Can a Healthy Gut Enhance Your Athletic Performance?

Can a Healthy Gut Enhance Your Athletic Performance?

 What Is Your Gut Microbiome?

Housing millions of microbes that help digest your food, regulate your immune system, protect against other bacteria that cause disease, and produce vitamins including B vitamins B12, thiamine and riboflavin, and Vitamin K, which is needed for blood coagulation, your gut microbiome is one of the more important, if underappreciated, functions of your body. Studies have found that, in addition to the added digestive and health benefits, a balanced gut microbiome influences mental health. It makes sense when you consider that more than 95% of the feel-good hormone serotonin is produced in your gut.  

Gut health seems to be a buzzing topic in the world of health and wellness, but what exactly does it mean to have a healthy gut? A healthy gut microbiome simply means that you have a balance between the good and bad microbes. Your diet, environment and lifestyle all play a role in your gut microbiome. A diet that incorporates lean meat, vegetables, whole grains and fiber will help to promote a balanced gut microbiome. On the other hand, a diet that is high in processed food, sugar, and saturated fats can lead to a leaky gut and cause some serious issues. Exercise has also been found to influence your gut microbiome. Moderate exercise can:

  • Enrich microbiota diversity.
  • Stimulate bacteria known to improve the GI lining barrier functions, in turn helping to fight obesity and metabolic diseases.
  • Stimulate bacteria activities beneficial to human health, some of which protect against GI disorders and colon cancer.

Scientists Have Figured out How to Enhance Athletic Performance Through Your Gut

Recently, a team of scientists at Harvard scouted out elite athletes from around the globe in order to study their microbiome. They found that endurance athletes – specifically marathon runners and Olympic rowers – have a type of bacteria in their gut microbiome that is needed to break down lactic acid, the main proponent behind muscle fatigue during exercise. This has led their research to go even further to see if this type of bacteria can be used to reduce lactic acid build-up and speed recovery time. These scientists are taking the next step and harvesting these microbes from the elite athletes in order to help others perform their best.

The researchers are now feeding the microbe to mice to measure its effects on lactic acid levels and fatigue. Their ultimate goal is to develop probiotic supplements that could help improve physical and psychological athletic performance while aiding speedier recovery for elite competitors – or for all you gun bunnies out there.

5 Ways the Gut Microbiome Impacts Your Performance

  • Boosts energy levels
    • Reduces fatigue through lactic acid breakdown
    • Increases ATP levels (your molecular energy)
  • Improves mental strength
    • Your gut is literally connected to your brain via the vagus nerve.
    • An imbalanced gut microbiome has been linked to anxiety and depression, whereas a healthy gut microbiome can positively affect mood, pain tolerance, behavior, attitude, and mental clarity.
  • Shapes ideal body composition
    • When you are training for an activity that relies on strength and speed, the gut microbiome helps the body operate more efficiently.
    • Influences body-mass composition, white versus brown fat, and blood sugar response to meals.
  • Nutrient absorption and use
    • When you have an imbalanced gut microbiome, your body doesn’t absorb and utilize important vitamins, minerals and proteins as a healthy gut microbiome would.
  • Improves sleep
    • Gut microbiome imbalance is associated with poor sleep quality and lowered cognitive flexibility.
    • Gut microbiome controls various hormones such as cortisol, serotonin and GABA which affect sleep quality.

How to Improve Your Gut Health

Your diet very much influences your microbiome and, in turn, your overall health. Foods packed with probiotics and prebiotics can help to improve your microbiome. Probiotics add beneficial microbes to your gut microbiome while prebiotics help feed your existing microbiome.

Foods containing probiotics all have one thing in common. They are fermented foods and they contain living organisms! You may have seen words like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium on the side of your yogurt container and wondered what the hell it was. These are the probiotics or living organisms that help to balance your gut microbiota. Prebiotic foods are high in special types of fiber that support digestive health.

The next question is where do you find these things? It’s not like your local grocery store has a pro- and prebiotic section. Of course, the best and easiest way is simply eating foods packed with these elements and incorporating them into your everyday diet.   

Foods containing probiotics:

  • Fresh sauerkraut - Incorporate it in your salads or top your pork loin with some. Eat this cold/raw. The benefits are lost if it’s heated.
  • Kefir - A fermented milk drink that basically tastes like liquid yogurt. Use it in your smoothies or have a cup of it at breakfast.
  • Kimchi - Traditional Korean side dish that is spicy, delicious and tastes great on rice. Again, don’t heat it up if you want the health benefit.
  • Tempeh - A plant-based protein source that tastes great as a beef alternative in chili.
  • Miso - Traditional Japanese seasoning. Miso ramen…yum!
  • Kombucha - If you haven’t tried ‘booch, you should give it a try.
  • Pickled cucumbers - Get the pickles that have not been heat pasteurized if you want the benefits.
  • Yogurt - This one is pretty simple.

Foods containing Prebiotics:

  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Leeks
  • Garlic
  • Apples
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Flaxseeds

Probiotic Supplements

If you are considering taking a probiotic supplement, please do so with caution and always do your research before you purchase. Taking a pill every day can get expensive so make sure you do your homework first.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of regulation when it comes to the supplement world. There is no federal oversight forcing companies to test their products to ensure they contain what they say they do. The first thing to keep in mind when you’re researching a product is that the company tested their product. The second is to make sure that the studies they performed were ethical and done with as little bias as possible.

So check out supplements if you want, but it’s much easier to just stick to your meal plan and incorporate foods high in probiotics and prebiotics.

Summing it All Up

If you aren’t crushing it in the gym like you hoped or you aren’t getting enough sleep, you should consider taking a look at what you’re eating. It could very possibly be that what you’re eating (or not eating) is contributing to an imbalanced gut microbiome. So, what are you waiting for? Go eat a Greek yogurt parfait! Or some kimchi! Just don’t eat them together.

Madelyn Larouche is a Dietetic Intern at Western Carolina University and is currently obtaining supervised practice in order to become a Registered Dietitian. She has a BS in Nutrition and is currently working on her Masters degree at Western Carolina University. She is interested in helping athletes perform their best through the beneficial aspects of nutrition. When she isn’t studying, she is out adventuring or enjoying all the breweries in Western North Carolina.


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