gut health for athletic performance

How To Optimise Gut Health For Athletic Performance

Do you live in Ottawa? Are you looking for ways to optimise gut health for athletic performance?

If so, you are in the right place.

Today I will talk about ways to optimise gut health for athletic performance in active individuals.

In This Article:

Let’s begin by examining the difference between a healthy and unhealthy gut.

What Is A Healthy or Unhealthy Gut?

Most of us do not know the difference between a healthy and unhealthy gut.

What we do not know so much is what determines a healthy or unhealthy microbiome.

A healthy microbiome is generally associated with a rich diversity of alpha bacteria species.

“Alpha or Alphaproteobacteria is a taxonomic class of bacteria in the phylum Proteobacteria. Similar to other bacteria of this species, most Alphaproteobacteria are gram-negative. The species in this class are highly diverse but share a common ancestor.”

An unhealthy gut is associated with the following:

  • Low alpha diversity
  • Unbalanced ratios of beneficial bacteria
  • Overgrowth opportunistic pathogens such as parasites and yeast.
  • A decrease in bacteria that produce short-chained fatty acids such as Butyrate.
  • The poor growth rate of the mucosal lining of the gut.
  • Leaky gut or high intestinal permeability

Let’s now look at the 5 key factors to improving gut health for athletic performance.

5 Key Factors Improving Gut Health For Athletic Performance In Active Individuals

Our overall and gut health is determined by our body’s nervous system’s ability to deal with stress.

Five factors, including the following, determine active individuals and their ability to deal with stress:

  • High-Intensity exercise
  • Pain from injuries
  • Lack of sleep
  • Current Emotional stressors from work, family and relationships
  • Poor gut health

If you have too much stress on the nervous system, this will create problems.

There are five key factors that you can work on to improve your gut health:

  • Sleep – Poor sleep has been shown to affect our immune system and microbiome negatively.
  • Current stress – Chronic stress has been shown to alter our microbiome balance.
  • Environment – This includes birth method, early diet, use of antibiotics, NSAIDs, acid-lowering medication and birth control medication, mould and environmental pollutants. All these will hurt the gut.
  • Exercise – Exercise increases cortisol and inflammation in the body. The only form of exercise which lowers cortisol is walking. Exercise is only suitable for us if we can quickly recover from it.
  • Diet

If you are an active person with poor gut health, you must start with the above five factors, which will help to lower the stress load on the nervous system and the gut.

Let’s look at some exercise-specific complications that can lead to poor gut health in active individuals.

Exercise Specific Complications

Between 30 and 70% of active individuals experience digestive issues. Particularly runners, cyclists and weight lifters.

Three main factors cause gut issues in active individuals, including the following:

  1. Decreased blood flow to the gut – as people exercise, there is more blood flow to the muscles and less to the digestive tract leading to a reduction in oxygen and other nutrients, causing cramping.
  2. Mechanical forces – the mechanical stress on the organs during intense exercise can affect the function of the gut.
  3. Neurotransmitters – Intense exercise causes the autonomic nervous system to release neurotransmitters which affect the function of the gut. In turn, the gut lining releases neurotransmitters which further cause gut symptoms.

Let’s look at how changing your exercise can help reduce stress load and help gut health.

Changing Exercise Routine To Help The Gut

Unless you are an elite athlete, you can make several changes to your exercise routine to help your gut health, including the following:

  • Lower the intensity of the exercise – this will promote better gut motility.
  • Increase mobility through stretching by doing Yin Yoga.
  • Swap running for rowing.
  • Introduce more walking, which will lower cortisol.
  • Increase the number of rest days.
  • Decrease load (distance or weight).

Let’s now look at how poor gut health affects nutrient absorption in active individuals.

How Poor Gut Health Affects Nutrient Absorption

One of the main functions of the small intestine is to break down protein, fats and digestible carbohydrtes into amino acids, fatty acids and glucose.

The bacteria in the large intestine modulate glycogen storage, affecting how much muscle we can put on.

So, poor gut health or microbiome imbalance will affect how much muscle mass we create and so affect performance.

Poor Microbiome health may present in the form of the following:

  • Imbalance (dybiosis) or overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria.
  • Low good gut flora or bacteria.

You could see these by doing a comprehensive stool test such as the GI Map test by Diagnostic Solutions.

Most athletes eat a lot of protein, which can lead to an overgrowth of protein-fermenting bacteria leading to inflammation and leaky gut.

Consequently, it is important to moderate your protein intake and increase fibre (vegetables).

Most athletes use whey powder supplements as a source of protein.

Let’s now look at the effect of whey protein on the gut microbiome.

Whey Supplementation and the Microbiome

Currently, two low-level studies look at whey protein’s effect on the microbiome.

There are two main takeaways from these studies:

  • An increase in the Bacteroidetes – Bacteroidetes have an increased proteolytic activity which helps balance fibre and protein intake in active individuals.
  • An increase in virus load due to viruses in the whey powder. This means that the quality and source of the whey powder matter.

Let’s now look at some general recommendations for optimizing the diet for athletes to help gut health.

Optimizing The Diet For Athletes

These are some general recommendations about the intake of fats, carbohydrates and protein to help optimize gut health for athletes.


  • A good intake of Monounsaturated fatty acids and Omega 3 fatty acids is encouraged to regulate inflammation.
  • MCT oil intake may also be useful due to its anti-microbial effect.


Working towards a diet with non-digestible carbohydrates will help increase microbial diversity.


Plant proteins or low animal proteins may have a more beneficial impact on the gut microbiota.

So, working towards a plant-based diet with limited animal protein is a good goal for active individuals.

Other tips for optimizing a diet for active individuals include the following::

  • Make training with carbohydrates a part of your routine.
  • Avoid high-fat or fibre-rich foods hours or days before training or an event.
  • Avoid dehydration.

Let’s now look at some common nutrient deficiencies found in active individuals.

Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies Found In Active Individuals

The following are some common nutrient deficiencies found in active individuals:

  • Active females are at higher risk of iron deficiencies.
  • Dybiosis increases the risk of B vitamin absorption, particularly B12 and Folate.
  • Vitamin D deficiencies are common and are important for bone health.

Let’s now look at common GI issues in active individuals.

Most Common GI Issues In Active Individuals

Common GI issues found in active individuals include the following:

  • Dybiosis
  • SIBO – is usually seen in females with a history of chronic dieting and low thyroid, leading to decreased motility in the gut.
  • H.Pylori infection in the stomach

You can detect such issues using a comprehensive stool analysis like the GI Map Test.

In Summary

  • Exercise is good stress only when we can recover from it.
  • Moderating the five key factors of sleep, current stress, environment, exercise, and diet is an essential starting point for improving gut health.
  • Modifying carbohydrates (fibre), fat and protein are key to managing GI distress in active individuals.
  • Active individuals are at increased risk of nutrient deficiencies when on restrictive diets and using NSAIDs and birth control medications.
  • Active individuals experience GI complications mainly due to increased stress and poor recovery, which need to be resolved.

Now It’s Over To You

Do you do a lot of exercise?

Are you trying to increase your athletic performance?

Have you considered looking at your gut health?

Leave me a comment below.

Do You Need Help?

If you need help, I suggest you book a free functional medicine discovery session with me to determine whether my functional medicine approach fits your child’s needs.


The information provided on this website is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease. Please do not apply this information without first speaking with your doctor.

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