Our small intestine and gut is the center of our world. With research showing that 80 percent of our immune system residing in our gut, it’s more important than ever to understand how to heal and foster gut health, especially for athletes.
The microbiome in out gut has been correlated to our digestive health, as well as our brain health with direct links to mental health. An unsupported microbiome can result in health issues that extend far beyond a stomach ache.
SYMPTOMS THAT SIGNAL POOR GUT HEALTH
It’s important to know what symptoms to look for to determine the current state of your gut. Many symptoms become accepted as normal, when they may be a sign that we have internal stress, which can lead towards adrenal dysfunction as our body regulates the effects of an unbalanced gut.
Some of the most common symptoms of poor gut health include:
- Abdominal bloating 1-2 hours after a meal
- Certain foods causing bloating and sleepiness
- Alternating between constipation and diarrhea
- If you have a gluten or wheat sensitivity
- Prone to sinus congestion
- Regular sinus infections, a stuffy nose, or asthma
- You use over the counter medications regularly
- Brain fog and memory loss
- Joint pain
- Skin disorders
These can be a sign that you’re experiencing digestive upset, or are more susceptible to having degraded gut health. By looking at the diet and needs for support, we can resolve many of these symptoms.
WHAT CAN HARM GUT HEALTH?
Our digestive system serves as a barrier between the outside world, including our food, and our internal environment. As food passes through the digestive tract and into the small intestine, it’s able to be utilized as fuel and nourishment. The small intestine is responsible for the absorption of food and nutrients once it has been broken down into the smallest molecules possible.
Under normal conditions, food particles and molecules are selectively absorbed through the lining of the small intestine through intestinal permeability. When in good working condition, the small intestine contains millions of villi that maintain this absorption process, determining what enters our bloodstream and what is guarded against. In good condition, the villi are close together to help determine what is absorbed into the bloodstream.
Under unhealthy conditions, however, permeability increases and the small intestine is unable to be as selective for absorbing particles into the bloodstream. The junctions between the villi become cracked and broken, allowing more to seep into the bloodstream unmonitored. Undigested and partially digested food particles can enter the bloodstream, as well as bacteria and other toxins. As this happens, our outer world and inner worlds collide, causing inflammation.
Inflammation is the root of all diseases, and when undigested particles and foreign particles enter the bloodstream, our immune system is responsible for attacking and destroying the particles that can cause harm to our health. When our immune system is regularly focused on attacking food particles in the bloodstream, it is less equipped to protect against real health threats.
There are five dietary factors that lead to the degradation of our gut health:
- High sugar consumption
- Low fiber intake
- Food sensitivities and allergies, including the use of NSAIDs
Sugar is inherently inflammatory in the body. It also feeds pathogenic gut bacteria, allowing them to thrive while the healthy and necessary bacteria in our microbiome are dampened. Sugar throws this delicate balance off, leading to an increase in pathogenic bacteria that result in a condition called dysbiosis. The result is changes in the mucosal lining of the intestine and an increased permeability.
Stress can create an unbalance microbiome. However, it’s important to keep in mind that stress can be mental, physical and internal. Exercise is an important part of health, but high levels of exercise can create stress on the body, resulting in gut issues. Stress occurring higher in the digestive system (at the level of the stomach, liver, and gallbladder) can lead to increased intestinal permeability. For example, when food reaches the small intestine, it should be nearly fully digested and broken down. If this is not happening thanks to the preliminary digestive organs, the small intestine can be damaged and unable to work properly.
Food sensitivities and known or unknown allergies create an internal stress on the body as the immune system, much of which resides in the small intestine, works to fight the effects of food causing a reaction. While this may not always look like an allergic response where histamine is in action (hives, anaphylactic shock, etc.), food sensitivities create an unnecessary stress on the body. When our immune system is working to battle our food, it’s often unable to employ adequate efforts to other immune needs.
In addition to food sensitivities, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and over-the-counter pain medications increase intestinal permeability. In their goal of reducing pain, they decrease the small intestine’s natural ability to selectively absorb nutrients leading to further long-term inflammation.
Alcohol effects out gut health in two vital ways. First, alcohol affects the activity levels of prostaglandins, substances responsible for regulating inflammatory responses in the body. Alcohol also reduces the ability of the small intestine to pull and absorb nutrients from our food, meaning that more passes through our body without absorption. If our food is not absorbed, it is serving no purpose.
WHAT TO EAT TO PROMOTE GUT HEALTH
If you have more than one of the symptoms related to gut health dysfunction, focusing on healing and promoting a healthy gut bacteria can be beneficial for your digestion, ability to absorb nutrients properly, as well as your athletic function as more inflammation in your body will slow your progress as an athlete.
Some of the best things you can do to support your microbiome will include reducing or removing inflammatory foods from your diet for a period of time, if not indefinitely. Those foods include processed sugars, alcohol, and any foods that create an adverse reaction unique to your body.
From here, make sure to get plenty of fiber in your diet, which will serve as nourishment and an environment for probiotic bacteria to live and thrive. Without enough prebiotic fiber in the diet, probiotics are simply eliminated as waste through the digestive tract. By providing them the nourishment they need, healthy bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria can thrive, creating a balance in the microbiome against pathogenic bacteria.
To consume these probiotics in the diet regularly, a supplement is not always needed. Probiotics bacteria are responsible for the function of the gut microbiome and resulting immunity. Fermented foods are a quality, natural source of probiotics, including kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, and tempeh. The fermenting process allows for live microorganisms to grow and thrive.
This is especially vital for athletes. You are not what you eat. You are what you are able to absorb. With that in mind, if you’re unable to properly absorb the healthy food you are eating to support your athletic goals, muscle gain, fat loss and fuel your muscles, you won’t be able to reach your goals. Recovery is another important consideration for athletes as increase sleep disruptions can affect the gut microbiome negatively.
Preventing and healing a damaged microbiome can be accomplished through food, many of which are regulars in a healthy and balanced diet comprised of whole foods. By avoiding certain inflammatory foods that lead to increased intestinal permeability, you can promote gut health and support your brain and immune system at the same time.