prolonged exercise and heavy training can temporarily suppress your immune system and make you especially prone to common upper respiratory issues.2 Endurance exercise in particular, like running a marathon, can suppress your immune response for anywhere from 2-72 hours after your workout! During this “open window” period, your body is more vulnerable to the harmful bugs that can settle in and make you feel under the weather, thwarting your carefully laid training plans.3
This means that elite and endurance athletes who must engage in intense workouts to meet their training and competing goals are often susceptible to contracting upper respiratory annoyances. So, what exactly happens during that open window time to change an athlete’s immune function from stellar to stifled?
At rest, an athlete’s immune system is very similar to a non-athlete’s, but following intensive exercise, the athlete experiences several physiological changes that negatively affect immunity, including decreased lymphocytes (like T-cells), elevated cortisol levels, increased pro-inflammatory cytokines, and reduced salivary antibodies (such as IgA).4,5 These all lead to dampened immune function, opening the door to inhospitable microbes that can do a number on your health...and your training.
Have Guts, Got Glory
You probably already know the vital role that your microbiome plays in your overall health, but did you know that the trillions of microbes that reside in your gut have a starring role in your immune function? It’s true—nearly 80% of your immune system is situated in your digestive tract, and your friendly flora that live there work very hard to keep you healthy. Not only do your probiotics help to reinforce and protect your gut barrier (and thus your bloodstream) against toxins and harmful microbes, but they also compete for space to crowd out the bad guys, increase antibody levels, produce antimicrobial molecules, lower pH levels, and regulate signaling pathways in immune and intestinal cells.6
In fact, there’s hardly a component of immune function that your beneficial bacteria aren’t involved in! This is all great news, because athletes are already one step ahead when it comes to microbial health—research has shown that athletes have a much higher diversity (a biomarker of good overall health) of gut microbiota than people with more sedentary lifestyles.7 Even better, the diverse microbiomes of athletes are often comprised of strains that actually enhance athletic performance by helping to regenerate cells, repair damaged tissue and muscle, and more efficiently convert food into energy.8
So, as an athlete, it’s a bit of a catch 22: you have a more diverse bacterial makeup than the average person, but you are also more prone to feeling under the weather following intense training due to the toll it takes on your system. The good news is that recent research is shedding light on a solution to this conundrum—athletes can further bolster their immune system with probiotic supplementation and be better positioned to leave upper respiratory issues in the dust.
How to Harness the Power of Probiotics
An ever-growing number of studies are showing that daily probiotic supplementation by high-intensity athletes can:
• Protect. In a study of professional rugby players, researchers found that regular probiotic supplementation reduced the incidence and duration of upper respiratory health issues.9 Indeed, rugby players given a daily probiotic supplement over a four-week period were more than twice as likely to stay well than the players given a placebo—and the probiotic-taking players who did encounter upper respiratory issues during that time got better an average of two days faster than those in the placebo group.
• Maintain. Scientists gave 33 highly trained athletes either a multi-strain probiotic or placebo for 12 weeks, and discovered that the athletes in the placebo group were more than two times as likely to experience upper respiratory tract issues than those taking the probiotic supplement. The study indicates that at least part of the benefit comes from the beneficial bacterial impact on tryptophan metabolism, which can suppress immune function in the absence of friendly flora.10
• Reduce. Eighty-four highly active individuals received probiotics or placebo during four months of winter training. Not only did the placebo group have a significantly higher number of upper respiratory tract annoyances, but the number of subjects who experienced a week or more of issues was 36% higher than in the probiotic group. And, the group taking probiotic supplements had higher levels of salivary IgA, an important antibody and one of the body’s first lines of immune defense.11
• Rebuild. In another research trial, scientists discovered that athletes who had “over-trained” and were demonstrating fatigue and impaired athletic performance showed evidence of T-cell damage. (T-cells are active participants in your body’s immune response.) After only one month of daily probiotic supplementation, subjects’ T-cell activity returned to levels found in healthy control athletes.5
Many probiotic strains are helpful in supporting the immune system, but one in particular—L. Plantarum 6595—has been shown to support immune defense in sensitive groups, such as the elderly and athletes. This means that you have more targeted bacteria in your corner during that “open window” period after intensive exercise when you need the most protection against upper respiratory issues.12
How to Make Your Offense Your Best Defense
As an athlete, you put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into getting stronger, faster, and better at what you love to do. The good news is that we now know that one of the most important (and effective) aspects of nutrition for athletes is building up a healthy microbiome that empowers you to achieve your fitness goals and perform at your best, while helping you avoid that frustrating downtime that can derail your progress.
Being proactive about your microbial health can truly be your best defense when it comes to nasty upper respiratory tract issues. Follow these six simple steps to give your gut the support it needs to help you cross the finish line!
1. Win with probiotics. A high-quality probiotic supplement should be at the top of your list when it comes to optimal immune health. For the best chance at staying well through all the competition seasons, athletes need a formula that’s designed specifically for their unique training needs, like PRO-Compete. Formulated with six targeted strains (including L. plantarum 6595!) that support optimal stamina, energy levels, and endurance, PRO-Compete also promotes immune and upper respiratory health to keep you at the top of your game.
