Gut Health for Athletes

Gut Health for athletes

By Kate Smyth – Olympic marathoner and Naturopath at the Athlete Sanctuary

Our digestive system is the critical pathway for nutrient digestion and absorption for our bodies and aids with propulsion of food contents and waste through our bodies. However, our digestive system is so much more than a food funnel. It forms the backbone of our immune system playing a significant protective role against infection and allergies through Gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) which works in the immune system and produces plasma and antibody cells. GALT works with secretory IgA (sIgA), an antibody in the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract and gastric acid composed mainly of hydrochloric acid which breaks down our food and triggers off enzyme release and creates an environment that is inhospitable to external pathogens.


The gut also produces vital neurotransmitters (such as 90% of our serotonin) responsible for mood regulation, hormones such as somatostatin (part of our blood sugar control mechanism inhibiting insulin and glucagon secretion) and neurotensin which helps with smooth muscle contraction and dopamine production. Our gut is therefore often referred to as our “second brain”.  Digestive enzymes such as lactase, protease, amylase, lipase are also produced along with gastrin to break down our food. The gut is also the home for our microbiome- the workstation for digestion, hormone regulation, brain function and provides anti-inflammatory effects.  In any one human, there are up to 1000 different types of microbes performing synergistic tasks which impact throughout the entire body.


bacteria-e1503508643418The gut also has an important carbohydrate fermentation roll producing sustenance for colon cells in the form of short-chain fatty acids. The digestive system also excretes waste products including toxic waste, drugs, metabolites, water, food residue and mucus.

Research indicates over 90% of athletes experience gastrointestinal issues of some kind. The most common problems encountered include belching, vomiting, flatulence, bloating, heartburn, cramping/ stitch, diarrhoea, urgency, a sense of fullness after eating, a gnawing feeling and bad breath. Widespread issues can also appear such as fatigue, anaemia, recurrent colds, infections, and cold sores, breathing difficulties, sugar cravings, slow recovery, performances and sleep, foggy brain, hormonal imbalances, skin issues, food and environmental allergies and low libido.

Why so? Athletes are typically sympathetic dominant where the “fight or flight” mechanism is upregulated, and the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system ignored. While being alert and “pumped” may help us run and do athletic pursuits, it is not necessarily great for a well-balanced digestive system.  A nervous system constantly on red alert through training, work or relationship stress creates large amounts of cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol erodes the lining of the digestive system, disrupts the microbial balance in our microbiome, reduces GALT and sIgA, digestive enzymes and gastric juices, and allows pathogens and large food particles to pass through into our bloodstream, setting off a cascade of reactive immune and inflammatory processes.  Non- steroid anti-inflammatory drugs such as Nurofen or Voltaren, the oral contraceptive pill, antibiotics and corticosteroids also damage the gut lining, reduce nutrient absorption and healthy digestive microbes. Add to this the mechanical stresses of jolting up and down and the 80% decreased blood flow to the stomach during exercise, and we have some fairly uncomfortable symptoms and conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune conditions, leaky gut, dysbiosis and colitis.



But the good news is many dietary and nutritional aids can assist with gut health such as bone broth, herbs, foods rich in digestive enzymes and key nutrients that assist with the manufacturing of gastric juices and heal the lining of the gut. Prebiotics and specific strains of probiotics also help to dampen down inflammation, repair the gut and assist with nutrient assimilation.

To learn more about how to effectively manage and enhance your gut health, join us next Thursday 7th December, 7:00pm at The Running Company Ballarat, 1017 Sturt St Ballarat.