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The Importance of Gut Microbiota for Health and Performance

What is gut microbiota?

Microbes are the forerunners of the planet’s biodiversity. They have evolved and adapted to live in any environment. They live on us and within us just as they do on any other living organism. 

The human microbiota is the name given to this immense community of fungi, viruses, living microorganisms that live inside our bodies

We now know that microbes outnumber the number of cells in our body by 10 to 1, meaning that we host around 10 to 100 trillion microbial cells. The human ‘microbiome’ consists of the genes these cells host. Our microbiome is our genetic footprint as it determines our DNA, hereditary factors and so forth.

Whereas our microbial population is primarily located in the gut, other parts of our bodies also host microbiota: our skin, mouths, urogenital tracts, and air passages (ears and nose, lungs). These bacterial populations are in constant communication, which explains why skin, mouth, and lung problems very often result from gut dysbiosis.

How does our gut microbiome influence health?

Our gut microbiome is the hard disk in total control of its host’s health! This may seem scary but is in fact pretty reassuring. It has a direct effect on:

1) Nutrition

Our gut bacteria play a key role in processing food and breaking it down into nutrients (vitamins, amino acids, etc.). Dietary fiber from vegetables and other grains, nuts, seeds, and cereal are fermented by bacteria and transformed into short-chain fatty acids that in turn nourish our immune cells, feed the gut lining, regulate glucose stability and reduce inflammation.

2) Immunity

Our gut microbiome hosts around 70% of all our immune cells. It constitutes a barrier against pathogens such as viruses, microbes, and toxins, etc. A healthy gut is able to produce a protective layer of mucus inside its lining that prevents pathogens from entering the gut. Keep your gut microbes happy and keep disease at bay.

3) Moods and behavior

Just as the immune system has its foundations in the gut, most of the endocrine hormone production is also located in the gut. Neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation depend on the health and variety of our gut bacteria! Think about it when your moods are low or when stress and anxiety are knocking at your door.

Information commutes from the gut to the brain (and from the brain to the gut) via the gut-brain axis (a network made up of neurons, hormones, immune cells, and microbial molecules). What happens in your gut does not stay in your gut!

4) Nervous System

The gut has a nervous system of its own called the enteric nervous system. It senses microbial, endocrine, and immune molecules and communicates the physiological state of the gut to the autonomous and central nervous systems. 

In the same way, as soil fungi work as a support network for trees and animals, our microbiota works as a network for the rest of our body functions and thus determines our health.  

Birth, a healthy lifestyle, exposure to stress, and other environmental factors determine the well-being of our gut.

Physical activity and most of all intensive training directly affect gut health. This is a real health issue amongst athletes although many are not aware of it.

Gut health and performance

The gut is not an athletic organ in the same way as your muscles and heart are, but the part it plays in performance, adaptations to training, recovery is just so major that it deserves to be considered as such. Gut health influences our overall health and performance in the same way as your training habits influence gut health. Remember the multitude of functions played by our microbiome!

Most athletes pay poor or no attention at all to their gut and therefore do not realize how its health influences their own, and thus their performances. 

Why is it so? 

While exercising, your blood flow shifts from your intestines to your muscles, skin, and heart. As soon as your workout is over, the blood flow returns into the intestinal track...loaded with endotoxins. Endotoxins are released due to cell disruption during effort. This phenomenon triggers both an inflammatory reaction and severe damage to the gut lining

Now, even if training is a means to decompress after a stressful day, take heed that high-level intensity workouts are just as stressful on your system as your afternoon meeting. Exercise is a stress on the system, and your body reacts just as if a lion were chasing you the entire time of your workout. 

Stress is a well-controlled mechanism as long as it... does not last. During intensive training, stress hormones are released, the main hormone being cortisol. Cortisol has a major destructive impact on the junctions that hold our intestine nice and tight.

You have the picture: intensive exercise provides the perfect conditions for dysbiosis and a leaky gut. And you now know that a disrupted microbiome is the open door to a deficient immune system, unbalanced moods, muscle and tendon aches, and gastrointestinal discomfort. Nutrient malabsorption, anaemia, hormone misbalance, exhaustion, insomnia are just a few of the symptoms that many of our fellow athletes currently experience.

How to Keep Gut Microbiota Healthy for Better Performance?

Any solutions at hand? 

Luckily, scientific research has also provided us with solutions to this major issue!

1) Hydrate

Proper hydration is the first habit to pick up if you wish to protect your gut from damage. Whether homemade or not, always make sure you consume around 500ml of sports drink per hour. The carbs added to the salt in your drink have an anti-inflammatory effect as well as a healing effect on the gut lining. 

2) Restore

Leap in through the open window and benefit from these post-training 30 minutes or so when your body is at its best to restore and recover. A protein and carbohydrate drink is the best way to restore your immune system and lower the inflammatory reaction.   

3) Fuel on healthy bars and foods

Do not fill up with gels and tons of sugar while exercising, as this will create stress on your intestines and lead to dehydration. Go for low glycaemic index and natural foods such as dried fruit, nuts, and seeds, or healthy bars.

4) Adopt a daily healthy diet

By eating plenty of vegetables, unrefined carbohydrates, nuts and grains, high-quality fats, and probiotic foods, you are sure to make your gut happy!

Managing stress and smartly planning your training is also part of the deal. 

5) Supplements 

Supplements come in handy if the damage has been done, but also during periods of intensive training or competitions. Glutamine and probiotics are the main supplements used for gut health, but these should only be used under the supervision of a specialist. 

I hope you now agree with the fact that gut health is one of the most important things to consider in the life of an athlete. Gut consciousness should be part of all young athletes’ training courses as such early knowledge would carve the way to a healthy, injury free career.

Author: Marie-Noëlle Bourgeois, Nutritionist at Bounce Up Micronutrition

Sources & Further Reading: 

Gut Microbiome, Gail A.M. Cresci PhD, RDN, CNSC, Kristin Izzo MS, RDN, CNSC, in Adult Short Bowel Syndrome, 2019

Blaser MJ. The microbiome revolution. J Clin Invest. 2014;124(10):4162-4165. doi:10.1172/JCI78366

Fred Brouns, Is the gut an athletic organ? Digestion, Absorption and Exercise, May 1993, Sports Medicine 15(4):242-57

Monash University, Extreme Exercise Linked to Blood Poisoning, 16-Jun-2015

Kakanis MW, Peake J, Brenu EW, Simmonds M, Gray B, Hooper SL, Marshall-Gradisnik SM. The open window of susceptibility to infection after acute exercise in healthy young male elite athletes. Exerc Immunol Rev. 2010;16:119-37. PMID: 20839496.

Denis Riché, Epinutrution du Sportif, ed. De Boeck, 2017.
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