Ever heard the saying that great abs are made in the kitchen? Whilst this is only partially correct, it does have some truth in it. It's saying that there are other factors such as diet that either enhance or hinder your goal of washboard abs. The same principle applies with your performance. There are a few key components of your health and lifestyle that you need to consider, not just what you do in the gym or training. Nutrition and recovery methods are obviously a huge component but there is something else that isn’t often considered and that’s the health of your gut.
There are approximately 100 TRILLION microorganisms in the gut! This means the human gut contains 10 times more bacteria than all the human cells in the entire body. You could, therefore, say we are more BACTERIAL than we are HUMAN! I like to think we are co-inhabitants of our body with our gut bacteria.
It turns out that these little guys play a key role in our overall health, from controlling our weight and immune system to affecting our mood and mental health.
So why is this important for your performance? Let’s say you train hard, eat right, supplement correctly, get enough sleep and have stress under control. If, however, you have poor gut health, all your hard work is sabotaged and you will not be reaping the benefits of your healthy actions. Frustrating, right?
Why is gut health important?
Gut bacteria assist in food breakdown and help you to absorb all the nutrients and energy from your food. Without the right balance of bacteria, nutrition production, absorption and digestion are affected.
How does this affect your athletic performance?
· If you are not digesting and absorbing the nutrients from your food, your body is not getting the correct fuel it needs for exercise and adequate recovery. You could be putting all the right things in, but your body isn't assimilating all those beautiful nutrients. A healthy gut is critical to getting the most benefit of a healthy diet.
· Inflammation - Unhealthy gut flora leads to damage of the intestinal lining. This can result in a leaky gut, which allows proteins to enter the body and provoke an inflammatory response by the immune system. Chronic, systemic inflammation will severely impact your health and training capacity.
· Immunity – 70-80% of your immune system is located in your gut. If you have unhealthy gut flora, your protection against illness and disease will be affected. Training and performing is hard when you are sick all the time!
· It reduces your ability to access fat as fuel. Unhealthy gut microbes signal to store fat rather than burn it, which is counter to the needs of many endurance athletes who want to access their fat for energy use.
· It reduces your natural detoxification pathways - detoxification means the removal of toxins or ‘poisons’ from the body that could affect your health. Detoxification primarily occurs in the digestive tract, as well as the liver. Poor gut health = poor detoxification = poor performance.
Did you know? Your gut really is your “second brain”. Ninety-five percent of serotonin receptors (the hormone known as the ‘happiness hormone’ as it is involved in mood) are located in the gut, not the brain, which is commonly thought. Gut disorders have been linked to psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. So in many cases, if you can heal the gut, you can heal the brain.
What affects gut health?
Unfortunately, several factors of the modern lifestyle directly contribute to an unhealthy gut. Some of these include:
· Poor nutrition
o Inflammatory foods such as gluten, refined sugars, refined seed oils and trans fats kill good bacteria, allowing bad bacteria to thrive. They also damage the intestinal lining and can cause Leaky Gut.
o A lack of probiotic rich foods due to refrigeration, canning and preservatives.
o i.e Antibiotics (the opposite to probiotics), oral contraceptive pill, synthetic prescription drugs.
o Studies show one course of antibiotics affects the balance of gut bacteria for 2 years!
· Chronic infections i.e candida, parasites, worms
o Our gut cannot keep up with our modern lifestyles and we are often stressed, busy and tired. This weakens our immune system over time and can lead to inflammation and Leaky Gut.
· Environmental toxins – pollution, plastics, chemicals in our beauty and home products to name just a few.
How do you know if you have an unhealthy gut?
· Food sensitivities
· Digestive problems
· Poor physical performance
· Poor recovery from exercise
· Skin issues like eczema or acne
· Joint pain
· Headaches, brain fog
· Weight gain
· Thyroid issues
How do you improve your gut health?
1. Clean up your diet – remove gluten, refined sugars, seed oils, trans fats and other inflammatory, processed foods.
2. Add in healing foods
· Fermented vegetables (i.e sauerkraut, kimchi) – contains organic acids that balance pH and probiotics to support the gut
· Fermentable fibres (sweet potato, yam, yucca etc)
· Bone broth – a mineral rich drink or stock. It is packed full of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, collagen and amino acids (proline and glycine) that can help heal your damaged cell walls
· Kefir – a probiotic drink made from milk. It can also be made from water or coconut milk/water for a dairy free option
· Kombucha – fermented tea drink that contains a number of different probiotic strains, organic enzymes, amino acids and vitamins
3. Treat any intestinal pathogens (such as parasites) that may be present with antimicrobial herbs (speak to your dietitian/nutritionist/naturopath)
4. Repair with Supplementation
· Probiotics– daily probiotics from a high quality brand to replace the good guys and crowd out the bad guys
· Omega-3 fish oil – improves gut inflammation, balances hormones and supports the integrity of the intestinal lining
· L-Glutamine – an essential amino-acid that is anti-inflammatory and necessary for the growth and repair of intestinal lining
· Vitamin D3 – vital for the immune system and the integrity of tight junctions in the gut. Vitamin D deficiency increases inflammation and Leaky Gut (intestinal permeability)
· Liquorice root, slippery elm, peppermint and ginger are all useful herbs to sooth and repair the intestinal lining
· Digestive enzymes – ensure that foods are fully digested, decreasing the chance that partially digested food particles and proteins from damaging your gut wall.
5. Take steps to manage your stress – stress causes a number of detrimental effects on the gut, including decreased nutrient absorption; decreased blood flow to the gut and therefore decreased metabolism and decreased enzymatic output in your gut. Try some restorative practices like yoga or meditation.
So make sure that you are not wasting all your hard work, in and out of the gym. With a bit of time and dedication to improving your gut health, you will see and feel incredible results, in all aspects of your health and performance.
My four week gut cleanse is the perfect solution to improve your gut health and get you back on track to smashing your goals. Check it out here