Supplementing with Probiotics Reduces Risk of Sore Throats in Physically Active Adults


How often do we hear stories of people getting sore throats or ‘the cold’ leading into or following a major sporting goal or event. Research has shown that most adults get 2-3 of these a year and the older we get, the more of them we get. There is no doubt that the physical and emotional stress lowers the functioning of the immune system leading into the event. It also doesn’t help to be exposed to 100’s or 1000’s of people during and after racing – another time our immune system is compromised! Here is some new Aussie research suggesting that taking probiotics can help reduce upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) in physically active adults.

The Research

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines probiotics as live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. Probiotic foods include dairy foods including yoghurt, cheese, and acidophilus milk (eg Yakult) as well as non-dairy foods such as olives, gherkins, sauerkraut and probiotic drinks and supplements that are increasing in popularity. The researchers from a number of research institutions including Griffith University in Queensland and the Australian Institute of Sport conducted a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trial (this means well-controlled study!). 465 male and female adults aged between 18 and 60 years who exercise a minimum of three times a week for 30 minutes for 3 months took part. They were assigned to one of three groups:

  1. Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis group
  2. Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM and Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis group
  3. Placebo group

Patterns of illness were determined via a web-based questionnaire. Signs and symptoms of URTI included a scratchy or sore throat, sneezing, and a stuffy or runny nose. URTI was diagnosed when two or more of these symptoms were recorded for three or more consecutive days.  The researchers also monitored gut upsets such as diarrhoea, constipation, tummy rumbles, nausea and abdominal pain but did not get enough people experiencing these to do an analysis on gut upsets.

The Results

The risk of an URTI episode was significantly reduced by 27% in the Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis group. While it wasn’t statistically significant, the combined probiotic of Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM and Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis did reduce the risk of URTI too. Importantly in this study, those taking both probiotics also delayed getting URTIs compared to the placebo group by about 3 weeks.

The So What?

While I don’t advocate or push products through my website, I do like to ‘bridge the gap’ between science and masters sport. In Australia the two probiotics listed above are available as a product called Inner Health Plus. The study reported here showed that risk of an URTI episode was significantly reduced by about 25% by taking probiotics.  Interestingly, taking vitamin C, something most of us are aware of to fight colds, only reduces the risk of getting a common cold by about 3%. Those taking the probiotics in this study also delayed getting URTIs compared to the placebo group. Be aware that probiotics take about 10-14 days to colonise the gut so if you plan to use them leading into an event, travel, or the winter months, plan ahead. For plenty of great ideas on how to stay healthy and well as an athlete over 30 years of age, chapter 14 (Staying healthy and illness-free) of my book The Masters Athlete has heaps of great scientifically-proven tips to stay healthy while training hard and often.

Source: West, N. and others (2013) Probiotic supplementation for respiratory and gastrointestinal illness symptoms in healthy physically active individuals.  Clinical Nutrition (published ahead of print).