As athletes, it can be easy to forget about (or be completely unaware of) our gut flora and the role it plays in our health. A healthy gut, it turns out, can have an impact on our athletic performance. Gut health influences not only our digestion, but also to our immunity, nutrition absorption and recovery.
The Role of the Gut
The stomach and intestines house millions of bacteria otherwise known as gut microbiota or gut flora. In fact, the gut flora outnumber our cells by 10:1, with an overall population comprised of hundreds of unique strains. To clarify, probiotics are specific type of gut flora. They’re part of the foundation for our gut health, and by extension, our overall health.
The job of our gut flora is to break food down, recognize pathogens, improve the health of our intestinal wall and enable new cell growth. A well run gut often goes unnoticed, but a faulty one is felt pretty quickly. Depending on how densely packed the gut flora are and how well they make ‘tight junctions’ can impact how well some things are kept out and how other things are better kept in.
Signs of a Sick Gut
An unhealthy or imbalanced gut microbiome is easily achieved and creates a ‘looser’ knit at the tight junctions. Common issues that can arise as a result are ‘leaky gut’ (intestinal permeability) and gastritis (stomach permeability). With both conditions toxins, foreign bodies, gluten and all of the things we avoid as health conscious individuals can pass through the intestinal wall and stomach. Symptoms can vary from mild discomfort (e.g. bloating or heartburn) to more extreme physical pain. Other effects include frequent and recurrent allergies, asthma, chronic skin conditions, IBS, colitis, certain autoimmune diseases, etc.
There are few ways in which we know we can harm gut flora. A round of antibiotics will often kill good bacteria along with the ‘bad’ bacteria. Pollution, GMO’s and chemicals in our environments are all absorbed by our bodies (to varying degrees). In addition, too much caffeine, alcohol, sugar and processed foods will also deplete a healthy gut. Interestingly enough, what we do physically has an effect on our gut health.
As athletes, we know what it’s like to push our bodies to the limit either in a race or in a tough workout. We have probably also experienced the slight cold, muscle aches or extreme exhaustion that often follow. In turns out that those effects may be a reflection of our overall gut health. When we exercise our bodies divert energy to the location of the stressor (e.g. muscle fibers). It turns out, what leads to PR’s and increased endurance has a knock on effect on our digestion if we have poor gut health.
A healthy gut has no problem diverting energy to an inflicted physical stressor. However, a sick gut has a much harder time.
Performance issues of poor gut health:
- The immune system is compromised from insufficient interferons (protein precursors that fight off pathogens). Interferons love probiotics and a healthy gut environment. There is a greater chance of us catching a cold with a sick gut because the interferons will not thrive without a healthy gut microbiome.
- When inflammation occurs in the body, a stressed immune system will struggle to strengthening the area. The chances for injury start to increase if we keep reusing the same muscles, but aren’t able to repair them at the same rate.
- Digestion is slowed, stopped or sped up, depending on our system. Blood flow and body heat are moved away from the digestive organs during training and won’t necessarily resume properly after training is finished if our gut health is less than ideal.
- If we have poor digestion, nutrients from food and supplements won’t be properly processed, used or stored.
- If this trend continues, missing the physical goals we set for ourselves can affect our confidence and overall mood.
Maintaining Gut Health
The good news is that maintaining gut health is a pretty simple and easily sustainable process. The right foods and supplements certainly help. Including a probiotic supplement daily is also a good way of maintaining a healthy gut. The probiotic should have at least 6 different strains and should have lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. Fermented foods, like kombucha and sauerkraut, are thought to contain even more strains of probiotics than supplements and are easy to incorporate into our diets.
To wrap up, slacking on gut health will directly influence performance in the long term. We athletes are always looking for ways in which we can improve performance. Bearing in mind that we push ourselves hard to hit our fitness goals, supplementing for a healthy gut is probably one of the easiest things we can do.