Why Athletes Should Eat Nutritional Yeast

Why Athletes Should Eat More Nutritional Yeast

Does powering up at the gym also power up our immune system? Research has shown that moderate exercise improves immunity and decreases illness rates. According to an article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, “the most important finding that has emerged from exercise immunology studies during the past two decades is that positive changes in our immune system take place during each bout of moderate physical activity. Over time, this translates to fewer days of sickness from, for example, the common cold and other upper respiratory infections.” The best available evidence suggests a 25% to 50% reduction in sick days. Name one drug or supplement that can do that!

And it doesn’t take much. Let kids run around for just six minutes and we can boost the number of immune cells circulating in their blood stream by more than a third.

At the other end of the life cycle, exercise may help prevent age-related immune decline. Sedentary women in their 70s may have a 50% chance of getting an upper respiratory illness during the fall season every year. But with just a half-hour walk each day, their risk is down to 20%. The runners in the group got it under 10%–five times better!

While regular physical activity improves immune function and lowers upper respiratory infection risk, sustained and intense exertion may have the opposite effect, forming a so-called J-shaped curve relationship (you can see this curve diagram in my video, Preserving Immune Function in Athletes With Nutritional Yeast). As we go from inactive to active, our infection risk declines. But if we overtrain, as hardcore athletes do, we may actually put excessive stress on our body and increase our risk of infection. Then we could lose training days, and our performance could suffer.

So how can we fight off sickness while continuing to train? Traditional sports medicine doesn’t appear to offer much help, advising athletes to basically not pick their nose, avoid sick people, and get a flu shot.

But there may be a natural solution. A new study found that we can better maintain our level of circulating white blood cells after exhaustive exercise by consuming a special type of fiber found in baker’s, brewer’s, and nutritional yeast. (Brewer’s yeast is bitter, but nutritional yeast has a nice cheesy flavor. I use it mostly to sprinkle on popcorn). Normally, two hours after hardcore cycling, there can be a dip in circulating white blood cells, one of our first lines of defense. However, after strenuous exercise, those who ate the equivalent of less than three quarters of a teaspoon a day of nutritional yeast ended up even better than when they started. But does this increase in immune cells translate into fewer illnesses? Researchers studied competitors in the Carlsbad Marathon to find out.

In the weeks following the race, a significant number of runners began experiencing upper respiratory tract infection symptoms while taking a placebo. Those runners who were taking the equivalent of a daily spoonful of nutritional yeast cut their rates of infection in half. And they felt better, too. They were asked how they felt on a scale of one to ten. People taking the sugar pills were okay, down around four or five, but those taking identical looking capsules of the fiber found in nutritional yeast were up at six or seven. Elite athletes tend to normally experience deterioration in mood state during intense training periods, and before and after a marathon race. Sprinkle on a little spoonful of nutritional yeast, though, and you may feel less tense, less fatigued, less confused, even less angry (and my personal favorite, they had significantly “increased vigor”).

Don’t have time to exercise? Yes you do! See Standing Up for Your Health.

Find more on the benefits of exercise in:

What else can we do to preserve our immune function? See:

Nutritional yeast that’s fortified can also be a convenient source of vitamin B12 (Safest Source of B12).

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Jeff Gunn / Flickr

  • Leslie

    Is there a whole food substance, as in a fruit or vegetable or nut or seed, bean or grain, that we can take instead of the the nutritional yeast in order to achieve this same benefit? I’d rather not have to take some over-the-counter processed and packaged product such as nutritional and brewer’s yeast. Surely nature has provided us an alternative to nutritional yeast (other than meat, fish, dairy, egg, etc.) I hope?

    • John S

      Yeast is a food. It’s a type of fungi. Remember to “eat outside your kingdom”. Would you consider mushrooms to be a whole food or an over the counter processed and packaged product? I get kalm yeast (a probiotic) in my sauerkraut, just by making it. It’s not a processed and packaged product. If you consume bread, beer, or wine, you are also consuming yeast. Yeast is natural. People have been accidentally or intentionally consuming it for millions of years.
      John S
      PDX OR

      • Leslie

        The yeast you buy at a health food store (from the biggest, most reputable health food stores, to the smallest mom-and-pop organics) is grown with synthetic vitamins. Not all brands “fortify” there nutritional yeast, but all brands that I am aware of (and I have contacted the biggest, most known companies) have all admitted that they “grow” the yeast with synthetic vitamins. I hope this makes sense. And I do not consider some of these synthetic vitamins to be “food”. The yeast on mushrooms….different story, no synthetic vitamins used to increase the “naturally occurring vitamins.”

