If you’ve ever suffered from digestive issues then you’ll know just how uncomfortable, painful and frustrating it can be. Bloating, gas or abdominal cramping can be detrimental to your training and sports performance, especially if unexpectedly you have to dash off to the bathroom with an upset stomach.
Luckily, improving your gut health can be simple and easy. Our in-house Accredited Sports Dietitian explains the gut microbiome and how you can restore your gut health for a happy belly and an energetic body and mind.
What is the gut microbiome?
There are trillions of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that live, flourish and die in our gut1. These microorganisms are collectively called microbiota and together they create a tiny ecosystem often referred to as our microbiome. The microbiome weighs about 3kg and it stretches from our mouth to our stomach, down through our intestines and out the other end.
Each person has their own unique microbiota profile, similar to our unique DNA. Because there are so many different strains of bacteria within our microbiome, we just don’t know to what extent these microorganisms affect various systems of the human body.
Research is showing that our microbiome and the health and diversity of the microorganisms living within us, has an important role in our immunity, mental health, digestion and even body weight1. Some recent investigations are showing links to the prevention and treatment of gastrointestinal, neurological, psychological and metabolic diseases and disorders1,2,3.
A greater understanding of the various roles that our gut microbiota play has lead to it being considered as another organ within our body2.
Many people who have experienced illness or a chronic condition are looking to gut health when other, more conventional treatments have failed.
What causes poor gut health?
An unhealthy diet, certain medications, smoking, illness, little exercise, environmental toxins and stress are just some of the factors that can compromise your gut microbiome. Dysbiosis is the term used for an unbalanced microbiome where there is more ‘bad’ bacteria than ‘good’ and symptoms of gastrointestinal upset are usually present1.
Who is at risk of dysbiosis?
If you have a very high training load or you are an endurance athlete. Your energy demands will be high and this may indirectly result in a low fibre intake if you frequently choose high GI carbohydrate foods to fuel your training.
If you frequently skip meals or follow a fasting/restrictive diet.
If you experience gastrointestinal upset from exercise.
If you experience indigestion, abdominal bloating, pain, flatulence (wind) and irregular bowel habits.
If you have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or a food intolerance.
If you suffer from mood disturbances, psychological disorders or stress.
If you have recently taken a course of antibiotics.
If you feel that your immunity, energy levels and general well-being are not at their best.
How do I improve my gut health?
There are very few people who can say that they have a healthy and balanced diet and lifestyle 100% of the time. We all experience times of illness or stress and make less desirable food choices. This isn’t bad or naughty, it’s just a part of life. According to The Gut Foundation Australia6, half of our population will complain about having some type of digestive issue across any 12 month period. Luckily, there are some simple and inexpensive dietary habits that we can adopt to support our gut bacteria and improve our overall gut health.
1. Probiotics - Add more of the good stuff
Probiotics are often referred to as ‘good bacteria’ because they play an important role in our immune system, digestion and absorption of nutrients from the foods we eat. There are trillions of different bacteria strains and we are in the initial stages of understanding the role that each play in optimising health. Strains from the family of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the most widely researched3.
Food and drinks that contain these probiotics include cultured, fermented and pickled products such as:
Sauerkraut - German dish of fermented cabbage
Kefir - European fermented milk drink
Kombucha - Eastern fermented tea drink
Kimchi - Korean fermented vegetable dish
Miso - Japanese fermented soybean seasoning
Yoghurt with active cultures
Pickles that have been made without vinegar
Supplementing with a probiotic can help increase the numbers of good bacteria whilst adding diversity of microorganisms in your gut.
2. Prebiotics - Feed your good bacteria
Prebiotics are a type of non-digestible fibre. They nourish your gut microbiome by acting as a food source for the ‘good’ bacteria. The “garden” analogy is commonly used to conceptualise the gut microbiome - if probiotics are the plants we want to grow, then prebiotics are their fertiliser. The combination of probiotics and prebiotics is called synbiotics, and this can help ensure the survival of the beneficial bacteria and it’s transportation along the digestive tracts into the colon3.
Prebiotic food varieties:
Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin from chicory root, dandelion, artichoke, asparagus, agave, garlic, onion and leeks
Resistant starch from green banana, whole grains, legumes, beans and starchy vegetables like sweet potato and corn
Beta-glucan from oats and barley
Pectin from apples
Some people find that some prebiotics, particularly FOS and inulin can cause slight bloating or flatulence during the first few days of taking them. Flatulence is simply a sign that the body's good bacteria is being stimulated and these symptoms should disappear and improve with time. The benefits of taking prebiotics generally outweigh the transient discomfort you may initially experience. If symptoms don’t decrease after a few days, consider reducing your dose of prebiotics before gradually increasing again.
