Follow your gut instinct when it comes to performing at your best

The other night I presented the very first CISN webinar, where I gave the example of gastrointestinal functioning as one of the ways that you might use functional or integrative nutrition practices with your athletes.

If your athletes’ guts are not in tip-top condition, every physiological system in their body is affected in some way. According to the diagram that I shared (below), amongst other things, our gut health influences our brain function, our immunity, our musculoskeletal function and our mitochondria.

Taking these four examples one at a time, here is how their imbalance can affect the underlying health of an athlete and unsettle their performance:

1) Brain - the gut-brain axis is incredibly strong, especially in some people. The neurochemistry of the brain is mirrored in and around the gut and vice versa, so it’s no accident that when your gut is aggravated, you can feel agitated or depressed mentally, plus if your mind is unsettled, guess what? Your gut follows suit. It’s very common to find an athlete who trains so hard that they become anxious or depressed, which obviously affects their focus, concentration and motivation and therefore their daily training efforts. If this is the case, don’t forget to check their gastrointestinal (GI) functioning.

2) Immunity - it’s been estimated by many, that +/- 70 per cent of the immune system is in or around our GI track - this makes sense when you follow another assumption; that if we were to flatten out our guts on the floor, including all the nooks and crannies, it would take up a tennis court in space - that’s a lot of immune surveillance… One of the biggest fears of athletes is getting ill, so it is vital that their GI track is heathy - working on the gut is actually the fast track to improved systemic immunity.

3) Musculoskeletal health - the other thing that athletes fear most is injury. I can remember when I was an athlete, when I got injured, I would become so depressed that I would stop caring about what I ate and I would drink more beer - these actions would in turn create gastrointestinal inflammation, which would map out to systemic inflammation. Guess what - the injury would take longer to recover because the overall inflammatory response was excessive.

4) Mitochondria - physiologically, our energy givers are often simply viewed as having the mechanistic function of making energy out of various substrates (our macronutrients). However, with their bacterial origins, mitochondria are incredibly sensitive to stress of various types - these stresses include oxidative stress, inflammation, and sources of toxicity such as toxic metals, plastics and pesticides. Not only do our mitochondria rely on our guts for the absorption of substrate and the micronutrients that drive the enzyme systems, but an inflammatory reaction in our GI track will affect our energy provision at a much deeper level.

In terms of improving an athlete’s GI health, the example protocol that I shared during the webinar was one of the cornerstone practices of the Institute for Functional Medicine: the 4R approach.

1) Remove food sensitivities, toxicity, pathogens

If our athlete is constantly eating food or being exposed to certain toxins or microorganisms, his or her gut will be in a perpetual state of inflammation, which most likely will cause a leaky gut, diminished nutrient absorption, and often autoimmune-like immune reactions. The first thing I do with cases of gut dysfunction is an elimination diet (check out this elimination diet meal guide plan from expert Kylene Bogden) and if I suspect a heavy microbial load, I’ll ask them to do a stool test, which can then be acted upon with specific therapies.

2) Replace stomach acid and digestive enzymes

Stomach acidity is reduced by two main factors: age and nervous system balance. Let’s assume that we have a young athlete, but that he or she is packing too much into his or her day, meaning that from dawn to dusk their nervous system is heavily skewed towards a sympathetic (fight or flight) state. Since the gut thrives in a parasympathetic state, it is likely that they will under-produce stomach acid and digestive enzymes when food is presented to their GI tract. Of course, this means maldigestion, often with resultant fermentation and/or purification of the food, and a resultant dysbiotic state.

3) Reinoculate pre and probiotics

We now realise that we are more bug than we are human; the bacteria in our system out number our own cells by approximately 10 to 1. It’s also been shown that people living traditional simple and rural lifestyles have a hugely more diverse microbiome than people stressing their way through a typical Western lifestyle. Athletes are no different and because of the amount of physiological and mechanical trauma placed on their guts every day, they are even more likely to have a diminished microbiome. Probiotic therapy is now well established in exercise immunology and I additionally believe strongly in the use of fermented foods, which I’ve written about previously in the FSN magazine here. Additionally, prebiotics are the foods for our gut flora and Rachel has written on this subject here.

4) Repair intestinal lining

Talking about mechanical trauma, it’s been shown that even within the duration of a single exercise bout (and runners are particularly prone), that our gut lining can become permeable. Additionally, all of the physiological factors that I’ve just mentioned tend to take us towards intestinal permeability. It essentially means that the microvilli that line our gut membrane become blunted, meaning diminished nutrient absorption, plus the cells can separate a bit, leading to the passing of undigested food particles, toxins and pathogens across our gut membrane, obviously causing a strong kick-back from our gut-based immunity (bouncer on the door syndrome) and a local and potentially systemic inflammatory response. L-glutamine and butyric acid (in butter) are known to have restorative influence on the gut membrane, as do bone broths, which have become fashionable, and our friendly yeast Saccharomyces Boulardii can be very effective to this end.

Okay, the bottom line is to love your guts and to teach your athletes to do the same. If we are not effectively absorbing our nutrition and we are sitting in a systemic inflammatory state, we cannot expect to perform at our best.