How Athletic Performance is Affected by your Gut Microbiome, Cellular, and Mitochondrial Health

athletic performance

Science or Fiction?

Imagine a world where you could mimic the most elite athletes’ microbiome and cellular health to improve your athletic prowess. Does this sound like science fiction? Maybe. But, what if we told you that every athlete is covered in and is full of microbes that provide an edge over their competition, and has a unique cellular and mitochondrial health profile that helps them produce energy, moderate inflammation, and recover?

Let’s start with the Gut Microbiome. Every human has trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living inside and on them in numerous microbial ecosystems known as microbiomes. When it comes to athletes, their gut bacteria plays an even more significant role in how well they perform and how quickly they recover.

Gut microbes are responsible for how our bodies break down carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and regulate the body’s energy.1 These microbes naturally influence the body’s inflammatory response, stress resilience, neurological function, and even impact mental strength—all of which are important to athletic performance.2

In addition, we know that the way your cells are able to repair and care for themselves, and how your mitochondria, the energy powerhouse of the cell, produces ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) to provide energy for physiological processes such as muscular contraction. A complete picture of what is happening in the human body on the cellular level takes into account the aging of your cells, cellular stress, and cellular inflammation along with the health of your mitochondria. If your cellular health is not optimal, this can mean that your cellular functions are not performing efficiently, your energy production is low, or your cells are undergoing stress due to oxidative stress, inflammation, or environmental toxins.

The evolution of genomic and transcriptomic sequencing technology, and the ability of Artificial Intelligence to process vast amounts of data around energy regulation and athletic recovery have researchers exploring questions like:

"Could microbiome analysis help us predict the next great athlete?"

“In the future, will we be able to harvest microbes from elite athletes to pass on high-performing microbial capabilities to others?”

“Can food and nutrition affect athletes' ability to recover, boost immunity to help keep them training and competing, by positively impacting their body at a cellular and even mitochondrial level?”

“Will performance-based pre and probiotics be available for the general public?"

While no one can predict the future, exploring these exciting questions presents many possibilities.

Researchers At Harvard Discover “Elite Gut Microbiota”

Athletic performance, recovery, and even the type of sport an athlete engages in have been linked to specific microbes. These findings now have researchers looking for ways to increase the diversity and richness of the good bacteria in the gut for better performance and faster recovery.

In one study, Harvard researchers sampled the gut microbiomes of athletes training for the Boston Marathon. Researchers tested the participants again after the marathon and found a spike in one type of bacteria needed by the body to break down lactic acid. This spike led them to believe that the increase in this specific bacteria was a response to increased lactic acid levels in the body since it serves as their primary food source.3

Their findings beg the question: Could this species of bacteria be used in the future to reduce lactic acid levels in the body and potentially speed up recovery time?

In another study, scientists from Harvard compared the gut microbiomes of rowers to ultra-marathoners and found stark differences in composition, which suggests that specific sports may foster particular microbial ecosystems.2

These scientific findings have not only led companies on a quest to create performance-based pre and probiotics but prompted some scientists to believe that in the future they will be able to mine the microbiome of elite athletes to help others.

Nine Ways The Microbiome and Cellular Health Affects Athletic Performance

1.    Helps Maintain a Healthy Inflammatory Response

The gut microbiome inherently plays a significant role in inflammation—either increasing or decreasing levels. Inflammation interferes with athletic performance, slows recovery, and is the root cause of many issues. Gut microbiome balance, is vital to maintaining a healthy microbiome essential for healthy inflammatory responses.6 In addition, it is now easier to see inflammation levels in human cells, which can be triggered by both the gut microbiome and environmental factors (pathogens, stress, exercise, etc).