3. Fibre - Support regular bowel habits
Adequate fibre from a healthy diet has been associated with a reduced risk of bowel cancer, diabetes and heart disease4. Fibre can aid with weight loss by keeping you feeling fuller for longer. Fibre also has a positive effect on blood sugar levels and blood cholesterol4.
There are three types of fibre - insoluble, soluble and resistant starch. All three types of fibre are found in plant-based foods in various quantities. A balanced diet that supports gut health should include a good variety of all fibre types, so focus on enjoying a range of fibrous plant-based foods every day.
Fibre-rich plant-based foods include all vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds as well as whole grains like oats, brown rice, barley, spelt, quinoa and buckwheat.
4. Glutamine - Nourish and protect your intestines
Glutamine is a naturally occurring amino acid. It is considered an essential amino acid during times of illness, disease or physical trauma (burns, wounds and states of muscle wastage).
Glutamine helps to nourish your gut by acting as an energy source for intestinal and immune cells5. Glutamine also protects your gut through anti-inflammatory properties that support the integrity of the intestinal walls5. This function is particularly appealing to athletes that experience gastrointestinal upset induced by exercise.
Glutamine can be found naturally in foods like meat and eggs or it can be easily supplemented in your diet. True Glutamine is a non-animal based compound extracted during the process of natural vegetable fermentation. You can incorporate True Glutamine into your daily intake by adding 5g to your favourite True Protein shake.
There are trillions of microorganisms that live in our gut and we call this our gut microbiome. Because there are so many different strains of bacteria within our own unique gut microbiome, we just don’t know to what extent these microorganisms affect various systems of our body.
The research is promising. We know the gut microbiome is linked to strong immunity, bowel regularity, digestion and mental health. We’re seeing relationships with the gut microbiome across a wide range of medical conditions including the prevention and treatment of gastrointestinal, neurological, psychological and metabolic diseases and disorders.
A healthy gut can be compromised by an unbalanced diet, certain medications, smoking, illness, little exercise, environmental toxins and stress. If you feel that your gut health is not optimal, there are some simple and inexpensive dietary habits that you can adopt to support your gut bacteria and improve your overall gut health.
Probiotics - The ‘good’ bacteria found in cultured, fermented and pickled foods and drinks. Including more of these items or supplementing with a probiotic can help to increase the numbers of good bacteria whilst adding diversity of microorganisms in your gut.
Prebiotics - The non-digestible fibre that your good bacteria feed on. Found in many plant-based foods like oats, artichoke, legumes and apples.
Fibre - Adequate fibre in a healthy diet supports bowel and cardiovascular health as well as assisting with weight management. There are three types of fibre - soluble, insoluble and resistant starch. A variety of vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains will provide you with all three types of fibre.
Glutamine - A naturally occurring amino acid that helps to nourish your gut through its anti-inflammatory and protective properties. Try True Glutamine for a pure, plant-based and gut-loving addition to your daily routine.
Carding S, Verbeke K, Vipond DT, Corfe BM, Owen LJ. Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in disease. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease. 2015;26:10.3402/mehd.v26.26191. doi:10.3402/mehd.v26.26191.
Bäckhed F, Ding H, Wang T, et al. The gut microbiota as an environmental factor that regulates fat storage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2004;101(44):15718-15723. doi:10.1073/pnas.0407076101.
Harper A, Naghibi MM, Garcha D. The Role of Bacteria, Probiotics and Diet in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Foods. 2018;7(2):13. doi:10.3390/foods7020013.
Anderson, JW, Baird, P., Davis, RH, Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., et al. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition Reviews, 67(4), 188-205. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8d0680bq
Zuhl M, Dokladny K, Mermier C, Schneider S, Salgado R, Moseley P. The effects of acute oral glutamine supplementation on exercise-induced gastrointestinal permeability and heat shock protein expression in peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Cell Stress & Chaperones. 2015;20(1):85-93. doi:10.1007/s12192-014-0528-1.
The Gut Foundation Australia. About. The Gut Foundation. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2018.] http://www.gutfoundation.com.au/about.