Microbiome — the gut feeling in an athlete

The gut microbiome is of crucial interest for players as research shows that when added, certain foods can release molecules that harm or heal the body. It has been found that microbial ecosystems are different in athletes pursuing different sports.

A 3D illustration of microbiome. When the gut is good, injured athletes heal faster.   -  Getty Images

Every athlete will ask for improvement in performance. You can use your training to improve a process. Similarly, you can use nutrition to enhance a metabolic process. The cellular metabolism in a human is complex. There is the primary fuel source of carbohydrates and fat that will drive the energy in cells. Protein is the building block of all cells. All your vitamins and minerals contribute the vital micronutrients that will enable cellular functions to happen.

For a better metabolism, food is the key driver to sourcing suitable raw material. However, in the last few years as a nutritionist, I have noticed that one food does not boost performance. I have also seen that supplements are bio-individual and have a unique behavioural signature in the body. For example, I have noticed that 5 grams of creatine monohydrate added to one powerlifter gives immense lifting gains and muscle size, and in another player, in the same sports, we see absolutely no improvement. This bio-individuality has been the main mantra of my nutritional advice over the years.

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In the last three years, there has been more data and awareness on the human gut and the digestion of food in the gut. The science that has caught my attention is the Gut Microbiome. It is known that we have about 1-2.5 kgs in weight of microorganisms in the human gut and over a trillion cells of these microorganisms. We have more bacterial and microscopic cells than human cells. So, if this fact is to be reckoned, any medical or food specialist would investigate this population of microorganisms and how they behave with the human body and how they digest the food and release molecules from the digested food into the blood.

For the basics of understanding, let us say that this population of microorganisms is called the microbiome. The microbiome is like a small city with many families residing in it. These families of microorganisms have a residence in your mouth, small intestines, large intestine, and they are even present on your skin. The gut microbiome is of crucial interest for players as research shows that when added, certain foods can release molecules that harm or heal the body.

When athletes do a nutrition plan with me, I ask them a series of questions about their schedule, diet, extracurricular activities, and sleep. Athletes not living at home will order food from restaurants that may not have the best nutritional properties or hygiene. This food may significantly affect the gut microbiome, and it may alter it in the wrong way. Many times, athletes will say to me, “I don’t feel like eating the food from the hostel or cafeteria; my stomach does not agree with it.” Research is showing that when you feed the bacteria in your gut the right quality and hygiene of food, the bacteria respond very well in formatting or digesting that food. The subsequent molecules that it produces from eating up that food are highly beneficial to the intestine health as well, since the molecules that get absorbed ultimately into the bloodstream improve cognition, motivation as well as enhanced immunity.

Of late at my clinic, I have been asking for a stool sample to be sent to a state-of-the-art lab that does DNA fingerprinting of the microorganism population in your poop. This microbiome fingerprint of the populations allows me to have a crystal ball gazing into the athlete’s future health and performance. I can gauge the good and bad populations and prescribe nutritional intervention to change and restore the gut microbiome.

The question every athlete needs to ask themselves is

“Can food and nutrition affect my ability to recover, boost immunity to help keep my training and competing, by positively impacting my body at a cellular and even mitochondrial level?”

One study recently caught my attention where Harvard researchers sampled the gut microbiomes of athletes training for the Boston Marathon. Researchers tested the participants again after the marathon and found a spike in one type of bacteria needed by the body to break down lactic acid. This spike led them to believe that the increase in these specific bacteria was a response to increased lactic acid levels in the body since it serves as their primary food source. Could this species of bacteria be used in the future to reduce lactic acid levels in the body and potentially speed up recovery time?

In another study, scientists from Harvard compared the gut microbiomes of rowers to ultra-marathoners and found stark differences in composition, which suggests that specific sports may foster particular microbial ecosystems.

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The microbiome can be explored in athletic performance from the following areas

1. Reduces inflammation

The gut microbiome plays a significant role in inflammation — either increasing or decreasing the levels. Inflammation interferes with athletic performance, slows recovery, and causes lousy health. In athletes, over-training can lead to inflammation. A bad diet can lead to inflammation. A good microbiome can release the natural anti-inflammation molecules for quicker recovery.

2. Boosts energy levels

When your gut microbiome is balanced and healthy, it helps boost energy levels, and cellular energy is regulated and produced by mitochondria, so it is critical to look at both your human and microbial health. This translates into better performance by:

  • Reducing fatigue through better lactic acid breakdown
  • Increasing ATP levels, your molecular energy
  • Modulating metabolism
  • Supplying essential metabolites to your mitochondria – your cell’s powerhouse
  • Regulating energy harvest, storage, and expenditure

3. Improves mental strength

As unusual as it may sound, our gut microbes talk to our brain along the vagus nerve. They have a massive role in our state of mental health. The gut-brain axis is an invisible hand that shapes mental stamina, essential for professional athletes who cannot buckle under pressure. I have seen when you change the eating pattern in an athlete, you can reduce competition anxiety.

4. Shapes ideal body composition

Certain bacteria are able to increase body fat while others reduce it. By changing the prescription of foods like complex carbs from certain beans we are able to alter body composition in athletes. The microbiome also alters glucose uptake as well as the brown and white fat ratios.

5. Strengthens bones

A correct population bacteria in the gut can modulate the breakdown, absorption and uptake of magnesium and calcium. Bone mineralisation will also improve with altered pH in the gut which is controlled by the microbiome. Athletes need an alkaline gut as training creates extremely acidic environments that may cause leaching of bones. When the gut is good, I have experienced faster healing in injured athletes.

6. Improves sleep

Scientists have showed that a bad microbiome results in poor sleep quality and lowered cognitive flexibility because the gut microbiome controls levels of various hormones such as cortisol, serotonin, and GABA, all of which affect sleep quality.

The microbiome also affects the production of melatonin, which is essential for proper sleep-wake cycles. Athletes know they need proper sleep to perform well. However, many might not realise that there is a pharmacy of sleep-promoting neurotransmitters generated within their gut. I recently asked a celebrity athlete for a stool sample for doing a comprehensive microbiome test. She wondered why we needed to analyse her stool. Analysis of your ‘output’ gives you predictive information on how to strategise your ‘inputs’. Changing the way you eat to your microbiome blueprint is the new area in performance science.

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