Gut Health for Athletes: Fuel the Machine for Peak Performance
We know our diet impacts our body composition & our energy levels. It's also crucial to maintain gut health.
It’s well recognised that athletes do better when they eat better. We all do - any human being that has to ‘do stuff’ feels & functions better when they’re well fed & digesting optimally - athletes just do more demanding ‘stuff’ with their bodies, so you notice any lack of energy or drop in performance much more easily! Especially with elite athletes in the public eye, though those guys will normally have some sort of nutrition expert to help them with their diet.
So - food definitely influences your performance from a nutrition perspective (i.e, supporting muscle recovery with regular / enough good quality protein, getting all the vitamins, minerals & trace elements you need to make your cells & systems work optimally etc), but what you eat will also dramatically influence your gut…
What about my gut health?
I don’t use my gut to run / swim / play rugby / lift weights / cycle / climb / hit a ball…what’s the big deal, I’ll just keep taking my pre-workout powder for energy & protein powder for my muscles (gut, phhht - stupid gut-obsessed naturopaths!!).
It can be hard work getting athletes to prioritise their gut health, unless they know the following:
You Are Not What You EAT…You Are What You ABSORB!
Your gut is directly responsible for the nutrients you absorb from your food. You can be eating the best diet in the world, full of vitamins, minerals, protein, good fats, antioxidant etc, but if your gut is not in great shape, absorption of those nutrients may not be happening optimally - you may as well be dining on Maccas! (Well not really - but you’ll be wasting money & time on quality food prep if it’s not getting digested fully & ending up in your cells)! Optimal absorption of nutrients happens when you have plenty of good microbes (in the right balance) in your gut to help with the breakdown of food that you’re eating. Your gut is not just an empty hollow tube - it should be like an ‘internal ecosystem’ - bustling with activity & life, in a dynamic state of balance, like a rainforest or even an internal composting system.
The problem is, most people have more of a desert (or a garden full of nasty weeds) than a rainforest these days, because:
- The helpful bacteria we need are getting wiped out every single time we take a course of antibiotics (this has been happening for generations now). One of the big reasons that kids today seem much less ‘robust’ & more reactive / intolerant to foods than their grandparents is that their guts are ‘broken’ from the start, as the microbial population passed down from mum was substandard to begin with! They cannot digest properly, their immune system won’t work properly (your gut health pretty much IS your immune system).
- We tend to eat way too much refined carbohydrate based food (sugar in all its disguises & refined grain products) which feed the ‘baddies’ & cause them to multiply too quickly, crowding out the ‘goodies’. This is one huge reason that we get ‘diet-related’ diseases like diabetes & obesity & many of the inflammatory illnesses (anything ending in ‘itis’) - it’s not only the effect the sugars have on our blood glucose, but the fact that they dramatically influence our gut balance & create a massive amount of systemic inflammation. I speak to people every week about gut health, weight loss & disease - it’s so common for people to improve their gut & lose kilo’s of ‘inflammatory’ weight they’d been carrying, & all of a sudden fix a ‘chronic inflammatory illness’ they were not expecting to ever recover from.
- Our food & our environment are full of chemicals - i.e. preservatives, sweeteners, flavours, additives - these are unnatural & have no place in a natural ecosystem like your gut - but they’re getting in there & messing with things if your diet isn’t clean. Then think of all the chemicals used in the soil for growing our food, the chemicals in everyday medications (even things like the pill that many women don’t even think twice about swallowing can impact your gut bugs significantly) & the chemicals in our personal care products (toothpaste, soaps, sunscreens, deodorants, make-up, hair products…it can all end up inside your body, your skin is absorbent - & those teeny tiny creatures are sensitive & easily disrupted).
So…just be mindful that you are a walking natural ecosystem. When your internal ecosystem is in balance, you’re gonna feel so much more energetic, & also much better mentally (athletes know that victory often happens first in the mind!)
On The Way Through:
When nutritious, non-inflammatory foods are travelling through your digestive system (your balanced rainforest ecosystem) they need to go ‘not too fast, not too slow’ - so that you have plenty of time to break everything down properly & for the nutrients to get from your gut into your bloodstream, that way you’ll really be ‘getting the most out of your food’. Too much fibre means things will move through you too quickly & you don’t get time to absorb some of the nutrients. Too little fibre & you’re going to have ‘excess baggage’ sitting around in your bowel, festering (& not fermenting properly as there’s not enough food for your good microbes). A slow-moving colon will also be releasing a steady stream of toxins into your bloodstream that can cause all kinds of trouble & make you feel literally ‘like shit’. Ever had anyone tell you ‘You look like shit!?’ People use these sayings all the time, & I wonder - did they originate when someone noticed that people tend to look & feel terrible when they’re constipated?
