Research on the Horizon
How Microbiome-active Nutrition Research is Evolving
Research on the Horizon
How Microbiome-active Nutrition Research is Evolving
By Elyse Lovett, MBS, MS
Trends in Microbiome Research
Information and research on the microbiome have been a hot topic over the past few years. Advanced ingredient development, innovative products, and increased consumer demand have put microbiome research at the forefront of the dietary supplement industry across multiple health categories–including sports nutrition.
Microbiome research is a dynamic field that continues to advance rapidly. As the field continues to expand, trends in research and human impact are emerging.
Some of these trends include:
Early Life Impact: Factors such as mode of birth, breastfeeding, antibiotic exposure, and early nutrition influence the infant gut microbiome and, in turn, subsequent health outcomes later in life.
The “Biotics”: Advanced research on pre, pro, and postbiotics can influence the composition and function of the microbiome by providing beneficial microorganisms.
Gut-Brain Axis: Encompassing the communication between the gut and central nervous systems is an area of active research in understanding how the microbiome influences brain function, behavior, and certain mental health conditions.
Personalized Microbiome: Research to identify microbiome-based biomarkers that can predict health status or outcomes can assist in developing personalized approaches to healthcare including an individual’s microbiome profile.
Overview of the Microbiome
The microbiome is made up of microorganisms which include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes that reside in and on the human body. The gut microbiome is the most extensively studied and understood. The microorganisms in the gut are primarily found in the large intestines that interact with the biological roles of the human body. The microbiome plays a crucial role in various health aspects including digestion, metabolism, immune function, and brain health.
Each person’s microbiome is unique as it is formed in the first years of life. A person’s microbiome can change over time in response to different factors including diet, medications, and environmental exposures. Differences in the microbiome can lead to health effects and may determine susceptibility to certain illnesses and diseases.
Factors Affecting Microbiome Health
The microbiome starts to develop in the early stages and continues to develop through human development. The composition and diversity of the microbiome can be influenced by various factors including the following:
Diet: One of the most influential factors on the microbiome is food intake and diet. Different types of foods and nutrients can selectively promote the growth of bacteria while suppressing others. A diet rich in plant-based foods, fiber, fermented foods, and biotics supports a more diverse and healthier microbiome. On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods and saturated fats may negatively impact the balance of the gut microbiome.
Lifestyle and Stress: Lifestyle factors, including stress levels, exercise, and sleep quality, can influence the microbiome. Chronic stress has been associated with alterations in microbial composition. Stress hormones can alter intestinal barrier function, increase gut permeability, and promote inflammation. These changes can disrupt the balance of the microbiome and lead to a decrease in beneficial bacteria.i Growing evidence suggests that the gut microbiome can influence sleep quality. However, the relationship remains unclear and more research is needed in the area.
Environmental Exposures: Environmental factors, such as exposure to pollutants, chemicals, and toxins, may impact the microbiome. Environmental pollutants can alter the gut microbiome leading to a variety of disorders that affect energy metabolism, nutrient absorption, and immune system function.
Age and Genetics: The microbiome evolves over a person’s lifetime with variations observed at different stages of life. Individual genetic variations can affect the interactions between genes and the microbiome influencing its composition the functionality.
The Microbiome & Active Nutrition
The relationship between sports nutrition and the microbiome is a growing area of research to support optimal athletic performance, recovery, and overall health. The microorganisms that reside in the gut play a crucial role in sports nutrition.
Nutrient Metabolism: Nutrient metabolism and the microbiome are closely connected and play essential roles in health including digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. Recent studies have shown that the microbiome may regulate adipose tissue biology and glucose homeostasis which are both key factors in maintaining metabolic fitness.ii Some microbial species produce enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates and dietary fibers producing additional energy.
Energy Harvesting: The microbiome can influence energy by extracting additional calories from certain foods. Multiple studies have shown an increase in microbial-derived fecal short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in athletes.i Other studies have suggested that there are benefits associated with SCFAs with regard to skeletal muscle including increased carbohydrate uptake, lipid metabolism, and fatty acid oxidation.iii SCFAs have been linked to improved exercise performance as they provide fuel for intestinal cells, enhance nutrient absorption, and contribute to overall metabolic health.
