Gut health and importance for athletes
16th February, 20170 Comments
Written by: Rebecca Jennings MSc ANutr
Gut health has had a growing amount of attention recently, discussing it's impact on our overall health, as well as a spectrum of diseases an unhealthy gut can cause. I wanted to touch on this and elaborate on the importance of a healthy gut for athletes and their performance.
Our gut is probably one of our most important organs in the body, it is the long tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. It Is involved in the initial processing of food (once entered from the mouth), to the storage, absorption, digestion and then the passing of food as faeces.
So why is it of importance in our health?
So you might have heard about good and bad bacteria and probably wondered where it comes from, how does it all work, what's good and what's bad... etc, etc.
Our gut is inhabited by roughly 100 trillion microorganisms. Microorganisms can be divided into lots of different 'types', and one of these is bacteria. The gut contains 10 times the amount of bacteria than all the human cells in our entire body, which can make up to 1.5kg of our overall weight (that's a lot of bacteria!). So within this whole 1.5kg of bacteria, there is some bacteria that is 'good' and some that is 'bad'. The good bacteria help us to digest our food, can help to enhance our immune system and can protect us against the bad bacteria. The bad bacteria is harmful to us, it can cause all sorts of problems/diseases from food poisoning, bloating, skin problems to death.
Therefore it is important for us to provide our gut with good bacteria. As the gut is responsible for the digestion of our food, the good bacteria is essential to help absorb all the good nutrients from what were eating and provide us with the benefit those nutrients have to offer, including our energy. They feed off the fibre in our diets and covert these into 'short chain fatty acids' which have been linked with improved immune function and a decrease in inflammation. Good bacteria also helps to synthesize B vitamins and vitamin K.
How does this relate to sports performance?
During exercise, our bodies are put through a lot of stress, physically, which has an impact on our immune system. The more intense and longer the exercise, the more it can impact our immune system. Being able to train and compete to the best of your ability therefore requires you to be at optimum health at all times, otherwise performances can be compromised.
As we exercise, blood and oxygen are being transported around our bodies, away from our gut, to our heart and muscles, which allows the gut to become slightly more permeable and allow some toxins to reach our bloodstream. This decreased blood and oxygen supply in our gut results in us not being able to remove the toxins efficiently, and as such increases inflammation and weakens our immune system. The risk of infection is therefore heightened the greater the work load placed on the body.
It is therefore important to make sure we provide our gut with the good bacteria, due to the compromise our gut has gone through during exercise. The good bacteria, as mentioned, also synthesises the B vitamins from our foods, which is essential in converting our food into fuel and therefore providing the body with energy.
Our gut health can also be compromised by several factors, which can lead to gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of bacteria). Some of these factors may be particularly influential during times of competition:
- Different environments/countries - this may change the profile of bacteria you're exposed to, which your body isn't used to.
- Stress - travelling.
- Lack of sleep.
- Taking antibiotics - These will destroy all the good bacteria in your gut.
- Diet high in refined sugars and sweeteners.
- Pesticides in foods - this can kill some of the good bacteria.
Gut dysbioisis can cause several different problems; bloating, indigestion, skin problems, infections and in some people, thrush.
How can I provide my gut with this good bacteria?
There are a few different ways you can promote a good environment for the good bacteria:
- Eating fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, yoghurt and kampuchea.
- Taking probiotics.
These can act as barriers to the gut lining, not allowing space for the bad bacteria to attach onto and can help promote an environment for the good bacteria.
Being an athlete requires peak health as well as fitness... and the key to good health is through the gut!
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