By Dana Angelo White MS RD ATC
There’s no disputing the importance of nutrition for optimizing performance but the role of gut health in this relationship is often overlooked. Key elements to performance including nutrient absorption, proper digestion and immune function all rely on well-balanced, healthy gut bacteria. Training, hydration, diet and travel are just a few of the things that can impact gut health. Here are 5 tips to help you be good to your gut – your performance will thank you.
Gut Meets Performance
Research supports that well-fed athletes that properly train (and avoid overtraining) can promote gut health, avoid stomach upset and reap the performance benefits. While exercise can create stress on the body that can exacerbate stomach issues, athletes with diets that promote healthy gut bacteria (aka – a good “microbiome”) may experience less stomach upset, better nutrient absorption and enhanced training outcomes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7218537/
Embrace Fermented Foods
There are both healthy and unhealthy bacteria found in the gut, eating more food sources of healthy bacteria (probiotics) and the prebiotic-containing foods that support them, helps to ensure the good bacteria are running the show in your gut. Consistent intake of probiotics from food and supplements has been linked to enhanced training adaptations, better recovery, and improved mood in athletes. Kefir in smoothies, sipping on kombucha, kimchi in rice bowls, miso paste in sauces, marinades and salad dressings and pickles and sauerkraut on sandwiches and wraps are just a few of the ways you can get more fermented foods in your universe. Probiotic supplements also offer a convenient option, especially while traveling or when suffering from an illness that requires prescription antibiotics. These supplements vary greatly by brand so pay close attention to labels and take as directed.
Related Study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32992765/
Consistent intake of probioticshas been linked to enhanced training adaptations, better recovery, and improved mood in athletes.
Fiber is Your Friend (except right before training)
Fiber is an undigestible substance found in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Eating fiber-rich foods daily helps regulate digestion and promote the microbiome as fiber ferments in the gut allowing healthy bacteria to flourish. Fiber also slows digestion, which contributes to satiety between meals but may not be ideal when in need of fast digesting energy to fuel performance. For this reason, opt for fiber at all meals and snacks, except right before exercise.
Another (perhaps less obvious) reason that staying hydrated can make or break performance. Lack of fluids can slow digestion and inhibit proper absorption. Fluid balance is critical for digestion and nutrient absorption so drinking consistently throughout the day and around training is key.
There is a strong connection between the brain and the gut – this relationship dubbed the “gut-brain axis” can have a big impact on daily training and on competition days when stress levels trend higher. Stress is part of competitive sports but making efforts towards de-stressing through activities like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, getting enough sleep (watch the caffeine), and carving out time to do things that spark joy can help reduce stress and promote gut health.
Lack of fluids can slow digestion and inhibit proper absorption.
Size Up Your Sweeteners
While more research is needed, there is enough to warrant some food for thought. Artificial sweeteners offer sweet taste with little or no calories and carbs but like sugar, they are best consumed in moderation and when appropriate for training. Many supplements, beverages and foods contain artificial sweeteners, and you may be ingesting them unknowingly. There is some evidence that artificial sweeteners cause stomach upset and products with saccharin and stevia may alter the microbiome so take inventory of your intake.
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