It’s no secret that so much more goes into your workout performance than just your actual training. Everything from what you eat to how much sleep you get to when you train can impact your next sweat session. But it goes even deeper than that: What if we told you that gut health could impact your next PR? New research points to the microbiome as a key player in your body, especially when it comes to your fitness. So, we decided to explore the connection between gut health and exercise.
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What is your microbiome?
It’s a pretty buzzy term these days, but do you know what your microbiome actually does? “The human body is made up of a collection of microbes or microorganisms—also known as our microbiome,” explains Yasi Ansari, a performance and wellness dietitian in southern California. “Our bacteria make up the biology of our body and determine our overall health status, metabolism, and immune health while also carrying out a variety of functions required for survival.”
So, what can it do?
Your microbiome is the control center for many aspects of the body’s daily health. “There isn’t a single system in the body that the microbiome doesn’t impact,” explains Kiran Krishnan, microbiologist and scientific adviser for probiotics supplement brand Probiogen.
It strengthens your immune system.
Other than overseeing the gut in terms of basic gastro health and (ahem) functionality, the microbiome has been linked to the immune system. The good bacteria in your gut drives out the bad and balances your system. So, there’s no extra room for unwanted pathogens or foreign substances, which can potentially lead to illness. For example, certain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genus (good bacteria) decrease the risk of chronic diseases, such as cancer and coronary heart disease, Ansari says.
It can influence your diet.
The microbiome can also play a big part in weight management. Studies show that a restricted diet increases gut diversity (aka the goal for a healthy gut). On the other hand, a dietary excess (found in obese individuals) reduces diversity, Ansari says. Being mindful of what you eat is important for your gut bacteria, too.
It can play a role in brain function.
What’s more, the microbiome has been tied to cognitive function. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the main system that controls stress management, fight or flight, rest, etc., is controlled in large part by the microbiome, Krishnan explains. Stress hormones, serotonin, and dopamine are all made in the gut, too.
“Numerous studies prove that disruption in the gut leads to measurable disruption in the brain, especially with mood disorders and cognitive dysfunction,” he says. Studies have shown that an unhealthy gut can lead to more serious conditions. “Most recently, studies have shown that leaky gut and the resulting endotoxin from the gut entering the circulation is the primary cause of Alzheimer’s,” Krishnan says. This endotoxin from leaky gut can also get into parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus and amygdala. This disrupts memory function and causing a fog-like symptom, he adds.
What does this mean for your workout?
Well, lots of things! Obviously a healthy body provides a vehicle for a strong workout. But healthy gut bacteria could mean so much more to the athlete. “The gut is the most underutilized system in athletic training and arguably one of the most important,” Krishnan says. “The ability of the athlete to digest and absorb nutrients to produce energy, muscular gains, and neurological gains are all controlled by a healthy gut.”
But that’s not all. The abilities to manage stress, not get sick, and manage mood and focus are all factors drastically affected by the gut as well. “Systemic inflammation has a profound effect on athletic performance—an unhealthy gut supports higher systemic inflammation, whereas a healthy gut reduces systemic inflammation,” he says.
The gut directly impacts the body’s ability to hydrate, Ansari says. We don’t have to tell you hydration is important. A loss of 1 to 2 percent of body weight from fluids can impact performance, as Ansari explains. Research suggests the microbiome influences the cellular transport of solutes through the gut—thus contributing to hydration status. So, the bacteria in your gut plays a huge role in maintaining proper hydration and preventing risks of dehydration.
It doesn’t stop there. The gut also impacts the body’s recovery process. “Effective exercise, both cardio and resistance, will cause an acute inflammatory response that shuttles reparative cells to the sites of muscle damage,” Krishnan says. “This process of recovery leads to improvements in muscle strength, muscle tone, muscle endurance, and appearance. The immune system controls your body’s inflammatory mechanism. Nearly 80 percent of the immune tissue is in the digestive tract.” This leaves much of the inflammatory process in the control of gut bacteria, he explains.
Our understanding of which bacteria are crucial to athletes is only getting better. In a recent study from the American Chemical Society, scientists studied the microbiome of elite runners and rowers. They identified particular bacteria common among the participants that may aid their athletic performance. The study also hinted at hope in the future for a probiotic supplement formulated just for athletes and fitness performance.
“We are now understanding that the microbiome is the key junction between health and illness; with this we will start seeing more probiotic, microbiome interventions in all aspects of health, wellness, and illness,” Krishnan says.
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What can you do?
OK, so a magic probiotic pill for athletes doesn’t exist right now. There’s still plenty you can do to get your microbiome in fighting form. First, be cognizant of your diet in terms of probiotics. Ansari says dairy foods and fermented non-dairy foods provide a good source of probiotics. She suggests kefir, Greek yogurt (that contains Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, specifically), aged cheese (such as cheddar, Gouda, Parmesan, and Swiss that contain Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium), unpasteurized kombucha, kimchi, green olives, tempeh, cultured nondairy yogurt, and even miso to get your dose of probiotics.
Of course, there are some probiotic supplements available now that you can add to your diet to help diversify your microbiome. It’s wise to choose a probiotic with at least 5-50 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) and seven strains, says Ansari. “Remember, diversity is key!”
At the end of the day, having a diverse, healthy diet full of—you guessed it—diverse probiotics may be the hidden key to upping your training.