“All disease begins in the gut” – Hippocrates. If you are wondering why I started this article with a quote from Hippocrates it’s because I’d like you to know that we have known about the importance of gut health for many, many years.
However, due to numerous reasons such as looking for the magic pill, false advertising, harmful medications, media and poor education of our own bodies, we seem to have forgotten about the gut, which is of crucial importance to our health and overall performance.
Even though genetics play a big role in athletic performance (a reminder for you to choose the right parents), there are many initiatives we can take to improve our performance when it comes to aspects of human body we can personally control.
Enter: The Gut
Our gut function is directly affected by the food we eat and how we manage stress whether it is physical, physiological or psychological. For example, if an athlete's diet consists mainly of junk food, then their gut function will reflect this. If you are committed to improving your health and athletic performance then understanding which foods will promote gut health and which will cause it damage should be on your list of priorities. And when it comes to stress, there are things we can do to learn how to manage it.
In the gastrointestinal tract, there is a single layer of cells called the gut lining that protects the body from anything that could possibly pass through it. These cells are held together by tight junctions. When this structure is healthy, it allows nutritious compounds from food to be absorbed in our bodies. It also detoxifies harmful substances and provides a barrier against pathogens.
However, these tight junctions can be negatively affected by the consumption of antibiotics, elevated levels of the cortisol hormone and some immune factors which result in intestinal permeability. This means that the absorption of nutrients is compromised and toxins can enter the bloodstream. Not good.
So what does gut health have to do with athletic performance?
Athletes go through periods of very stressful training in order to compete at higher levels. When this stress is combined with an unhealthy gut, it’s a recipe for disaster. When it comes to training, the faster you recover, the more you can progress. It is clearly shown by research that nutrition plays a huge role in recovery. As a result, when the gut is not healthy, absorption of key nutrients such as amino acids, magnesium, zinc and so on will be compromised, which in turn will prolong the recovery process.
Another factor to consider is inflammation, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We need inflammation to heal our wounds, for example. However, chronically elevated low-grade systemic inflammation can be harmful in the long-run. Since our gut regulates inflammation, an unhealthy gut can produce harmful compounds leading to inflammation in the other body parts too. Research has clearly shown that by improving the microbiome profiling of the gut in favour of good bacteria, systemic inflammation can be significantly reduced.
What does this mean for athletes? When an athlete does strength training, they are causing micro-tears to their soft tissue. It is the super compensation of the body during the recovery process that makes the body stronger once you recover from the workout. These micro-tears cause inflammation and need to be managed immediately after training by optimising individual nutritional needs as well as passive recovery methods such as sleep optimisation.
A crucial factor in athletic performance is energy metabolism. A healthy gut positively contributes to how well this energy metabolism is processed. For example, lactate acid is a byproduct of high repetition training that induces fatigue. The better an athlete’s body breaks down lactate acid, the training intensity can be maintained for longer duration. As a result, sporting events that require a high intensity of performance to be maintained (strength-endurance), such as 400M sprint, call for optimal gut function.