If you’re like most athletes, you rarely think about your gut health. You put all your energy into your training and nutrition and assume your gut will take care of itself.
In fact, your gut health has a huge impact on your ability to perform as an athlete. The gut plays a primary role in your ability to handle stress, recover from workouts, and perform at your best. It affects mood, energy levels, metabolic function, and how you feel on a day-to-day basis.
Why Is A Healthy Gut Important For Athletes?
It’s helpful to understand how the gut works. There is just a single layer of cells protecting your body from everything that passes through your gut. Working properly, this cell layer allows all of the nutrients, amino acids, and healthy compounds from food to be absorbed into your body.
Other compounds, such as waste products or toxins, are kept out and eliminated. A healthy gut does a good job of eliminating all the junk that is harmful to your body.
All kinds of things including antibiotics, drug therapies, hormones like cortisol, and immune factors can break down the gut lining, increasing permeability.
A classic example is with ibuprofen. Combining ibuprofen and exercise is a bad idea because during exercise, the body reroutes blood away from the GI tract to the skin, muscles, heart, and lungs. For some reason, the combination of reduced blood flow and ibuprofen harms the cells in the intestines, damaging the integrity of the gut.
When this happens, the gut lining is more permeable and not as protective, making it more likely that toxins will escape and enter the bloodstream. At the same time, absorption of nutrients is compromised and chronic inflammation may develop.
A Healthy Gut = A Healthy Brain
Emerging research is highlighting how what’s going on in your gut impacts your brain. Your gut produces a number of powerful neurotransmitters that regulate mood, appetite, and energy levels. For example, serotonin, a critical transmitter that boosts mood and conveys feelings of satisfaction and calm is produced in the gut.
GABA (regulates blood pressure and heart rate), dopamine (impacts energy and motivation), and neuropeptide Y (affects food intake and resilience to stress) are other transmitters released from the gut. When gut health is compromised, production of these transmitters get out of balance, triggering depression, mental health disorders, and poor cognition.
How To Know If Your Gut Is Healthy?
Do you suffer problems with gastrointestinal function such as constipation, bloating, discomfort during training, flatulence, or diarrhea? Do you have a chronic cold or low energy despite what should be adequate recovery?
If you can answer yes to any of those symptoms, you can bet you aren’t getting everything possible out of your nutrition. All of these symptoms are common in both athletes and the general population and they are indicators that gut health is not optimal!
The first step to fixing your gut is to start with what you’re nutrition:
Eliminate alcohol, unnecessary medications (including over the counter drugs like ibuprofen), caffeine, added sugar, and processed food, especially if it contains artificial additives.
Favor whole foods over supplements and processed foods. Although there is a time and place for sports nutrition, these products are associated with GI problems and don’t provide the high-quality nutrition available from a whole food diet designed around real foods.
Swap refined carbs for whole carbs. Athletes often eat refined carbs to abandon, but this is not the best approach for gut health. Complex, fiber-rich carbs are necessary because they provide phytonutrients that counter inflammation.
Another reason whole, high-fiber carbs are necessary is that they allow for the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA) from gut bacteria that have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. SCFAs directly affect gut function by improving the pH of the colon, increasing intestinal motility, and optimizing gut permeability. SCFA may also be protective against the high levels of training stress experienced by many athletes, improving function of the hypothalamic pituitary axis that regulates hormone release.
The standard recommendation is to avoid fat when struggling with GI distress. However, a range of healthy fats are necessary to offset intestinal inflammation: Nuts, avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, butter, dairy, fats from animal protein, and eggs can all have beneficial effects on the gut assuming you’re not intolerant to these foods. The exact composition of fat in the diet will be individual, but there is evidence that the gut can adapt to a higher fat, lower carb diet over time and GI problems can be avoided.
Zero in on foods that are harmful to your unique gut. Every person’s gut is different. Some people can’t tolerate dairy, others need to avoid grains, and for others gluten is a no-no. More common offenders are eggs, animal protein, soy, yeast, and corn.
Take a high-quality probiotic that is guaranteed through the date of expiration. Get adequate prebiotics (fiber that serves as fuel for healthy gut bacteria) from a wide variety of veggies or supplement with resistant starch (bought as unmodified potato starch).
Include Intermittent Fasting
Give your digestive system a rest with some form of fasting. Because they need so many calories to fuel training, many athletes are constantly eating, never giving their digestive system a chance to “recover.” Fasting stimulates motility, which is the intestines contracting to maintain a downward flow of food through the intestinal tract. Occasionally including a short-term fast in which you skip breakfast or dinner can give the GI tract time to perform “housekeeping” functions to keep it healthy.
Training Gut Health For Optimal Performance
Many athletes who need to consume liquids and carbohydrates during training complain about problems with gut health. A common symptom is feeling bloated. Reports show that by progressively training while ingesting larger volumes of liquid you can “train” your stomach to tolerate more food or liquid.
For example, one study of trained runners found that stomach comfort significantly improved over time as the athletes practiced training with a high intake of a carb-electrolyte solution. Since the gut is so adaptable, include training with a high-carb intake into your weekly routine to train your gut to better handle carbs. The result will be better less GI distress and better performance.