Triathlon Magazine Canada - - FEATURES - BY PIP TAY­LOR

WHEN EN­DURANCE ATH­LETES hear the term “gut health” they might think it refers sim­ply to GI dis­tress – bloating, cramps, ur­gency – which is com­mon amongst ath­letes. While it can en­com­pass these is­sues, the health of your gut means more than un­com­fort­able symp­toms. A healthy and func­tion­ing gut is im­por­tant for im­mu­nity and nu­tri­ent ab­sorp­tion and is also linked with a range of health is­sues and seem­ingly un­re­lated symp­toms through­out the body. For an ath­lete who re­lies on be­ing healthy in or­der to train con­sis­tently, look­ing af­ter your gut should be a top pri­or­ity.

The gut, also known as the GI tract or di­ges­tive tract/sys­tem, tech­ni­cally runs from your mouth right through to the other end. So, in re­al­ity, gut health refers to any­where along this path. Most of the in­ter­est­ing stuff hap­pens down in the in­tes­tine, though. That’s where most di­ges­tion and ab­sorp­tion hap­pens and, im­por­tantly, is where you will find lots of bac­te­ria, which play a star­ring role in health and func­tion. It is also the con­trol room for the im­mune sys­tem: more than 70 per cent of the im­mune sys­tem’s cells are found in the small and large in­testines. These cells help to reg­u­late in­flam­ma­tion, which is im­por­tant in the heal­ing of in­juries, and in­fec­tions.

If you are in doubt about the ef­fect of gut bac­te­ria and in­flu­ence on health, con­sider the fact that bac­te­ria cells out­num­ber our own by 10 times. That means that the vast ma­jor­ity of ge­netic ma­te­rial in our bod­ies is, in fact, not ours. And that ge­netic ma­te­rial, and the in­for­ma­tion en­coded in it, ex­erts enor­mous in­flu­ence on ev­ery­thing from body weight, men­tal health, im­mu­nity, car­dio­vas­cu­lar health and (al­most) ev­ery­thing in be­tween. Im­por­tantly, gut bac­te­ria also pro­duce some key nu­tri­ents in­clud­ing Vi­ta­min B12 and Vi­ta­min K. Why is gut health im­por­tant for ath­letes? The hu­man gut is de­signed to keep some things out of the blood stream and body cells (pathogens, harm­ful viruses, large food stuffs) and let other things in (nu­tri­ents, wa­ter). This re­lies on a well-func­tion­ing, per­me­able mu­cous bar­rier lin­ing the gut wall. Good bac­te­ria within the gut pro­vide fuel for the cells lin­ing the di­ges­tive tract and en­sure that the junc­tions be­tween cells main­tain in­tegrity. If good bac­te­ria don’t f lour­ish, or are un­der con­di­tions of stress, in­flam­ma­tion or ir­ri­ta­tion, the gut wall can be com­pro­mised. That means that con­tents which are sup­posed to stay in the gut can per­me­ate through the mu­cous bar­rier into the blood stream. Once in the body, these for­eign par­ti­cles trig­ger an im­mune re­ac­tion, which leads to in­creased lev­els of in­flam­ma­tion through­out the body. Nu­tri­ent ab­sorp­tion is also com­pro­mised and in­sulin re­sis­tance can de­velop. This is known as a leaky gut and, while symp­toms can in­clude gut dis­com­fort, more of­ten than not they don’t and symp­toms man­i­fest else­where – the brain, the skin and even the car­dio­vas­cu­lar or en­docrine sys­tems. Stud­ies also show the gut can af­fect men­tal health. In fact, the brain and gut are con­nected in a two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Stress af­fects the func­tion­ing of your gut, but also an un­healthy gut, or al­tered gut bac­te­ria, can in­flu­ence the way you re­spond to and deal with stress.

A prime ex­am­ple of the im­por­tance of healthy gut bac­te­ria for ath­letes is that of beet juice, which has been touted as a nat­u­ral per­for­mance en­hancer. The key in­gre­di­ent in beet­root is ni­trate, which healthy bac­te­ria in the mouth con­vert to ni­trite, which, in turn, is con­verted to ni­tric ox­ide. Ni­tric ox­ide acts as a va­sodila­tor, in­creas­ing the size of blood ves­sels in func­tion­ing mus­cles to al­low more oxy­gen up­take, which boosts en­durance. Re­search shows that any ben­e­fits from beet juice are di­min­ished if you use mouth­wash, which kills off es­sen­tial bac­te­ria.

A healthy gut al­lows you bet­ter ab­sorp­tion of nu­tri­ents which will im­prove health, re­cov­ery and per­for­mance. It will also re­duce sys­temic in­flam­ma­tion for bet­ter re­cov­ery and adap­ta­tion and lessen GI is­sues and other symp­toms.

What im­pact does ath­letic ac­tiv­ity have on gut health? Ath­letic pop­u­la­tions have dif­fer­ent gut bac­te­ria than non-ath­letic ones. In gen­eral this is a health­ier mix and is put down to the ef­fect of ex­er­cise it­self. How­ever other as­pects of an ath­lete’s life­style or diet can play a role in de­ter­min­ing gut health.

Di­ets high in sugar and re­fined foods de­crease the di­ver­sity of the gut’s bac­te­ria. Even with their very high en­ergy needs, ath­letes should be mind­ful of sup­ple­ment­ing their diet with too many re­fined car­bo­hy­drates and su­gars – the ex­act foods that com­prise sports foods and do such as great job of fu­elling us through races and work­outs. In gen­eral

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