The gut microbiome is a hot topic in the medical field. No wonder! Research shows your gut microbiome, the community of bacteria that lives in your intestinal tract, plays a key role in health, including immune health, digestion, and nutrient absorption.
Many factors affect the balance of bacteria in your gut diet, stress, age, and more. And when this balance gets out of whack, it can lead to health problems such as digestive issues and low-grade inflammation, a risk factor for many chronic health issues. Here’s a question that intrigues scientists. Can the composition of your gut microbiome also affect exercise performance?
Gut Stability and Exercise Performance
According to a study carried out by researchers in the United Kingdom, the gut microbiome may affect endurance exercise performance. The researchers found that runners who consumed a high-protein diet had a more unstable gut microbiome, which affects running performance.
The researchers found that a less stable gut microbiome reduced running time trials in endurance runners by 23.3%. In contrast, runners who ate a high-carbohydrate diet enjoyed greater microbiome stability and a 6.5% boost in running performance, based on trial times. Those are substantial differences!
This study suggests that a more stable gut microbiome optimizes running performance. And in the study, a high-carbohydrate diet, not a high-protein one, stabilized the gut microbiome the most. Why would a high-carbohydrate diet improve endurance exercise performance? One theory is fiber in carbohydrate-rich foods feeds gut bacteria and creates greater diversity and gut stability. Plus, carbohydrates are a source of energy during exercise.
So, a more stable and diverse gut microbiome boosts endurance exercise performance more than an unstable and less diverse microbiome and a high-carbohydrate diet is better for microbiome stability. Greater microbiome diversity is also linked with better health and weight control.
As the researchers point out, it’s unlikely dietary protein directly impacts endurance exercise performance. It affects it indirectly through changes to the gut microbiome. Even consuming a high-protein diet short term led to a reduction in microbiome stability in the runners.
Other Ways the Gut Microbiome Could Affect Exercise Performance
With as many as 100 trillion bacteria in your intestinal tract, it’s not surprising they influence other bodily functions from digestion and nutrient absorption to brain and immune health. Another way gut microbiome composition could affect exercise performance is by its effects on the brain, including mood and cognition.
It’s no secret that motivation plays a role in exercise performance. Scientists are only beginning to understand how gut bacteria impact higher brain function. Your gut communicates with your brain through a large and important nerve called the vagus nerve and your gut microbiome “talks” to the vagus nerve too. Research suggests that mental illnesses, such as depression, may even begin with imbalances in the gut. So, it’s not a stretch to say that your gut microbiome affects your emotions, motivation, and even cognition. Can your gut microbiome boost exercise motivation? It’s an underexplored area.
Effects on Antioxidant Defenses
At least in mice, the gut microbiome also affects the antioxidant defense system. The antioxidant defense system is a collection of molecules that help protect the body from damage by reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are unstable oxygen molecules that can cause damage to cells. The body uses antioxidants to neutralize these ROS and prevent them from causing further damage
By supporting the body’s antioxidant defense system, a more stable gut microbiome could delay the onset of fatigue and improve exercise performance in that way. By reducing inflammation, a more stable gut microbiome could improve exercise recovery too.
Support Your Gut Microbiome
Whether you exercise or not, you need a healthy gut microbiome. Many factors like ultra-processed foods, antibiotics, stress, and other medications can damage your gut and reduce the diversity of your microbiome while consuming more fiber-rich foods, fermented foods, and moderate exercise seems to enhance gut microbiome diversity.
Certain types of fiber are better than others. Fermentable fiber, or prebiotics, is best for supporting your gut microbes. Garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, asparagus, dandelion greens, chicory, and green bananas are among the best sources of prebiotics. When gut bacteria consume prebiotic fiber, they release short-chain fatty acids that reduce inflammation.
The Bottom Line
If you do endurance exercise, especially competitively, a high carbohydrate diet may serve you better than a high protein one. Carbohydrates supply energy to fuel endurance exercise but also help stabilize your gut microbiome. Make sure you’re eating a variety of whole, plant-based foods rich in fiber to support your gut microbiome. Gut health is important to your health as a whole too. It’s the gateway to the rest of your body. Make sure you’re nourishing it well.
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