Gut chemistry is prime

Who is the boss in the human body? The brain, or the muscles that make you an athlete, or the second brain — your gut?

Leeks are major gut boosters.

Over the years I have been treating athletes for improper diet and gut issues, and have discovered that the most successful athletes have the strongest of stomachs. Those that eat the wrong food end up with battered guts (stomach and intestine areas).

As a nutrition coach, my experience has shown that it is your gut that is the powerhouse — it makes you a great athlete and enhances your performance. Protein, carbohydrates and fats are all important, but the way they are digested and processed in your digestive system determines your destiny.

The human gut comprises the stomach, small intestine, large intestine and colon. We have trillions of micro-organisms inside the gut. In fact, we are 90% micro-organisms and only 10% human cells. So technically, we are walking microbes! The micro-organisms inside the gut are called microbiota, or gut flora. To every athlete who struggles with recovery, I ask: “How is your gut? How is your bowel movement?”

More than 90% of you are micro-organisms. What are you doing to improve this 90%? Before we learn the cheat codes to a better gut, let us understand the job of the gut and its microbiome.

The job of our gut flora is to break down the food, recognise the pathogens (bad infection bacteria, fungi or viruses), improve the health of our intestinal wall and enable new cell growth. A well run gut often goes unnoticed, but a faulty one is felt pretty quickly. For an athlete, the wrong or unhygienic meal in the cafeteria or hotel at the venue of a meet can make the difference between the best and the worst performance of his life. All because he has a lousy gut day due to what he ate.

We obtain this army of trillions of microbes when we are born from the mother’s birth canal. Over the years, lifestyle and dietary choices can change the gut flora for the better or the worse. Antibiotics, painkillers, doping drugs and self-prescribed supplements are the key influencers in unbalancing your gut system. Athletes who desire to eat right are only thinking of protein. Before one can establish the amounts of carbs and proteins he needs to improve muscle performance, or fats and minerals to enable better firing of the central nervous system, I suggest an in-depth look into the gut health.

Two ways to approach an athlete’s health via his gut chemistry are:

1. Remove the bad foods or allergic foods that are harming this ecosystem of gut microbes.

2. Seed or insert probiotics (good bacteria) and prebiotic foods to help shore up his body’s microbiome.

There are a few ways to harm gut flora. A round of antibiotics will often kill good bacteria along with the ‘bad’ bacteria. Pollution, pesticides and chemicals in our environment are all absorbed by our bodies (to varying degrees). In addition, too much caffeine, alcohol, sugar and processed foods will also deplete a healthy gut. Also, physical training has an effect on our gut health.

Athletes push their bodies to the limit either in a competition or during a tough workout. Sometimes this results in a slight cold, muscle aches or extreme exhaustion. These effects may be a reflection of their overall gut health. During exercise, our bodies divert energy to the location of the stressor (e.g. muscle fibres). Enhanced athletic stress for performance has a destructive effect on the digestive system if we have poor gut health.

A healthy gut has no problem diverting energy to an inflicted physical stressor. However, a sick gut has a much tougher time.

What happens if the athlete has a poor gut system?

The immune system is compromised from insufficient interferons (protein precursors that fight off pathogens). Interferons love probiotics and a healthy gut environment. There is a greater chance of us catching a cold with a sick gut because the interferons will not thrive without a healthy gut microbiome.

When inflammation occurs in the body, a stressed immune system will struggle to strengthen the area. The chances of injury start to increase if we keep reusing the same muscles, but aren’t able to repair them at the same rate. Same goes for the gut.

The digestion is slowed, stopped or sped up depending upon our system. Blood flow and body heat are moved away from the digestive organs during training and won’t necessarily resume properly after the training if our gut health is less than ideal. If we have poor digestion, nutrients from food and supplements won’t be properly processed, used or stored. If this trend continues, missing the physical goals we set for ourselves can affect our confidence and overall mood.

The weight-loss strategy devised by the columnist for Robin Uthappa included correcting the cricketer’s gut imbalance with the right prebiotics and probiotics. This worked wonders for the player.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

How can an athlete get an iron-clad gut?

A lot of athletes at my nutrition clinic walk in with a presumption that they have good digestive systems. However, simple blood, gene and stool tests will give us a different perspective. All athletes today self-prescribe a protein supplement, multi-vitamin and a host of other nutraceuticals without scientific logic. The singular reason for this is the belief that these powders or pills will help enhance performance. In fact, research has shown that athletes have different microbes compared with non-athletes. The bacteria in the digestive system create many benefits. When we have a good balance of bacteria, we have a very symbiotic relationship with them. We provide them with food and they provide us with myriad benefits such as the synthesis of biotin, vitamins B12, B6, B5, B2 and vitamin K2. They also synthesise the short chain fatty acids (butyrate, propionate, and acetate). So when athletes self-prescribe nutrition and supplements they harm their system unknowingly. This leads to lesser performance and even serious injury due to long term abuse of the gut.

My favourite gut boosters

Eat onions, leeks, garlic, chia seeds, bananas, cranberries, black tea and honey. They contain molecules that serve as food for probiotics. If your bacteria are happy, then your gut is happy. You can call these foods prebiotics.

Next try to get fermented foods that have live bacteria. Home-made curd, kombucha tea and dosa will help. Alternatively, a good probiotic that has all the beneficial bacteria that improve digestion and improve recovery.

Lactobacillus plantarius is one strain that improves protein digestibility due to higher loading of calories via food. There are a host of good bacteria that form an import part of a sports nutrition plan. Five years ago, I began to work with cricketer Robin Uthappa, who was closer to the century mark on his weight. One of the first weight-loss strategies that I used was to correct his gut imbalance and work with the right prebiotics and probiotics. Over the years, the correction of nutrition not only helped him trim his weight down but also enabled him to have a better batting focus.

Research shows that those with a well-balanced micro-flora have a faster brain chemistry and focus than others.

When an athlete is able to have a better gut, nutrition from food will be enhanced. Recovery and performance will be indirectly boosted. It’s time for every athlete to seek a better tummy and clockwork bowel movement.