Functional Training Zones

Why Gut Health Matters

By: Joel Totoro, RD

Your gut isn’t just your stomach or an instinct. It’s also your digestive tract and a complex mix of organs, microbes, hormones, and enzymes. How they interact dictates how you handle the food you consume, and what happens or doesn’t happen in your gut impacts your performance.

Your digestive tract is the conduit that delivers nutrients to the body and there are steps you can take to make sure you reap the full rewards from the foods in terms of nutrient absorption, especially if you’re prone to gas, bloating, acid reflux, constipation, or any other distress after eating. 

For years the adage was “you are what you eat,” but modern science has amended that narrative to “you are what you eat – and can absorb.” In recent years, there has been a focus on the trillions of microbes that make up our bodies – collectively known as the microbiome – and the impact they have on everything from digestion to the immune system. Studies suggest that changes to our microbiome influence problems such as obesity, diabetes, and colon cancer.

As we learn more about the role of the microbiome, the collection of bacteria living in the digestive tract, the more we understand the impact of gut health on a multitude of systems in the body.

Gut flora consists of living, foreign microbes in your digestive system. Gut microbiome compositions vary based on your geographic origins, what you eat, the medications you take, and other environmental factors. The microbiome is important in keeping the lining of the intestines healthy, which impacts our ability to digest and absorb food, and plays a large role in regulating your immune response.

How does this affect performance? Consider how people get “butterflies” in their stomach when they are nervous. This is because the vagus nerve connects the brain to the stomach. Microbiome health plays a big role in regulating what messages the brain receives from the gut. This is known as the gut-brain axis and researchers are investigating its role in depression, Alzheimer’s and other ailments.
The connection is important when we consider stress. Stress has a negative impact on the microbiome. While stress can be caused by environmental, social or emotional factors, it also can be a result of heavy training. During training, the body shuttles blood from the gut to the muscle, leaving less blood flow to the digestive tract, and in turn raising core temperature. These are sources of stress to the gut, and can lead to an inflammatory state. Repeated or sustained digestive inflammation can lead to what is know as a “leaky gut,” which impacts your ability to fully absorb the nutrients you take in.
Adding fermented foods to your diet to improve gut health and immunity can help prevent and manage the inflammation within the gut. Examples of fermented foods are sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, Greek and regular yogurt, kombucha, miso, soy sauce, and tempeh.

The use of a probiotic supplement can be an effective way to promote the growth of “friendly” microorganisms within the digestive tract. A quality probiotic supplement should include a wide array of friendly stands of bacteria. Some examples include: Lactobacillus gasseri KS-13, Bifidobacterium longum MM-2, Bifidobacterium bifidum G9-1.


Joel Totoro is a performance dietitian at EXOS in Phoenix.

(October 2015)