Fuel Your Gut for Better Performance

microbiome Dec 08, 2021

Your microbiome helps you turn food to fuel and a whole lot more.

Most of us don’t think too much about our gut…until our gut demands our attention with bloating, cramping, and other forms of GI distress. That’s a mistake because our gut microbiome is one of the most important—and overlooked—organs in athletic performance.

And yep, I just called it an organ, because that’s how it’s described in scientific literature. A 2018 article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), said it best, noting that with approximately 100 trillion micro-organisms living in the human gastrointestinal tract, encoding over three million genes, and influencing your fitness, phenotype, and health, the microbiome is “now best thought of as a virtual organ of the body.”

Beyond digesting food, your gut microbiota also plays a key role in regulating your hormones like estrogen, thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), serotonin, and stress hormones. It’s so instrumental in managing sex hormones that recent research has suggested the concept of a “microgenderome” to indicate the interplay between the gut microbiome and sex hormones.

It also helps you maintain a healthy metabolism and body composition. Your gut microbiota consists mostly of two dominant bacterial divisions: Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. These bacteria affect our weight because they regulate how much energy we absorb. Firmicutes absorb more (you’re getting more calories from food); Bacteroidetes absorb less.

Firmicutes dominant gut biomes are associated with increases in inflammation, which can lead to weight gain and chronic diseases. Having a balanced, healthy gut microbiome is key for inflammation and metabolism management.

Performance wise, research shows that a healthy gut biome can boost your metabolism, energy availability during exercise, and recovery after a workout. In fact, a new study published in the November issue of Advances in Nutrition calls for more research on manipulating diet, exercise, and gut microbiome so coaches and sports dietitians can provide recommendations for athletes on how to “fuel their microbes.”

While more research is definitely needed in this burgeoning field, there are steps you can take right now to build a healthy, robust gut microbiome. Here’s what to consider:

Balance Your Macronutrients: Athletes need up to twice as much protein as their sedentary peers. But that doesn’t mean you should be eating a “high protein” diet at the expense of carbohydrates, which can be detrimental to your gut microbiome long term. Your gut needs a mix of macronutrients, including varied protein sources, nutrient and fiber dense carbohydrates, and healthy fats, especially omega three fatty acids, which research suggests have a positive impact on the gut microbiome.

Strive for 25: Fiber is queen for gut health. It’s what feeds those essential microbes. Aim for at least 25 grams of fiber a day. Research suggests that athletes probably need more. The Fueling Gut Microbes study published last month recommends that athletes strive for 14 grams of fiber per every 1,000 calories they eat, which would mean 28 grams for active women on most days. Obviously, you want to time that fiber intake appropriately. Since it slows digestion, you’ll want to avoid high-fiber carbs before exercise, especially running.

Pile on the plants: A diet grounded in plants is good for your gut. A landmark international study published in the January 2021 edition of Nature Medicine reported that diets rich in plant-based foods promoted a gut microbiome that was linked to a lower risk of common chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

Consume probiotic and prebiotic foods: Probiotic foods are those that naturally contain healthy bacteria to help populate your gut microbiome. Prebiotic foods are those that have a fiber that feeds the beneficial bacteria. It’s important to eat both.

One of the best sources of probiotics is fermented foods. Plain (i.e. not loaded with sugar) yogurt that contains live cultures is a great source. Other excellent probiotic foods for gut health are kefir, miso, kimchi and sauerkraut. (Though kombucha is popular, it doesn’t make the cut here. Though it’s a fermented beverage, the microbes in kombucha haven’t been confirmed to be probiotic.)

Common prebiotic-rich foods include barely ripe bananas, asparagus, apples, onions, garlic, leeks, oatmeal, legumes, dandelion greens, apples, chicory root, and Jerusalem artichokes. (It’s a bizarre assortment, but something for everyone.)

Go easy on ultra-processed foods: You already know this, but it bears repeating. Refined sugary foods promote Firmicutes in the gut. When those take over, inflammation and weight gain seem to follow.

Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes are not necessarily better! A study in the BMJ reports that sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin have been shown to disrupt the balance and diversity of gut microbiota.

Skip the NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can directly impact the composition and function of the gut microbiota, and can lead to dysbiosis, or an imbalance of microorganisms in our microbiome. They also can lead to erosion of the protective mucosal barrier of the gut, which in turn leads to a condition called “leaky gut,” where the gut wall becomes too permeable, allowing toxins to spill from your gut into your bloodstream, which is as unhealthy as it sounds. Use them only as necessary.

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