2. Team up with prebiotics. Taking care of your gut doesn’t end with finding the perfect probiotic formula for athletes—you also need to make sure you’re feeding your beneficial bacteria their favorite source of fuel so they can proliferate and keep you going strong. Your friendly flora’s preferred source of energy is prebiotic fiber, but it can be difficult to get enough of it in your regular diet to keep the good guys winning. Fortunately, just one scoop a day of our organic, food-based Prebiotic Powder (try it in a energy-boosting smoothie!) can give your gut bugs just what they need for peak performance.
3. Toe the line with your oral microbiome. Immune health begins with oral health in your upper respiratory tract and, with all the microbes you ingest and inhale on a daily basis, it makes sense that maintaining upper respiratory health starts with the beneficial bacteria that reside in your mouth, ears, nose, and throat. So, in addition to populating your gut with probiotics, make sure your upper respiratory tract is teeming with armies of the good guys by incorporating PRO-Dental, a chewable, oral probiotic with strains that activate your immune system from head to toe.
4. Disqualify unnecessary medications. If you do face a temporary health setback and dreaded down days, look for natural options for getting well and try to steer clear of unnecessary medications that can destroy your microbiome, like NSAIDs, hormone replacers, or antibiotics—which are often overprescribed, and can further wipe out your colonies of good bacteria that work so hard to keep you feeling well.
5. Go for it with an au naturale diet. Many athletes rely on energy gels, drinks, and bars that are packed with sugar and artificial ingredients that can deplete immune-regulating beneficial bacteria. (Even artificial sweeteners can negatively impact your microbiome!) Instead of reaching for these gut-busting quick fixes, rely on a natural energy-enhancing diet of whole foods rich in plant-based fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds.
6. Embrace the dirt. Our national fear of germs has caused us to go over the top with disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and harsh chemical cleaners that, like antibiotics, kill both bad and good bacteria. Consider gentler, more natural alternatives that keep your mighty microbiome intact. Even better, whenever possible, take your training to the beautiful outdoors! Being outside won’t only invigorate your routine, it’ll expose you to countless microbes that can help to boost your immune system.
When you love what you do and how your body performs, even your hardest training days can feel like a glorious reward—which is why it’s so important to keep upper respiratory issues from taking you out of the game. Making your microbial health a key component of your daily fitness regimen will both give you a competitive advantage and enable you to discover how gut health really can power your best, most active life.
1. Nieman, D. (2007). Incidence, Etiology, and Symptomatology of Upper Respiratory Illness in Elite Athletes. Yearbook of Sports Medicine,2007, 133-134. doi:10.1016/s0162-0908(08)70118-1
2. Gleeson, M. (2015). Immunological aspects of sport nutrition. Immunology and Cell Biology,94(2), 117-123. doi:10.1038/icb.2015.109
3. Kakanis, M., Peake, J., Hooper, S., Gray, B., & Marshall-Gradisnik, S. (2010). The open window of susceptibility to infection after acute exercise in healthy young male elite athletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport,13. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2010.10.642
4. Nieman, D. C. (2000). Exercise effects on systemic immunity. Immunology and Cell Biology,78(5), 496-501. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1711.2000.t01-5-.x
5. Shephard, R. (2007). Reversal in fatigued athletes of a defect in interferon γ secretion after administration of Lactobacillus acidophilus. Yearbook of Sports Medicine, 2007, 136-138. doi:10.1016/s0162-0908(08)70120-x
6. 1. Lievin, V. (2000). Bifidobacterium strains from resident infant human gastrointestinal microflora exert antimicrobial activity. Gut, 47(5), 646-652.
7. Clarke, S. F., Murphy, E. F., Osullivan, O., Lucey, A. J., Humphreys, M., Hogan, A., . . . Cotter, P. D. (2014). Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity. Gut,63(12), 1913-1920. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2013-306541
8. Barton, W., Penney, N. C., Cronin, O., Garcia-Perez, I., Molloy, M. G., Holmes, E., . . . Osullivan, O. (2017). The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level. Gut. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2016-313627
9. Haywood, B. A., Black, K. E., Baker, D., Mcgarvey, J., Healey, P., & Brown, R. C. (2014). Probiotic supplementation reduces the duration and incidence of infections but not severity in elite rugby union players. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport,17(4), 356-360. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2013.08.004
10. Strasser, B., Geiger, D., Schauer, M., Gostner, J., Gatterer, H., Burtscher, M., & Fuchs, D. (2016). Probiotic Supplements Beneficially Affect Tryptophan–Kynurenine Metabolism and Reduce the Incidence of Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Trained Athletes: A Randomized, Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Nutrients,8(12), 752. doi:10.3390/nu8110752
11. Gleeson, M., Bishop, N. C., Oliveira, M., & Tauler, P. (2011). Daily Probiotic’s (Lactobacillus caseiShirota) Reduction of Infection Incidence in Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism,21(1), 55-64. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.21.1.55
12. Klarin, B., Molin, G., Jeppsson, B., & Larsson, A. (2008). Use of the probiotic Lactobacillus plantarum 299 to reduce pathogenic bacteria in the oropharynx of intubated patients: a randomised controlled open pilot study. Critical Care,12(6). doi:10.1186/cc7109
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.
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