        • Alex

          No sense being strictly puritanical about these things. Nature doesn’t intentionally provide us with anything, because it isn’t a conscious, benevolent being. And synthetic does not equal bad. Not at all.

          • Leslie

            Actually, synthetic folate (folic acid) has a real bad track record – Dr. G here seems to agree, as well as the other major vegan doctors in the press. Eating products that were grown with synthetic folate (folic acid) just doesn’t seem prudent. Very few vegans and others are even aware that the un-fortiifed versions are still grown using synthetic vitamins.

          • Ben

            But Dr. Gregor consumes nutritional yeast (on his popcorn), so he doesn’t seem to concerned about the synthetic vitamin issue. Here is a reputable source on the folic acid issue: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/the-ups-and-downs-of-folic-acid-fortification.htm

            In the context of a healthy plant based diet, synthetic vitamins from nutritional yeast should not be a concern,in my opinion.

          • Leslie

            I doubt Dr. Greger was/is even aware that the non-fortified nutritional yeasts are grown with synthetic vitamins (the fortified versions are both grown with the vitamins as well as added in – -AKA fortified – after the growth of the yeast). Not one single person who consumes nutritional yeast, from the ones I have spoken with, has been aware of this. I never was aware until I asked the companies directly, and I had to have them put it in writing since I feed this to someone who can not have folic acid in any form or amount (folate from food is fine). Even the most knowledgable vegans I know had no idea that this was the case. I just think it is a case that no one ever questioned this issue, because the products said “un-fortified”, but my intuition said that some of the B vitamins were sky high either way in the non-fortified versions, and I highly doubted nature produced all of these vitamins solely.

          • Larry

            Which companies did you contact? Did you contact Patricia Bragg? Some B vitamins could be sky high if the yeast were grown on a different medium.

        • Kim

          Would be interested in hearing Dr. Greger and others weigh in on this, too. While I love nutritional yeast and doubt I’d be booting it out of my life entirely, if it does contain synthetic vitamins I’d prefer to limit it. It sounds like the amounts that might bring benefits are small, anyway. I can easily eat a cup of the stuff a day (mixed into creamy, vegan, cheesy sauces, etc.), but if it contains synthetic vitamins (folic acid as opposed to folate, etc.) maybe this isn’t best.

  • Liarsnnotallowed

    Strange: My grandmother never exercised except for back bends, and lived to be 96. My father was a couch potato and lived to be 87; my mother never exercised and lived to be 92. Exercise is not the panacea for long life.

    • marysaunders

      Had your mother exercised, she might have lived to 104, as my greatgrandmother who lived in a walk-up in Newark, NJ, did. We can test this on our particular bodies, and log differences. Experience may vary depending on baselines. If I couch-sat, I would turn into a rock.

    • John S

      Some people are genetically blessed. You appear to be one of those people. The question is not “Who gets to live a long life?”, but how can someone live a longer life?” In science, we have to be careful about exactly what questions we are asking. Exercise can increase the length of life compared to one’s normal life span, which differs in each individual.
      John S
      PDX OR

      • Matt

        What’s more important then how long someone lived is how long someone lived well. Our society (pharmaceutical companies, etc.) today is keeping people alive longer living miserable lives. My four grandparents lived into their 90s but suffered for many years ( a decade if not longer); in and out of the hospital, in wheelchairs, limited mobility, brain fog, etc. It’s been proven time and time again moderate exercise as simple as yoga, Tai Chi, gardening, walking, swimming that can be done in old age or throughout life can certainly assist in warding off some of these issues.

    • Rosemary Guy

      I teach tai chi for strength, posture and balance……basically to stop older people from falling over. For most people it improves their independence and ability to live a full life. However this is not running or aerobic exercise and my impression is that all exercise is good and doing what you enjoy is good. We also live a more sedentary life and this is associated with a range of dis-ease. Is our body here to just carry our brain around? Personally I was happy when my mother took up tai chi because it improved her health and she walked till the day she died, Sometimes I’ve taught people who smoke and they are oldish but I wouldn’t then suggest that this is the way to live

    • WM

      Your grandparents led more active lifestyles and ate healthier growing up. Nothing is a panacea for health. It takes a combination of healthy eating, rest, and an adequate level of physical activity. What’s strange is how people who don’t exercise find excuses to attack it. Lazy sh!ts will be lazy sh!ts.

    • Mary-Ellen Landry

      No but it sure does help with the quality of one’s life. Better sleep, sex, confidence, body image, skin, circulation, BP, vitality, anxiety, stress, depression, and the list goes on. A long life does not mean a good quality and happy life. My grandfather lived to 94 and my grandmother to 89- can’t say they had good quality at the end of it all. Something to consider and if moderate exercise is good for us- then yay! No need to feel we need to kill ourselves to have a benefit.