Getting your protein, carbs & fat is crucial - but so is optimising your fibre intake (if you want your gut to actually absorb all the goodness you’re pouring down there!) Your gut bugs actually make some amazing substances out of the fibre that we humans cannot digest (look up short chain fatty acids, they are our own anti-inflammatories & a great byproduct of fibre fermentation). Your gut bugs even manufacture some vitamins - including some B vitamins that are crucial for energy production.
Your Gut = Your Immune System.
Most of your body’s defence system resides in your gut. That’s right - you’ll get sicker more often (& stay sick longer) when your gut is out of whack, & when you take care of your gut you should notice a huge improvement in your immune system. We need our immune system to be ready, waiting to react immediately to anything that threatens us - but we don’t want it to become ‘trigger-happy’ & start reacting & attacking things inappropriately (that’s what can happen with things like asthma, eczema, hayfever, & all the autoimmune illnesses). And guess what - all the aforementioned illnesses can be improved / eliminated by balancing the gut. It’s all about your gut bugs & your gut lining. You wanna look after both - they look after you! They are your best buddies when travelling for competitions, as a strong gut ecosystem with a healthy gut lining is much more difficult for unfamiliar ‘bad bugs’ to infiltrate & take hold.
As an athlete, your gut-immune system relationship needs extra special care & attention. Athletes have different gut microbial populations to the more sedentary general public (in a good way). An athlete’s gut bugs are more diverse than couch potatoes (more like rainforests), but extreme or endurance exercise (as in competitions & long or intense training sessions) can really hurt your gut - & it literally does hurt. Many athletes (esp endurance athletes) suffer from abdominal discomfort, nausea, cramping & diarrhoea during hard training or events. This happens because blood flow is directed away from the gut to the places that need it more (like your heart, lungs, muscles & skin), & the gut lining actually can become inflamed, damaged & ‘leaky’ during these times, allowing stuff into your bloodstream that’s not supposed to get in (which can cause systemic inflammation, not good). When you’re inflamed / injured, as an athlete you just wanna get back into training ASAP, so you might be tempted to take some nurofen for an injury - don’t! NSAID’s will damage your gut lining further, they’ll make it even leakier - allowing more inflammatory substances into your bloodstream (nice way to ensure nurofen sales stay strong I guess)!!
The ‘Gut-Muscle Axis’.
Yes - apparently there is such a thing! You’ve probably heard all about the ‘gut-brain’ axis, the ‘gut-skin’ axis & the gut immune connection - but, I have a feeling we’re going to hear a whole lot more about the ‘gut-muscle axis’ in the near future. Your gut influences your metabolism, the energy that you can extract from your food & your body composition (more muscles or more fat). 2 people can eat the exact same meal, yet their blood glucose response & the total calories they extract from that meal can be very different, depending on what is going on in their gut. That explains those skinny bitches who can eat anything!! and for the guys trying to get huge eating loads of calories - maybe you need to focus on your gut! And it’s not just your gut that influences your metabolism, your exercise patterns actually influence your gut microbes too - it can be a bit of a cycle (sedentary lifestyle cultivates couch potato gut bugs, leads to insulin resistance & accumulation of fat, leads to less inclination to exercise etc etc). This area of research is still quite young, but it will be huge. Imagine the magic bullet probiotic-based weightloss pills that are currently under development!!
Gut tips for athletes:
- Work out what fibrous foods work best for your gut, i.e. Low FODMAP, gluten free etc).
- Modify your intake of fibre to suit your body around competitions. Some avoid eating too much fibre the day of competition & 1-2 days leading up to the event (but make sure to get plenty during the normal days. This will be different for everyone, find your best strategy.
- Figure out your food sensitivities (e.g., dairy, gluten - these are the big 2 culprits, & I recommend that everyone who’s unsure tries a GF & DF period to see how they respond).
- Avoid sugar alcohols (sweeteners found in sugar-free drinks / gels / energy products - names like sorbitol, mannitol & xylitol). These are known to mess with your gut bugs & can cause diarrhoea, cramps, bloating etc.
- Avoid NSAIDs / nurofen / any Ibuprofen products as these make your gut leaky.
- A Low FODMAP diet is generally well tolerated if you suffer from IBS, try going Low FODMAP during training & if it feels good for you, in the lead up to an event.
- Drink plenty! Dehydration = bad news for your gut (& the rest of you!)
- Be mindful of your gut-immune system connection & your gut lining - especially look after it before / during / after long or intense training sessions & competitions.