Whether we are taking our first steps toward a fitter and more active lifestyle or looking to get that all-important edge in athletics or sport, it pays to look out for our good gut bacteria. Our gut microbiome has a two-way relationship with exercise, so why not take a closer look at how best to support its health and wellbeing?
We often put our physical capabilities down to simply muscle and willpower, but you may be surprised to learn that our gut has an important role to play too. In fact, a key area of study in recent times has been the relationship between exercise and the gut microbiome, the community of bacteria in the gut. How we exercise - and how intensely - can ultimately affect our gut microbiome composition. Of course, our gut bacteria are responsible for much more than just digestion (learn more here), influencing areas such as immune function, mental health and sleep efficiency. As we know that there is a link between the good bacteria our gut microbiome and athleticism, this offers exciting opportunities in the future to potentially harness the gut for sharper physical performance! So, what does science currently tell us?
How does exercise influence gut health?
Studies show that our physical activity affects the gut microbiome. This is seen through comparisons of gut microbiome composition between athletes and a non-athlete control group. Differences are also seen between different sports and athletic disciplines, which shows that the type of activity can exert a different effect on the community of bacteria in the gut. For example, one study that compared the bacterial profile of top-level ruby players with healthy, but non-athletic individuals, showed a big difference in good gut bacteria. The athletes had lower levels of Bacteroidetes and higher amounts of Firmicutes than non-athletes. Similar studies in amateur and professional cyclists showed that a certain type of good gut bacteria that the body needs, Prevotella, was noticeably more prevalent during times that the cyclists exercised over the average week. Since we know that physical exercise can influence the gut microbiome, and we understand that the gut microbiome has an import influence on physical and mental health, taking care of our gut health should be a key point of focus for all of us!
How does our gut health influence exercise?
It’s all about diversity! There are certain types of ‘good bacteria’ that are known to be particularly beneficial to the body in ways that benefit physical effort. Our capacity for exercise and activity appears closely linked to the health and wellbeing of the gut microbiome. The good gut bacteria play an important role in the production, storage and expenditure of energy obtained through diet, as well as in inflammation and hydration. The ‘gut-brain axis’ also comes into play; this is the two-way communication between the brain and the gut microbiome. Under high-intensity activity or certain sports, we may be more prone to stress responses from the brain. The good bacteria in the gut are able to produce the same stress-reducing compounds that we usually just associate with the brain, such as serotonin and GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid). This suggests that a favourable gut microbiome balance, with well-supported good gut bacteria, could help reduce the stress impacts of sport.
Does an athletic diet influence or change the gut microbiome?
From grassroots sport to high-level competition, diet is absolutely crucial! Nutritional choices can influence our body’s ability to exercise. At top performance levels however, the diets that are typically consumed by athletes are usually not beneficial to the gut microbiome. For optimum short-term energy, foods tend to be high in simple sugars and protein, but low in fibre. Protein helps the body to build and repair muscle cells, but protein degradation can release toxic metabolites that compromise the gut barrier, one of the body’s natural lines of defence against pathogens. Research conducted on behalf of Public Health England shows that just 9% of adults in the UK reach the recommended daily intake of fibre, which is 30g, including 5g of prebiotic fibre. Athletes are no different; diets during training tend to have low fibre content.
Where can I learn more?
Your gut microbiome is a complex community of bacteria with an important influence on physical and mental health – so why not get to know it better? On the below link you’ll find articles and information designed to help you better understand the trillions of microbes that helps the body to perform.
Click here to learn more about the importance of gut health, what gut health science currently tells us, and what we can do to support it.
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