      • Liarsnnotallowed

        They had very good quality of life w/o exercise. As did my father and mother who lived into lower 90s and up 80s. Never ever did any exercise and they were never sick.

        • Ben

          Not good enough for me. I would rather have a great quality of life and that requires exercise. No matter how great your parents quality of life, it could have been even better with exercise.

    • Mary-Ellen Landry

      I think that is great but the benefits should not be discounted for others. Namaste.

  • Ann

    Great article as usual. I hit the “like” button for FB and I don’t think anything happened.

  • Liz

    Does any of the listed yeast increase “negative” yeast such as Candia?

  • Anthony York

    Maybe give nutritional yeast the yellow light?

    What about the excitotoxin problem of free glutamate or MSG in nutritional yeast.

    • Guest

      Another option to crank up these white blood cells other than nutritional yeast?
      Something raw or natural?

  • Martin Miller Poynter

    I normally eat my nutritional yeast with breakfast, before I strenuously train. I wonder when the participants in the study consume the nutritional yeast tablets, was it during the period after the race on a daily basis? Was it two hours after the strenuous exercise? The article refers to a dip in white blood cells 2 hours after strenuous exercise, but does not mention when the nutritional yeast was consumed by the athletes.

  • Kathy

    What about the folic acid added to nutritional yeast?

  • Kim Glasson

    I am confused. Please help me get this right. I thought that multivitamins were a bad idea. The fortified nutritional yeast that I have (I bought it before I read the ingredients) has Niacin and Folic Acid added to it (among others). Aren’t those to be avoided in supplement form? I was actually planning to purchase non-fortified nutritional yeast next time. Does the non-fortified nutritional yeast work the same as the fortified? Or does the fortified yeast help the immune system work because of the added vitamins?

    • Leslie

      Even non-fortified nutritional yeasts are grown using synthetic vitamins. The nutritional yeasts that are fortified have the vitamins added in afterwards. Either way, seems like you are getting synthetics if you eat these products.

  • Todd

    You didn’t mention what kind of fiber it is! Do you have any information on the specifics?

  • Micia

    Can individuals that suffer with chronic migraine ingest nutritional yeast?

    • Jean

      I have chronic migraines and use nutritional yeast daily and cocoa powder. Just because some people can’t tolerate these things doesn’t mean that everyone with migraine can’t. I haven’t found any whole foods plant based non-processed foods that I can’t tolerate.

    • Kim

      It really depends on what’s causing your migraines. I’ve never heard of people having issues from nutritional yeast. My own migraines were triggered by dairy consumption; I’ve not had a full-blown one since going vegan 4 and a half years ago, and rarely get headaches of any kind now.

  • Tiago Cartageno

    Does this also apply to Brewers yeast or only Nutritional yeast? Thanks for your time.

  • Sarah Rishel

    are “sugar pills” really sugar? because I don’t think athletes eat much sugar, and adding sugar every day would probably increase your chances of getting sick, don’t you think? I mean, I feel better when idont eat sugar.

  • kb

    How do people get the nutritional yeast to stick to their popcorn? It all falls to the bottom of the bowl. What am I missing here?

  • Kim

    I’m trying to reconcile the advice given here with the content of this video Dr. Greger made.


    It seems that it is possible to get unfortified nutritional yeast, but that most aren’t. Unfortunately the one I use, Bob’s Red Mill, contains added folic acid. According to Toxins (see comments on above video), folic acid consumption was shown to be problematic if exceeding 0.4 mg. This is roughly the amount contained in 1/4 cup of Bob’s Red Mill nutritional yeast, according to their website (see link below). Like many other nooch-lovers out there, I regularly exceed that amount, but now I’m really rethinking my consumption of this stuff.


    Can you weigh in on this, Dr. Greger? Thanks!

  • Janis Petke

    Vote for Yeast here: http://examine.com/faq/potential/

  • CristianAndres

    Hi Dr. Greger,

    I have read regarding the storage of VitamineB12 injections should be
    kept at a certain range of temperature and away from sunlight. I was
    wondering if this applies to supplements and/or fortified nutritional

    On the study that you showcased on athletes vs. nutritional
    yeast; your article stated that it is due to a specific fiber that
    helps our immune system. On this study was the nutritional yeast
    fortified or non-fortified? If so would the vitamin B12 play a role in
    the results? If so Couldn’t we just take a certain dose of vitamin b12
    after excessive exercise and see the same results or equivalent?

