Ed. Note—Nope, not another post about mental toughness! We're discussing your actual gut this week, getting some guidance from the people over at QT2 Systems about how to keep your gastrointestinal system running properly through the holiday period and into the New Year.
‘Twas the season! Office parties…Family parties…Parties with friends...Parties, parties everywhere! Great food. Probably, a bit too much of it. Great drink. Probably a bit too much of it. Hopefully it has been a joyous six weeks. But, now with all of that behind us, it’s time to pick up the pieces, so to speak.
They say that the average American gains about five pounds, during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Having just lived through that time, you can certainly see how that may be possible. But, that’s not really what this is about. This is much less about the size of your gut, than what is going on in your gut. Let’s take a look at some measures that can be taken to actually improve gut health, during this time of year.
Why is Gut Health Important?
The GI system plays the primary role in the absorption of nutrients from the foods that we eat. Poor GI health results in our bodies not getting, from the foods that we eat, the macro and micronutrients that it needs to operate optimally, on a daily basis. Perhaps more obvious is the effect that GI health has on comfort during our training and racing. I think that we have all experienced the discomforts associated with an unhealthy gut. Not a good time, to say the least. Be it pains associated with gas, or worse, the avoidance of this issue is reason enough to read on.
When it comes to training and racing, a healthy gut enables you to apply and absorb training stress. We have all tried to train and race with an unhappy GI system. It ain’t pretty…When you are not spending time in the woods, or in the porta-potty, you are extremely limited in what you are able to do. A healthy gut is much more likely to be able to handle the fuels required for the sport. These fuels can be very, very bothersome to a GI system that is, in any way, vulnerable.
So, as you can see, there are more than enough reasons for an endurance athlete to take a moment, especially during this time of year, to run a gut check and focus on turning the ship around, if needed. These are then habits that can be incorporated throughout the year to maintain health. A healthy gut is the first step in promoting a healthy body which is a much more favorable environment to apply and absorb training stress. GI health really does impact your entire body.
What Does it Feel Like?
So, when running this gut check, what does it look and feel like, if your GI system could be in a better place? Athletes struggling with gut health will experience bloating, food sensitivities, excessive fatigue, joint pain, headaches, weight gain, and an inability to handle training and racing fuels. These symptoms can be present at any time, but will be further aggravated by any kinds of stress, including those of the holiday season, and especially training and racing. Things like bloating, joint pain, and headaches are pretty obvious manifestations. There’s no real hiding from those. When you have them, you know it. But, food sensitivities, fatigue, and weight gain are much more subtle. There are so many demands pulling on us, every day, why would we ever believe that our feeling tired was the result of an irritated gut? Weight gain typically occurs over the course of weeks, and can be very difficult to blame on the GI system, coming on a mere pound at a time. But, any of these more subtle indicators, in tandem with one, or more, of the more obvious signs should set off alarms in your head that it may be time to do a gut check.
So...What's Going On Down There?
What is the actual problem, here? What is going on, inside, to cause these symptoms, and make for such uncomfortable training and racing experiences? Things like poor nutrition, too much stress, or a bacterial imbalance can all cause the issue. Too much gluten, even for a non-sensitive person, can also be an issue for many athletes, and cause this same GI distress. These factors cause a chronic inflammation of the gut, making it nearly impossible to absorb the key nutrients and minerals from foods, triggering an autoimmune-like response, leading to frequent sickness and thus undermining consistency in training. And, as we all know, there is nothing more important to training super-adaptation than consistency. So, when we undermine this, we take a bite out of long-term gains. Couple this breakdown of consistency, in training, with a reduced ability to handle the intake of important training and racing fuels, and we are faced with a double-whammy. The reduced fueling intake leads to a diminished ability to handle training loads. So, we have inconsistent training coupled with reduced training loads, either by volume and/or intensity, and any kinds of improvements are quickly spiraling down the drain. The goal is just the opposite: to increase the training load that can be maintained and absorbed month over month, and year over year. To do so, a healthy GI system is of the utmost importance as it’s the first interface between the foods we eat to support training load, and the rest of your body.
Ok, so now we know why GI health is important, what it feels like to have poor gut health, and reasons as to why and how we find ourselves struggling in this area. But, how do we fix it? Or even prevent it, in the first place?
