If you’re an athlete, you know what it’s like to push yourself through your mental limits and toward new heights. Think about a time when you pushed yourself to run that extra mile or to complete one more set, and the next day you came down with a slight cold. The fatigue and stuffy nose are usually chalked up to be a result of pushing yourself too hard, but it turns out those sniffles actually reflect the health of our gut. When we exercise, our bodies channel energy toward the stressed area, or the muscle fibers that are breaking down. A healthy gut helps that movement of energy flow effectively, giving the area proper blood flow and nutrients to complete the task, whereas an unhealthy gut has a harder time keeping up.
Gut Health Recap: What’s Going On In There?
Our gut has a lot of jobs: to absorb nutrients, identify pathogens, create a healthy environment for cells to grow, and keep the intestinal wall in ship shape. An unhealthy gut can show symptoms pretty quickly, and many of those symptoms stem from leaky gut (intestinal permeability). When a person has leaky gut, toxins and particles can go in an out of the intestinal wall. This causes a host of problems, including gluten intolerance, allergies, migraines, indigestion, foggy brain and mood swings. Being mindful of gut health will not only keep that nasty leaky gut at bay, but it can also help you perform better in the gym, on the trail, or wherever you get Rowdy.
It’s pretty easy to knock our gut flora off balance, since there’s just a single layer of intestinal cells guarding your gut from the rest of your body. Each of these cells is held together by a tight junction, and an imbalanced gut flora loosens these tight junctions (that’s what leads to leaky gut). There are a few well known ways we can harm the gut flora in our GI tract.
- Pollution, GMOs and other environmental toxins lead to an imbalance in good/bad bacteria.
- Too much processed foods, caffeine, alcohol and refined sugars can kill all the good bacteria in our gut.
- Just one round of antibiotics can also deplete our gut of good bacteria.
How Gut Health Affects Athletic Performance
Nutrition Absorption - We are what we eat, but that’s only half true if our digestive tract can only absorb half the nutrients we’re ingesting. If we have poor digestion, then our bodies will have a difficult time absorbing key nutrients and amino acids from our food. During digestion, blood flow increases in the stomach to help break food down. When we exercise, blood flow goes away from the stomach to help out other areas that are working hard. If we have a poor digestive system, that blood flow might not return to its normal state after working out. We need that blood flow in order to absorb the nutrients from our food!
Immunity - Nothing throws a wrench in your fitness goals more than a cold! Our immune system and our digestive system have a close relationship, so when your digestive tract is not healthy, your immune system weakens, and you are more likely to get sick. An unhealthy gut has a hard time creating sufficient amounts of interferons, or the precursors to proteins that help fight off pathogens. When our digestive system isn’t holding up its end of the relationship with the immune system, we get sick. Interferons love prebiotics and probiotics, so make sure to get enough of both!
Recovery - Inflammation occurs when we workout, and a healthy immune system helps to repair these inflamed areas and strengthen our bodies during the recovery period. This happens while our digestive system absorbs the food we consume after a workout. When our immune system is weakened, our body has a hard time recovering from strenuous workouts. When we consistently miss fitness goals because of chronic fatigue, this can have an impact on our self esteem.
Optimize Your Gut For Better Athletic Performance
During our exercise and intensive training, cortisol and adrenaline heighten, which are two hormones known for weakening and reducing good gut flora. Imbalances like this can move back to homeostasis more efficiently if we’re feeding our bodies the right things. Eating a well balanced diet and avoiding refined carbohydrates and sugars can help keep those tight junctions tight and your workouts on track!
- Avoid alcohol
- Limit caffeine
- Opt for whole foods and complex carbohydrates
- Get your prebiotics and probiotics
- Eat your greens (and don’t forget to wash them!)
- Enjoy high quality, lean proteins
- Don’t forget those healthy fats
- Take those supplements (vitamin D, magnesium, fish oil and zinc are especially good for gut health).
Remember, every gut is unique. If you find you have food sensitivities and other symptoms of a leaky gut, try removing foods and adding things back over time so you can identify what might be causing these symptoms in you.