    On a side note, I understand very well that the supplement business is no
    way regulated and it ends up being on trust without much evidence that
    the numbers/label are truly what is in the bottle. As in the case of
    your latest update regarding Red Star product; are there any brands or
    resources that you would recommend in this ocean filled of
    brands/manufactures of Fortified Nutritional yeast, B12 supplements and
    Vitamin D2.

  • For other nutritional yeast fanatics out there here are my top 15 favorite uses for it. Thought I would share :)

    1. Popcorn. Probably my favorite usage of nutritional yeast. Sprinkle nutritional yeast on top of popcorn and I guarantee by the end of the bowl you will be licking it off your fingers :)

    2. Potatoes. Add nutritional yeast to your mashed potatoes for added cheesy flavor. Sometime I also sprinkle it on baked potatoes and sweet potatoes (this is a great substitution for butter or sour cream).

    3. Soups/stews. Stir in some nutritional yeast as a savory flavor adder.

    4. Kale chips. Lightly mist raw kale with oil. Sprinkle with Mrs. Dash & nutritional yeast & bake until crispy. Yum!

    5. Pizza. Sprinkle nutritional yeast on top of cheese-less pizza.

    6. Spaghetti. Ditch the green can of processed Parmesan cheese. Instead use a few sprinkles of nutritional yeast.

    7. Vegan pesto. Substitute nutritional yeast for Parmesan cheese in pesto recipes – it’s even better than the original cheese-filled version!

    8. Vegan mac & cheese. Nutritional yeast can be made into a cheese-less sauce, perfect for vegan version of kid’s favorite meal! There are tons of recipes floating around online.

    9. Vegan nacho cheese dip. Sounds weird, but tastes amazing. I have adapted my personal recipe from one that I originally found in “The Everything Vegan Cookbook” by Jolinda Hackett. It combines nutritional yeast, flour, peanut butter, salsa & a few other ingredients and I swear omnivores can’t even tell the difference!

    10. Grits. Craving good old fashioned sausage & grits? Simply cook some grits, add some Gimme Lean veggie sausage, a little unsweetened soy milk & vegan butter, + nutritional yeast and you will think you are eating the real thing!

    11. Roasted veggies. Sprinkle on top of roasted veggies to add cheesiness.

    12. Bread crumbs. Use nutritional yeast in place of bread crumbs!

    13. Salad topper. Sprinkle on top of salads to add flavor without all the added fat calories in typical salad dressings.

    14. Vegan gravy. Nutritional yeast provides a flavor boost to vegan gravies.

    15. Dog food. Yes, dog food. One client told me that her dog would never eat it’s food until she started adding nutritional yeast to it and now her dog can’t get enough of the stuff!

    • Thea

      Tara: Nice list! Thanks for sharing!! I use a lot of the stuff myself. I particularly like it in sauces.

  • C B

    How much nutritional yeast is too much?? If one consumes more than the recommended dose daily, are there negative effects as a consequence? Me and my friends tend to eat way more of it than the recommended 2 tbsps daily (we sprinkle it on basically everything), and we’re concerned that this might be bad for health, but still have not found an evidence online, nor has anyone said how much of it is the limit for good health! Could you please enlighten us?

  • 88keyman

    I don’t know what “sprinkle on a little spoonful” means. What’s a “little spoonful”? A teaspoon? As opposed to a “big spoonful,” aka a tablespoon? You did mention 3/4 teaspoon in one study, but I notice that various brands of nutritional yeast have different serving size suggestions — some as much as a couple of tablespoons. So how much, exactly, should I put in my morning smoothy to keep my immune system revving?

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      To me that means about 1 teaspoon. A spoonful usually means 1 tablespoon. So I think anywhere from 1tsp – 1 TBSP is fine.

  • Leonid Kalichkin

    There are some facts:

    1. Most nutritional yeasts are fortified with additional B vitamins, even when they are labeled as unfortified.

    2. Nutritional yeasts don’t contain significant amounts of chromium which is associated with possible benefits of brewer’s yeasts on glucose and lipid metabolism.

    3. Most brewer’s yeasts are debittered. This process significantly reduces chromium content.

    I tried to find chromium-rich brewer’s yeast. Most brands don’t mention chromium content on their nutrition facts labels. The highest amount I found was 60mcg per serving (tablespoon, 16g). I contacted Solgar and they answered that their Brewer’s Yeast Powder contains approximately 1.13mg (1130mcg!) of chromium per serving (2 tablespoons, 30g): http://i.imgur.com/crDzAbs.png

    That’s a lot! I hope they aren’t mistaken. If this is true, then even less than 3mg of their Brewer’s Yeast Powder contain significant amounts of chromium.