The connection between the microbiome and energy intake and expenditure as part of metabolic homeostasis plays an important role in sports nutrition performance. More research on different levels of athletic and sports performances is needed as the field continues to evolve.
Inflammation and Immune Function: The diversity of microorganisms in the gut microbiome has been linked to immune function and inflammation regulation. The microbiome plays a role in training the development of innate and adaptive immunity from an early age. Research has shown that intense exercise can lead to temporary increases in inflammation and oxidative stress.
The microbiome Affects:
High Level Athletes & Microbiome Health
Since the gut microbiota plays an important role to harvest energy, modulating the immune system, and supporting brain health, it is likely to influence athletic health, well-being, and sports performance.iv Studies have shown that exercising to exhaustion can disrupt the balance of the gut microbiota and the immune system.v It is important to understand how high-intensity and high-duration aerobic exercise affects the gut microbiota in athletes and how these effects could provide disadvantages in sports performance.
A 2022 study looked at the effect of intensity and duration of exercise on gut microbiota in humans in a systematic review. Many studies in the review found adverse effects on the intestinal microbiota when performing endurance exercises, such as an increase in distress, bacteria, a decrease in microbial diversity, and an intestinal permeability decrease. In studies carried out on athletes, more negative effects on the microbiota were found than in those carried out on non-athletic subjects. Although there were negative effects on the microbiota in endurance exercises and those in athletic subjects, studies found there were positive effects on the microbiota with general aerobic exercise. The authors concluded that future studies should propose the amount of exercise necessary to achieve favorable effects and the cut-off point for the negative effects of exercise on the conditions of the intestinal microbiome.vi
Understanding the microbiome is a complex system and many factors go into determining the composition and functionality of the gut microbiome. The factors that influence the microbiome also crossover into athletic health and sports performance. Nutrient metabolism, energy harvesting, inflammation markers, and immune system function, which are all part of the microbiome’s health, are important factors in sports nutrition.
There is conflicting evidence in research on whether regular exercise affects the microbiome because the exact mechanism of the effect that exercise has on the gut microbiota remains largely unknown.
Recent research has shown that intensity and duration of training over time affect the composition of the microbiome. Understanding performance and recovery measures, as it relates to microbiome research, will be an important next step in the sports nutrition category, especially in personalized sports nutrition. Additionally, more research is needed on how diet, along with oral microbiome interactions (biotics), affects athletic performance. As research continues to develop in microbiome health and sports nutrition, there will be increased opportunities for new product development and continued innovation in dietary supplement manufacturing.
[i] Madison A., Kiecolt-Glaser J. Stress, Depression, Diet, and the Gut Microbiota: Human-Bacteria Interactions at the Core of Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci. May 2020
[ii] Cox T., Lundgren P., Nath K., Thaiss C., Metabolic Control by the Microbiome. Genome Medicine July 29, 2022.
[iii] Frampton J, Murphy KG, Frost G, Chambers ES. Short-chain fatty acids as potential regulators of skeletal muscle metabolism and function. Nat Metab. 2020;2:840–8.
[iv] Clark A, Mach N. Exercise-induced stress behavior, gut-microbiota-brain axis and diet: a systematic review for athletes. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2016;13:43. doi: 10.1186/s12970-016-0155-6.
[v] Ticinesi A., Lauretani F., Tana C., Nouvenne A., Ridolo E., Meschi T. Exercise and immune system as modulators of intestinal microbiome: Implications for the gut-muscle axis hypothesis. Exerc. Immunol. Rev. 2019;25:84–95
[vi] Gnutzmann, R., Plaza-Diaz J., Jorquera-Aguilere C.. Effect of Intensity and Duration of Exercise on Gut Microbiota in Humans: A Systematic Review. International Journal Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Aug; 19(15):9518
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