The holidays are just around the corner (along with the off-season). They can be rough on your gut. Here are some ways to make sure your GI health is in proper working order.
By Jesse Kropelnicki
WHY IS GUT HEALTH IMPORTANT? The gastrointestinal system plays the primary role in absorbing nutrients from the foods we eat, which means that poor GI health results in our bodies not getting the nutrients it needs. Perhaps more obvious is the importance of GI health to your comfort during training and racing. I think we have all experienced discomfort associated with an unhealthy gut, be it gas pain or worse, and it’s not fun, to say the least. Avoiding this issue is reason enough to read on.
A healthy gut allows you to apply and absorb training stress. We have all tried to train and race with an unhappy GI system. It isn’t pretty: even when you’re not spending your time in the woods or in the Porta-Potty, you are extremely limited in what you are able to do. It takes a healthy gut to handle the fuels required for the sport, especially at the longer distances.
So there are more than enough reasons for an endurance athlete to take a moment, especially during this time of year, to run a gut check and focus on turning the ship around. You can then incorporate these habits throughout the year to maintain your GI health. A healthy gut is the first step to a healthy body, which makes for a much more favorable environment to apply and absorb training stress. GI health really does affect your entire body.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE? What does it look and feel like if your GI system could be in a better place? Athletes struggling with gut health will experience bloating, food sensitivities, excessive fatigue, joint pain, headaches, weight gain, and an inability to handle training and racing fuels. These symptoms can be present at any time, but will be aggravated by any kind of stress, including the typical holiday season stresses, and especially training and racing. Things like bloating, joint pain and headaches are pretty obvious manifestations. There’s no real hiding from those: when you have them, you know it. But food sensitivities, fatigue and weight gain are much more subtle. There are so many demands on us every day; how would we know that our feeling tired was the result of an irritated gut? Weight gain typically happens over a period of weeks, so it’s difficult to trace back to a GI problem. But if any of these more subtle indicators appears in tandem with one of the more obvious signs, it should set off alarms in your head that it may be time to check your gut health.
WHAT’S GOING ON DOWN THERE? So what is going on inside to cause these symptoms and make for such uncomfortable training and racing experiences? Things like poor nutrition, too much stress or a bacterial imbalance can all cause issues. Too much gluten can also cause problems even for many non-sensitive athletes.
A healthy GI system is of the utmost importance, as it’s the first interface between the food we eat to support training load and the rest of your body. Factors that stress the GI system cause chronic inflammation of the gut, block absorption of key nutrients, trigger an autoimmune-like response, and lead to frequent sickness and lack of consistency in training. And we all know there is nothing more important to training super-adaptation than consistency, so when we undermine this, we take a bite out of long-term gains. Couple this breakdown of consistency with a reduced ability to handle important training and racing fuels, and we are faced with a double whammy where the reduced fuel intake leads to a diminished ability to handle training loads, and any kinds of improvements quickly spiral down the drain. The goal is just the opposite: to increase the training load that can be maintained and absorbed month to month and year to year.
Eating yogurt daily is important for GI health, but additonal probiotic supplements may be needed.
So now we know why GI health is important, what it feels like to have poor gut health, and the reasons we find ourselves struggling in this area. But how do we fix problems, or prevent them in the first place?
MAKING THINGS BETTER. Following the basic principles of the Core diet, a nutrition program I wrote about in a previous column, will help to turn an unhealthy gut around. The Core diet is basically a diet of lean meat, lean dairy, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, which most closely represent the diet and food sources that the human body has evolved on. These are the kinds of foods that the human GI system responds to best. They are extremely nutrient dense and provide the essential minerals you need for sustained health and well-being. Longtime followers of the Core diet will have very little trouble maintaining strong GI health. Those who struggle with gut health will see it come around, over time, if they stick closely to those principles.
YOGURT. Lean dairy, such as yogurt, can provide the body with good bacteria to promote gut health. Products such as Dannon’s Activia contain active cultures of Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis (aka Bifidobacterium animalis), which all create an environment that greatly eases digestion and reduces lactose intolerance. Many yogurt enthusiasts believe that the active cultures found in yogurt boost immunity from infection, reduce cholesterol and even serve as anticarcinogens. Lean yogurt is low in fat, but you should also choose yogurt with a minimum of added sugars. Many flavored yogurts contain a lot of unnecessary sugar. We always want our yogurt to meet the “Core ratio.” That is carbs plus sugar minus fiber divided by fat plus protein results in a number less than 2. This ensures a reasonable blood sugar response consistent with the foods the human body was meant to eat.
STRESS. One of the most effective ways to improve GI health has very little to do with diet. Chronic stress can have a tremendous impact on our gut health and function. Stress may even increase the amount of bad bacteria in our gut and reduce the amount of good bacteria.
What can we do about these changes that occur in our GI system due to stress? Well, the smart money is on reducing stress, right? This is when we have to have a conversation with ourselves about how much we can take and still make positive forward progress. As driven athletes, we try to maintain our sport on top of the demands of family, work, friends and a myriad of other things. The sooner we accept the reality of our stress budget, the sooner we can reduce the chronic stressors in our life and begin living a healthier all-around lifestyle.
The heart health benefits of fish oils are widely known, but the popular supplement can also improve you gut.
SUPPLEMENTATION. I don’t typically promote many supplements, but there are three I believe can help many, many people improve their general gut health. These supplements all have dozens of unbiased studies behind them (check pubmed.com).
FISH OILS. Not only are fish oils important for their heart health and general anti-inflammatory properties, but they can also help to reduce specific inflammation within the GI system. Also, fish oils are valuable arbiters in the delicate balance of gut bacteria.
GLUTAMINE. When the training load gets heavy, the use of glutamine can play a significant role in boosting the immune system, reducing GI inflammation and balancing bacteria levels in the gut. A daily dose of 5 grams of glutamine (often called L-glutamine) once your weekly training volume tops about 15 hours (or if you are having GI issues already) is a perfect addition to your post-workout recovery drink.
PROBIOTICS. Probiotics can help to balance gut bacteria. They are often prescribed to replace the good bacteria that are decimated by antibiotics, but they can be beneficial even if you aren’t taking antibiotics. If you feel as though you are struggling through a period of poor gut health, as evidenced by the symptoms discussed earlier, it may be worthwhile to begin using a probiotic or focused yogurt routine to try and turn things around.
During this time of year, when life and diet are so far from routine, it is never more difficult, and important, to focus on a healthy gastrointestinal system. The tremendous impacts of the foods that we eat and the stresses that we endure play such a significant role in such subtle ways make it very easy to slip into a state of poor gut health. The good news is that we have a great deal of control over how long and to what degree we must exist in this state, if at all. Simply focusing on a healthy diet will go a long way toward keeping you out of gut trouble. But if you’re already there, these measures can greatly help to turn the ship around. Gut health is an important consideration for every person, but especially for athletes. Too often we see athletic performances limited by something so easy to manage and control. We have enough obstacles that are outside of our influence—let’s embrace the ones that aren’t.