Can a balanced gut microbiota help improve sports performance?

The gut microbiota impacts sport performance and resilience after physical exercise. In addition, regular moderate exercise can result in improved bacterial composition and, therefore, better physical and mental health.

Many individuals make a New Year’s resolution to take greater care of themselves after the holiday season. It might be possible to achieve this by eating a more balanced and healthy diet and exercising more often. 

Nutritionist and biologist Daniel Badia, a professor at the Open University of Catalonia, Spain, specializes in food and sports. The gut microbiota can help people benefit most from such habit changes [1]. According to Badia, gut microbiota influences our health and well-being. “And in the case of athlete – not just elite sportspeople but anyone who does exercise, it also conditions their performance.”

According to the nutritionist, an unhealthy diet can cause abdominal distension, nutritional deficiencies, excessive fermentations, intestinal permeability and even increased fatigue after exercise. The benefits of a balanced microbiota become evident when they are absent, he says, adding that “an unbalanced microbiota contributes to global inflammation of the body, which affects muscle recovery capacity.”

Meanwhile, a healthy and balanced diet promotes healthy microbiota that could influence athletic performance [2]. Bacteria ferment fiber-rich foods to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the large intestine. 

A balanced gut microbiota can improve sports performance

Those SCFAs, Badia says, can be oxidized in muscle, making muscle glucose more available. Additionally, they enhance blood flow, insulin sensitivity, and muscle mass preservation, all critical factors for overall health and performance.

“It has been found that bacterial species that produce butyrate, a type of SCFA, have the greatest positive impact on both performance and muscle recovery,” says the expert, noting that few studies support this [2]. It has been shown that higher levels of butyrate production impact increased capacities to use oxygen, a measure of direct performance at a metabolic level,” says Badia.

An influential study conducted during the Boston Marathon in 2014 by Harvard Medical School researchers on the effects of intestinal microbiota on sports performance emphasized the importance of butyrate [3]. A study published in Nature found that marathon participants in better shape had higher levels of SCFA in their stools [4]. The cells that line the intestinal epithelium also use butyrate as an energy source, so exercising more can improve gastrointestinal health.

Runners had more abundance of Veillonella in their feces after the marathon than all other butyrate-producing bacteria. It was then possible to duplicate the results in an independent cohort of rowers and elite runners.

Researchers believe Veillonella is responsible for metabolism of lactate, a molecule that causes anaerobic respiration and is responsible for stiffness following exercise [5]. The lactate generated during a marathon is used by Veillonella to create energy. 

By producing butyrate, Veillonella promotes muscle function and closes a virtuous cycle. A subsequent experiment found that mice who received a Veillonella-based probiotic ran for 13% longer.

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The Nature study is not the only one to suggest a link between microbiota and sports performance. Regular moderate exercise also increases microbial diversity, which is reflected in better physical and mental health, through, for example, improved metabolism and immune function [6]. 

As for the training type, exercise intensity and duration impact the human gut microbiota [7]. Exercises that increase intestinal permeability and change the composition of the gut microbiota, such as endurance sports, can negatively affect the gut microbiota. Strength training has minimal effects on the gut microbiota. Contrary to this, aerobic exercise appears to be the best for gut bacteria.

Moderation is the key, of course. In recent studies on sports practice and the microbiota, it has been found that irregular, very strenuous, and long workouts can alter gut bacteria composition. This, in turn, can affect immune responses in athletes, resulting in gastrointestinal and respiratory problems.

The benefits of physical activity aren’t limited to elite athletes. To get the benefits of moderate exercise, you should walk quickly, climb stairs, and do some training activities, such as swimming or cycling, four to five days a week, says Badia.

He emphasizes that a diet containing all the products known to improve the quantity, variety, and activity of gut bacteria is crucial. To have a diverse microbiota, we must feed all microbial species, which means following a diet with as many plant foods as possible.

It is crucial to consume a variety of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains and legumes that are rich in fermentable fiber and prebiotics. Microbiota also benefit from polyphenols present in curcumin, grape resveratrol, and green tea epigallocatechins. 

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The same holds true for healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil and quality proteins, like organic eggs, legumes and grass-fed meat. Probiotics and fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, or unpasteurized olives, are also excellent ways to enhance the gut microbiota.


Photograph: jacoblund/Envato
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