Can the microbiome influence athletic performance?

A balanced microbiome is important for everyone’s health, especially when it comes to athletes. Learn more about how the gut influences athletic performance, as well as how nutrition professionals can help their clients achieve a balanced microbiome.

Whether your client is active or sedentary, encouraging them to tune into normal or abnormal bodily fluctuations will go a long way in helping you (the dietitian) understand their health needs. While this information is useful on many levels, it’s even more important to note when evaluating the microbiome. There are many negative symptoms associated with a microbiome imbalance, so it’s crucial to be aware of how these imbalances impact health.

When the microbiome is balanced, it greatly benefits the immune system, heart health, and digestion. This is why adjusting your clients’ diet, lifestyle, and supplementation in accordance to their microbiome levels can positively impact their wellbeing, brain health, and even athletic performance. Additionally, if your clients are athletes, it’s important to understand how improving the gut microbiome can boost your clients’ abilities in their respective sports.

Before we discuss how to help your athletic clients achieve a balanced microbiome, let’s start off by defining what the microbiome is and what can happen if athletes experience an imbalance.


What is the microbiome?

There are trillions of microbes living inside the human body, with most of the gut microbes found in the cecum (a section of the large intestine) as bacterial cells. There are about 40 trillion bacterial cells within the body and 1,000 different species of bacteria in the gut that all play different roles for health [2,3]. These gut microbes can be responsible for how the body breaks down carbohydrates and protein, as well as keeping energy sources regulated. They also influence the body’s overall inflammatory response, neurodevelopment and the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain [4]. Higher microbiome diversity is actually considered good and beneficial for overall health [5].

Risks of microbiome imbalance

When your client has microbiome imbalance, they can present with many different symptoms, so before trying to improve athletic performance, it’s important to be aware of how these imbalances impact health. Here are some of the most common symptoms:

GI distress

Microbiome imbalance can cause many gastrointestinal issues such as IBS and IBD. The gut dysbiosis from an imbalanced microbiome may cause the microbes to produce a lot of gas, which can cause bloating, intestinal pain, cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and other gastrointestinal issues [6].

Onset of diabetes

Some studies suggest that, before the onset of type 1 diabetes, the diversity of the microbiome can drop suddenly, as well as increase the amount of unhealthy bacterial species in the gut [7, 8].

Heart issues

Certain unhealthy species of bacteria found in the gut microbiome may produce a chemical called TMAO that contributes to blocked arteries. This can cause heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease [9].

Increased weight

If someone has too many unhealthy microbes, it can contribute to weight gain. This is due to gut dysbiosis causing chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and other malfunctioning gut issues [10, 11].

Benefits of a balanced microbiome

A balanced microbiome positively affects overall health, and can provide the following benefits:

Helps digest fiber

There are certain microbes that assist in the process of digesting fiber which produce short-chain fatty acids and are important for overall health [12].

Controls the immune system

The gut microbes can communicate with the body’s immune cells and change how your body fights off and deals with infections [13].

Promotes heart health

Some gut microbes are proven to play a role in promoting good HDL and triglycerides, which help promote good cardiovascular health [14].

Good brain health

Studies have shown that certain species of bacteria in the gut can help produce some neurotransmitters in the brain. One of these is serotonin (an antidepressant) [15].

Improved gut health

There are certain microbes that can help prevent any disease-causing bacteria from sticking to the intestinal walls and reduce symptoms of IBS or gastrointestinal discomfort [16].

How do these benefits impact sports performance?

When it comes to improving sports performance, research suggests that the abundance of a certain bacteria within the athlete's gut increases proportionally with the time spent exercising [17]. Other studies show a spike in the levels of a bacteria that breaks down lactic acid after strenuous activity, which could be great for speeding up recovery time of an athlete [18,19].

Here are a few additional ways that a balanced microbiome can increase athletic performance:

Reduces inflammation

Inflammation is the root of many chronic diseases, and can also interfere with the athletic performance by causing pain, slowing speed, decreasing strength, and increasing recovery time. These inflammatory conditions decrease as the microbiome becomes more balanced, thus leading to better health and improved athletic performance [20].

Boosts energy

A balanced microbiome can reduce (or delay) exercise fatigue from better lactic acid breakdown and controlled redox reactions. Healthy microbes can also regulate metabolism and supply some essential metabolites to the mitochondria to increase ATP levels [21, 22].

Increases nutrient absorption

When the gut microbiome is unbalanced and unable to thrive, it won’t be able to utilize vitamins, proteins, and enzymes. However, when functioning properly, it uses food that the digestive system was unable to process and transforms it into nutrients that can benefit overall athletic performance [23].

Improves sleep

Many neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, cortisol, melatonin, and GABA) are produced in the gut microbiome and have an impact on sleep quality, thus affecting athletic performance. Since athletes depend heavily on energy levels and proper sleep, it’s important that the gut microbiome is balanced. Studies have shown that when these chemicals are produced at proper quantities and times, it can lead to improved performance [24].

Helping clients achieve a balanced microbiome

As a dietitian, you can help your client improve their microbiome and boost their athletic performance by adjusting their nutrition. Here are some suggestions for how to help your clients achieve a balanced microbiome:

Take probiotic supplements

When there are too many unhealthy microbes in the gut, probiotic supplements can help slowly restore the gut back to its normal balance due to the abundance of live bacteria [25].

Include fermented foods

Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut contain healthy bacteria to boost gut health [26].

Eat a variety of foods

When the microbiome has variety and diversity, it can promote the growth of healthy microbes and create a healthy gastrointestinal microbiome [27].

Increase fiber intake

High fiber foods (such as beans, fruits, and legumes) can decrease the risk of diseases, improve digestion and benefit the microbiome [28].

Limit antibiotic use

Unless medically necessary, it’s recommended to not take excessive amounts of antibiotics, as they kill off the good and bad bacteria in the microbiome and lead to dysbiosis [29].

Eat foods with prebiotics

Prebiotic-rich foods (such as apples, oats, garlic, asparagus, and bananas) can encourage healthy bacteria growth.

Limit artificial sweetener intake

Artificial sweeteners can increase blood sugar and will prompt the growth of unhealthy bacteria [30].

Summary

The microbiome is a complex set of bacteria, fungi, and viruses located throughout the body (with the biggest one being in the gut). If the microbiome becomes unbalanced, it can cause many unpleasant symptoms, as well as increase the risks for diseases and adverse health outcomes.

When the microbiome is balanced, it can improve overall health, as well as increase sports performance for athletes. As a nutrition professional, you can help your clients improve their performance through supplementation and a personalized nutrition plan focused on fermented foods, probiotics, and fiber.


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