2.    Helps Boosts Energy Levels

When your gut microbiome is balanced and healthy, it helps boost energy levels, and cellular energy is regulated and produced by mitochondria, so it is critical to look at both your human and microbial health. This translates into better performance by:

·       Reducing fatigue through better lactic acid breakdown7
·       Controlling redox function, which can delay fatigue symptoms8
·       Increasing ATP levels, your molecular energy9
·       Modulating metabolism4
·       Supplying essential metabolites to your mitochondria – your cell’s powerhouse9
·       Regulating energy harvest, storage, and expenditure4

3.    Supports Focus and Cognition

As unusual as it may sound, our gut microbes talk to our brain along the vagus nerve. They have a massive role in our state of mood, focus and cognition. When gut microbes are imbalanced, they can contribute to poor cognitive function and improper emotional responses.17 The gut-brain axis is an invisible hand that shapes mental stamina, which is essential for professional athletes who can’t afford to buckle under pressure.

4.    Helps Shape Ideal Body Composition

The gut microbiome helps the body run more efficiently. A balanced gut makes being healthier in general easier as it influences:

·       Body mass composition
·       White vs. brown fat
·       Blood glucose response to meals

5.    Strengthens Bones

The microbiome helps build bone mass and strength through hormone and immune system regulation. A balanced gut microbiota can also increase mineral absorption of calcium and magnesium. This is especially good news in times of injury when a properly functioning microbiome can speed up bone healing during sport-related trauma.11

6.    Helps With Nutrient Absorption & Use

A balanced microbiome is essential for proper absorption and nutrient use. If your gut microbiome is toxic and unbalanced, the microbes are fighting to survive—not pulling out essential vitamins, proteins, and enzymes. In addition, the gut microflora provides nutrition by using food your digestive tract can't process and turning it into nutrients you need to stay healthy.12

For athletes to perform at their peak, they need to have gut microbiomes that are thriving.

7.    Elevates Hydration Status

The gut microbiome has been linked to proper hydration regulation during exercise—meaning that the body uses water more efficiently. Also, the integrity of the gut lining is a crucial factor in proper hydration, which a healthy gut microbiome also helps maintain.13

8.    Improves Sleep

Gut microbiome imbalance (dysbiosis), is associated with poor sleep quality and lowered cognitive flexibility because the gut microbiome controls levels of various hormones such as cortisol, serotonin, and GABA, all of which affect sleep quality.14 The microbiome also affects the production of melatonin, which is essential for proper sleep-wake cycles.15

Quality sleep, good gut health, energy levels, and performance all exist in a reinforcing cycle that can either compound on one another to support you—or drag you down. Athletes know they need proper sleep to perform well. However, many might not realize that there’s a pharmacy of sleep-promoting neurotransmitters generated within their own gut.

9.    Antioxidant Defense System

There’s a powerful system within the body called the antioxidant defense system, or redox signaling, that uses antioxidant enzymes to keep you healthy. Athletes need this system in good working order to consistently perform well and stay at the top of their game.

A healthy redox status is associated with a balanced gut microbiome. This gut microbiome-regulated antioxidant enzyme system:8,16

·       Prevents tissue damage from exercise
·       Protects against intense exercise-induced oxidative damage
·       Is associated with the physical status of athletes
·       Reduces physical fatigue
·       Improve exercise performance

In general, intensive and sustained exercise training and high-level competition generate large amounts of free radicals that likely exceed the capacity of a typical body. This makes athletes susceptible to oxidative stress and more likely to build up damaging inflammation.

The Future Of Gut Microbiome and Human Cellular Science Is The Future Of Performance Science

Eating a healthy diet diverse in foods is a great start. But, you can take your athletic performance to the next level by eating a diet that specifically supports your unique microbiome and body.

New, leading-edge science, at-home health tests have made it easy to monitor your microbiome and cellular health without any guesswork. With a few quick samples, blood, saliva, and stool, you can learn an entire wealth of information about your body, your microbiome, and if their functionality is in shape for tip-top performance. Take a test and find out!

Originally published 5-5-2019

Updated 7-9-2020, 11-15-2023


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