AVOIDING GI DISTRESS
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