Making it Better
- The Core Diet: Following the principles of The Core Diet will help to turn an unhealthy gut around. That is, a diet of lean meats, lean dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes most closely represent the diet and food sources that the human body has evolved on, over the course of many, many years. These are the kinds of foods that the human GI system most positively responds to. They are extremely nutrient-dense, and provide the body with the essential minerals needed for sustained health and well-being. Athletes who have been longtime followers of The Core Diet will tend to have very little trouble maintaining strong GI health. Those who struggle with gut health can see it come around, over time, when sticking closely to those principles.
- Yogurts: Lean dairy, such as yogurt, can provide the body with good bacteria, that promote gut health. Products such as Dannon’s Activia contain the active cultures L. Bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus, and Bifidobacterium Lactis (a.k.a. Bifidus Regularis) which all create an environment that greatly eases digestion, and reduces lactose intolerance. Many yogurt enthusiasts believe that the active cultures, found in yogurts, boosts immunity to infection, reduces cholesterol, and even serves as an anti-carcinogen. But the important thing to note that not only are these yogurts lean, or low in fat, but you also want to make choices that have minimally added sugars. So many of today’s available options are flavored with one fruit, or another, and as a result contain a good deal of unnecessary sugars….so be careful! We always want our yogurts to meet “The Core Ratio”. That is Carbs+Sugar-Fiber divided by Fat+Protein less than 2.0. This insures a more reasonable blood sugar response consistent with the foods the human body was mean to eat!
- Stress: One of the most effective ways to improve GI health has very little to do with diet, and everything to do with stress reduction. Chronic stress can have a tremendously negative impact on our gut health, even drastically change the way in which it functions. Stress may even increase the amount of poor bacteria, in our gut, which adversely impacts, and may even reduce, the amount of good bacteria – The bacteria mentioned above, which helps to promote digestion, and the like. This is all well and good, but what are we supposed to do about these changes that occur in our GI system, due to stress? Well, the smart money is on reducing stress, right? This is where, and when, we have to have the very real conversation with ourselves about how much we can take, and still be making positive forward progress. As driven athletes, we try to maintain our sport on top of the demands of family, work/career, friends, and a myriad of other things. But, something has to give, or our Stress Budget will soon become overdrawn, which puts us into a seemingly inescapable vicious cycle. The sooner that we are able to accept the reality of our Stress Budget, the sooner that we can reduce the chronic stressors in our life, and begin living a healthier all-around lifestyle, including our gut!
- Fish Oils: Not only are fish oils important for their heart health and general anti-inflammatory properties, but they can also help to reduce specific inflammation within the GI system. Also, fish oils are valuable arbiters in the delicate balance of gut bacteria.
- Glutamine: When the training load gets heavy, the use of Glutamine can play a significant role in boosting the immune system, reducing GI inflammation, and balancing bacteria levels in the gut. A daily dose of 5 grams of glutamine (often called L-glutamine), once weekly training volume tops about 15 hours, or if you have had or are having GI issues already, is a perfect addition to your post-workout recovery drink.
- Probiotics: The use of probiotics can help to balance gut bacteria. Often prescribed alongside antibiotics, these are little powerhouses, replacing the good bacteria that is decimated by the disease fighting drugs. Well, it doesn’t require the use of antibiotics, to allow for the use of their positive counterparts. If you feel as though you are struggling through a period of poor gut health, as evidenced in the above discussion, it may be worthwhile to begin using a probiotic or focused yogurt routine to try and turn things around.
During this time of year, when life and diet are so far from routine, it is never more difficult, and important, to focus on a healthy gastrointestinal system. The tremendous impacts of the foods that we eat, and the stresses that we endure, play such a significant role, in such subtle ways make it very easy to slip into a state of poor gut health. But, the good news is that we have a great deal of control over how long, and to what degree, we must exist in this state, if at all. Simply focusing on a healthy diet, based around The Core Diet principles, will go a long way in keeping you out of gut trouble. But, if already there, the measures, discussed above, can greatly help to turn the ship around. Gut health is an important consideration for every person, but especially the athlete. Too often we see athletic performances limited by something so easy to manage and control. We have enough obstacles that are outside of our influence, let’s embrace the ones that aren’t.