Many of us know that digestion is important for breaking down food into nutrients that the body uses for energy, growth, and cell repair. But how many of us understand the connection between digestion and athletic performance?
The current American diet, for the most part, is high in processed foods, saturated fat, sugar, and low in fiber. Studies show that this type of diet reduces the beneficial bacteria in our system, making it harder for the gut to absorb nutrients and increases inflammation throughout the body. This results not only in production of inflammatory substances in the intestines, but also causes systemic inflammation in the body and impacts brain function—both of which inhibit athletic performance and recovery.
When it comes to sports performance, gut bacteria, which is influenced by one’s diet, among other factors, affects how well an athlete will perform and how quickly they recover. Research also suggests that exercise prevents the growth of bad bacteria through the body, thereby helping the body digest food and absorb what it needs from it.
Athletes are becoming more aware of how their overall performance can be affected by what they eat. Here, we’ll dive into how digestive health may impact sports performance.
Inflammation is the root cause of many chronic diseases and can also interfere with athletic performance in many ways, but mostly it may significantly slow down post-workout recovery. Research shows that improving your microbiome balance reduces systemic inflammation, which provides both short-term relief and long-term risk reduction.
Maintaining a balanced microbiome is key to helping reduce systemic inflammation and provides a more stable environment within the body, which makes it easier for athletes to handle the repeated stress placed on their bodies.
Boosts Energy Levels
A mix of friendly bacteria in the microbiome may help boost energy levels. It does this by impacting our Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) cycle, or our energy cycle. ATP is the body’s biochemical way to store and transport energy. A healthy microbiome can also improve metabolism. This could in turn help all athletes, including those in endurance sports, last longer and perform better by supplying essential metabolites to their mitochondria – our cell’s powerhouse.
Another function of a healthy microbiome is helping to reduce fatigue through better lactic acid uptake, controlling the redox function, and therefore delaying fatigue symptoms and overall energy levels.
Improving Mental Strength
Some may argue that success in sports is 100 percent mental. Athletes and coaches often attribute poor performance in competition to thinking too much, and not keeping your head “in the game.” Your gut microbes talk to your brain through the vagus nerve, which regulates internal organ functions like digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Although it is premature to state conclusively that the microbiome can impact mental health and more research is needed in this area, some studies suggest that, the gut may affect your mindset and mental focus. In some cases, when gut microbes are imbalanced, they’ve been shown to contribute to mental illness. One study linked dysbiosis, or gut microbiome imbalance, to anxiety and depression.
On the flip side, having a healthy gut microbiome can contribute to mental strength. The composition of the gut microbiome significantly affects things you rely on for athletic performance including your mood, pain tolerance, cognitive performance, mental clarity, and attitude. More simply put—you’ll perform better when your mental strength is better.
Shaping Ideal Body Composition
The gut microbiome plays a role in our body mass composition (muscle vs. fat), amount of white fat vs. brown fat, as well as blood glucose response to meals. This means that having a healthy microbiome would lead to increased energy and nutrient uptake from food, or proper digestion, therefore improving metabolism, body weight and how efficiently the body is performing. Body composition changes tend to be more challenging if the gut microbiome is out of balance.
Athletes know they need proper sleep to perform well and for proper recovery, but many of them may not know that their gut makes some of the neurotransmitters that help them sleep.
Gut microbiome imbalance is also associated with poor sleep quality and lowered cognitive flexibility. This is because the gut microbiome controls levels of various hormones such as cortisol, serotonin, and GABA, which all impact sleep quality. The microbiome also affects the body’s ability to make melatonin, a hormone that is important for a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Quality sleep, good gut health, energy levels, and performance are all connected in a cycle that can either build you up or bring you down.
Antioxidant Defense System
Top performing athletes, as well as the everyday athletes, need a high functioning immune system to consistently perform at their peak so they can recover quickly to stay at the top of their game. About 70 percent – 80 percent of our immune cells are created in our gut, so the balance in our microbiome is a powerful system our bodies use for antioxidant enzymes to keep us well.
Immune system health is associated with a balanced gut microbiome. This gut microbiome-regulated antioxidant enzyme system helps prevent tissue damage from exercise, protects against intense exercise-induced oxidative damage, is linked to the physical status of athletes, reduces physical fatigue, and improves exercise performance.
Taking a holistic look at digestion enables us to better understand the positive effects a healthy diet has on our entire body and impact on athletic performance. Steering clear of processed foods can help balance gut bacteria and aid digestion which research shows contributes to a range of benefits including reduced inflammation, more energy, better body composition, improved sleep, a healthier immune system and improved mental strength. Although gut microbial composition alone cannot predict any state of health or disease, prioritizing the health of your microbiome may help individuals without diseases stay healthy, and perform at their best.
Michelle Ricker , RD, NASM is a Nutrition Master Instructor, ACSM Certified Fitness Trainer, and Director Worldwide Health Education & Training at Herbalife Nutrition.