By Alexandra Borrelly
As athletes, we often think of food as fuel for performance. We count macros, hydrate constantly, and practice eating on the go so that on raceday, we can endure for hours on the trails.
However, proper nutrition isn’t just about food. Our digestive system is the gateway to the body. If our gut isn’t healthy, then even the cleanest food, won’t be used efficiently.
So much more than a group of muscles and organs, the intestinal ecosystem includes epithelial cells, immune cells, and a complex community of microbes. Rather than just a swinging door, the intestines function as a coded entry where nutrients are sorted according to their quality and how much the body needs them.
Additionally, the gut is also a barrier to harmful elements in the external environment, such as bacteria, viruses, pollutants, and allergens.
One reason the gut is so powerful – and fragile – is because of the distinct microbial communities and flora living in the human intestine, which have a profound impact on our well being and health. If this ecosystem becomes unbalanced – from stress, antibiotics, poor nutrition, and a decrease in “good” bacteria – it can throw our entire system off.
The “good” bacteria in our gut thrives in an alkaline environment. In contrast, a diet low in fiber and essential fatty acids, and high in acidic foods such as dairy, sugar, and gluten – can throw the digestive system into chaos.
While exercise is an incredible benefit to the body, sometimes, high-intensity exercise can also disrupt the intestinal balance. When the body is under physical stress, oxygenated blood moves away from the intestines and towards the muscles, where it’s needed.
However, when the effort stops, and the blood flow returns significantly to the intestines, the tissue can be damaged by a phenomenon called “ischeia-repurfusion.” This occurs when the return of the blood to the gastrointestinal tract causes an increase in oxidation and an alteration of the intestinal barrier.
Intense activity may also be responsible for local hyperthermia – like heat stroke – and local mechanical stress from muscle contraction in the abdominal region.
If we do not take care to preserve the barrier between the gut and the bloodstream, over time, it becomes permeable. When this happens, certain external elements that are undesirable are allowed to pass into the internal environment, provoking an excessive immune reaction of the organism.
Many scientists believe that this is the basis of certain allergies, such as food allergies. In some cases, inflammatory mechanisms trigger longer-term chronic diseases and more serious, autoimmune conditions.
Additionally, many studies have shown that our moods are dependent upon the foods we eat. There are numerous connections between our intestines and nervous system, necessitating proper diet, sleep, and self-care practices.
To maintain a healthy intestinal ecosystem, it is important to:
- Stay hydrated
- Thoroughly chew your food
- Eat a high-fiber diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Consume essential fatty acids like Omega 3 and Omega 6
- Reduce consumption of dairy products and gluten
- Use caution when taking antibiotics and other anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Take a comprehensive probiotic supplement, kefir, fermented foods, and sheep or goat yogurt to boost good bacteria in the gut
- Consider glutamine and additional antioxidant supplements if the gut is especially sensitive.
Rather than just a mechanism to convert food to fuel, our gut has the power to affect our inner landscape on physical, emotional, and psychological levels. When we know how this fascinating ecosystem works, we can make choices that lead to optimal health.
Alexandra Borrelly Lebrun is a pharmacist and has studied sports nutrition and natural medicine. She works alongside her husband, a former professional XTERRA athlete & 2005 XTERRA World Champ, Nico Lebrun, at Organicoach, where they create optimized nutrition plans for athletes of all levels.