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Does the gut microbiota play a role in exercise performance?

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Most of the microorganisms that live on and inside us are contained in our digestive tract with increasing concentrations generally found the further down you go. A recent and intriguing research area is aimed at assessing the potential linkage of these gut microbes with features of athleticism.

What is the gut microbiota?

The gut microbiota is defined as a diverse ecosystem consisting of bacteria, archaea, viruses, protists, and even fungal communities all residing in the gastrointestinal tract.

Those who engage in regular exercise and have a specific diet regimen appear to have a community distinct from those more sedentary. The structure of the athlete gut microbiota is likely, in part, the result of adaptations to these long‐term lifestyle factors.

What makes an athlete’s gut microbiota “distinct”?

A key feature to highlight, in the context of athletes, is the role the gut has in producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These molecules can be used as a fuel substrate by the body and even act as signaling intermediates involved in the regulation of metabolism and inflammation. SCFAs are produced by the fermentation of non-digestible food components such as dietary fiber and other components, including those derived from our own bodies.

In comparison to sedentary individuals, athletes have increased fecal metabolites and improved overall health. While speculative, athletes may also possess gut microbiota “resilience”. What this refers to is the ability of the gut flora to return to “baseline” following stressful situations like extreme dietary or exercise pressures. This is recognized as an important feature of a health-associated gut community.

What effect does exercise have on the gut microbiota?

In the last few years several research groups have been able to capture the effects of extreme exercise on the gut microbiota. For example, in a study examining Boston marathon participant’s stool samples, Scheiman and colleagues noted an increased abundance of a microbe called Veillonella after the race. What appeared to be occurring was this microbe metabolized lactate into SCFAs. Scheiman and colleagues theorized that higher levels of lactate in the gut of athletes might favor the growth of these bacteria which in turn could help aid performance.

Individual responses

More recently, two unfit males had their gut flora tracked for 6 months as they undertook progressive exercise training with one training for a marathon and the other an Olympic-distance triathlon. There were increases in health-associated metrics like community diversity and abundance of microbial species that have been shown to influence SCFA production. Importantly, these two participants had differential changes in specific health-associated microbes highlighting a very important feature of the human gut microbiota. It is individualized.

As with training adaptations, the response of the gut flora to exercise is likely quite variable and, as noted above, individual. Moreover, it is extremely hard to separate factors like diet, especially since many athletes are on a very specific regimen. Finally, not all exercise stress is necessarily good for the gut. For example, athletes training at high intensities for long periods without adequate fueling are at risk for disturbances in gut integrity and function and gastrointestinal symptoms.

So, do an athlete’s gut microbes help aid performance?

Athletes as a group appear to harbor an increased abundance of functional pathways within the microbiota that could support exercise metabolism and athlete health. In some sense, the gut microbiota may be viewed as an energy harvester for athletes. Indeed, the digestive tract offers an incredibly large exchange surface area for gut-derived metabolites.

The main takeaways…

The gut microbiota of athletes appears to have increased fecal metabolites like SCFAs, which may play a role in exercise performance and overall health compared to less active individuals. These differences are likely driven by the effects of exercise training and dietary intake. They may also have a greater ability to harness energy from the diet and products of exercise metabolism.


Credit: Mysportsscience


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