Last September, the big news in the wonderful world of the biome was that Harvard was taking on designing probiotics to improve athletic performance: “The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has announced that its athlete microbiome-based technology will be commercialized by Fitbiomics Inc., a recently formed startup company, to develop highly validated probiotics based on elite athletes’ microbiomes, which could improve athletic performance and, conceivably, even overall health.”[i] (For all you major stud muffins out there, you can actually sign up now to beta test their product.) I am really intrigued by this whole field of research. After all, we have known for several years that elite athletes have biomes different from the rest of us mere mortals…and that exercise improves the quality of the bacterial microbiome. You don’t have to be going to the next Olympics to reap the benefits of regular exercise.
I found some new research today that takes this all a step further.[ii] Scientists in Ireland took a look at how different kinds of exercise impact the microbiome. They sampled feces and urine from 37 elite Irish athletes who competed in 16 different sports. The sports were grouped by high muscle contraction/high oxygen consumption (i.e. cycling type exercise); high muscle contraction/low oxygen consumption (i.e. judo); low muscle contraction/high oxygen consumption (i.e. field hockey).[iii]
It turns out that highly dynamic (moving) forms of exercise, like field hockey, versus moderately dynamic (like fencing), versus mixed dynamic/static sports, like rowing, all lead to different microbiome profiles. For example, high dynamic sports led to higher levels of Bifidobacterium animalis, Lactobacilllus acidophilus (25x greater than in the other groups of athletes), Prevotella intermedia, etc. On the other hand, athletes involved in moderate dynamic sports had greater levels of Streptococcus suis and Clostridum bolteae, among others.
They also found significant differences in how the biome functions. Middle distance running and swimming were found to have the biggest differences here. As one example: in the mixed high dynamic and static group (i.e. rowers), “…pathways involved with folate and amino acid biosynthesis…were found to be 1.5 times greater…” when compared to other groups.
What I found particularly interesting was that this effect was determined to be independent of foods eaten: “The difference in microbiomes and metabolome across groupings, in the absence of significant dietary differences, suggest a role for exercise type as a contributing factor.”
This study did not look at the reason for these differences but I will keep an eye out for future work in this field. After all, there may very soon come a day when you can choose the probiotic that is exactly right for your sport of choice. (2024 USA Olympic swim team, here I come!)
[ii] O’Donovan CM, Madigan SM, Garcia-Perez I, et al. Distinct microbiome composition and metabolome exists across subgroups of elite Irish athletes. J Sci Med Sport. 2020; 23(1):63-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2019.08.290.