Are you bloated after meals? Do you feel gassy a lot? If so, welcome to the club. An estimated 60-70 million people in the United States suffer from some kind of gut distress, and it can extend well beyond stomach discomfort. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and chronic constipation can have a profound impact on your quality of life, including your ability to perform well in the gym.
Some of these gastrointestinal (GI) problems demand serious and prolonged medical attention. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your overall gut health. None of these suggestions are meant to replace medical treatment; they’re simply ways to support the health of your digestive system and benefit your health and your workouts.
The Mind/Gut Connection
Gut health refers to your digestive system’s ability to digest, absorb, and distribute nutrients throughout your body without any accompanying pain or discomfort.
Your gut is home to an astounding 100 trillion bacteria. The complex relationship between these microbiota and your brain, known as the gut-brain axis, is made up of a two-way communication-and-feedback network: What goes on in your brain affects the functioning of your gut, and vice versa.
A Vicious or Virtuous Cycle
One way to keep your own personal gut-brain axis on an even keel is by paying attention to what you eat. For many people, food is often both the problem and the solution to GI discomfort. The most popular foods in our culture include high-fat foods, fried foods, spicy foods, dairy, chocolate, and caffeine. These foods may sometimes provide a sense of relaxation and well-being. At other times, they may cause digestive stress lasting a few minutes or a few days. They may even lead to ongoing problems with your digestive system.
To clean up your diet, take a food allergy test to help identify foods your body doesn’t process well. Once you identify them, eliminate them from your diet. Then slowly, one by one, reintroduce them and notice how they affect you. You should be able to see connections between your symptoms and certain foods and drinks. The effect may be so severe that you need to remove these items from your diet. Or they may be annoyances you can tolerate on an occasional basis.
You can also protect your gut health by increasing your fiber intake. Foods high in insoluble fiber (bran, flax, whole grains) help food move swiftly through your digestive tract, which gives them less opportunity to upset your gut. Women should aim for about 25 grams of fiber (both soluble and insoluble) per day; men should consume about 38 grams per day.
As you increase your fiber intake, you may also want to drink more fluids to make sure the fiber flows smoothly through your GI tract.
Your Exercise and Recovery Habits
Another important contributor to good gut health is rest. Maybe you’ve seen how your ability to recover from exercise can have a big impact on your gym performance and body-composition gains. If, for example, you train hard seven days a week but don’t sleep well or often enough, you can diminish your gut health.
Of course, consistent exercise is important to gut health, improving blood flow, and stimulating movement in your gastrointestinal tract. But sleep is huge!
It can take up to 8 hours to digest a meal. When you eat your second and even third meal of the day, you’re probably still digesting your first meal. Those 6-8 hours of sleep you’re getting each night (you’re getting that much, right?) give your gut the time it needs to digest and absorb what you’ve eaten that day, make any needed repairs, and then get ready to tackle whatever crazy food concoctions you throw its way once you wake up.
High stress and a lack of sleep alone are enough to send your gut-brain axis into a tailspin and bring on gastrointestinal distress. Even when you have a great diet, stress can override your body’s normally positive response to healthy food choices and trigger an inflammatory response in your GI tract, which further disrupts gut-brain communication. Imagine how well your gut-brain connection works when you make really bad food choices. Not very!
Okay, so you’ve investigated food allergies. You’re getting enough sleep and allowing your body to recover from your workouts. You’re doing all you can to reduce your stress levels. But you’re still having problems with your gut. Maybe it’s time to consider supplementation. I’ve broken them down into two categories.
Probiotic and prebiotic supplementation: These two supplements are particularly good at supporting normal gut function. Probiotics are tiny, living organisms—similar to many of the bacteria and yeast that already live in your gut. Prebiotics are indigestible food ingredients that act as a food source for probiotics.
Digestive enzymes: These enzymes can improve your body’s ability to break down foods and nutrients. For example, the enzymes in lactase-treated milk help lactose-intolerant people digest milk. This in turn can help your body absorb the nutrients and may help reduce GI discomfort when you eat.
Consuming the right foods, exercising consistently, getting enough rest, dealing with stress, and when necessary, taking supplements, may be exactly what you need to maintain your gut health and your energy. If this isn’t enough, talk with your doctor to see what other options are available to you.
- National Institutes of Health, & US Department of Health and Human Services. (2009). Opportunities and challenges in digestive diseases research: recommendations of the national commission on digestive diseases. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. (2005). Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). National Academies Press.
- Cremonini, F., Camilleri, M., Zinsmeister, A. R., Herrick, L. M., Beebe, T., & Talley, N. J. (2009). Sleep disturbances are linked to both upper and lower gastrointestinal symptoms in the general population. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 21(2), 128-135.
- Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Fagundes, C. P., Andridge, R., Peng, J., Malarkey, W. B., Habash, D., & Belury, M. A. (2016). Depression, daily stressors and inflammatory responses to high-fat meals: when stress overrides healthier food choices. Molecular Psychiatry.