How The Microbiome Affects Athletic Performance

May 05, 2019

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Imagine a world where you could mimic the most elite athletes’ microbiome to improve your own athletic prowess. This may sound like it comes straight out of a science fiction novel. But, what if we told you that every athlete is covered in and full of microbes that provide an edge over their competition?

 Every human has trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living inside and on them in multiple microbial ecosystems known as microbiomes. When it comes to athletes specifically, their gut bacteria plays an even more significant role in how well they perform and how quickly they recover.

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

 The roles microbes play in energy regulation and athletic recovery have researchers exploring questions like:

“Could microbiome genomics help us predict the next great athlete?”

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

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

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

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, which led them to believe that the ‘bloom’ 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 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 and ultra-marathoners and found stark differences in composition, which suggests that specific sports may foster certain microbial ecosystems.2

These scientific findings have led companies on a quest to create performance-based pre and probiotics, while some scientists believe that in the future they will be able to mine the guts of elite athletes to help others.


The Nine Ways The Microbiome Affects Athletic Performance


So how does the microbiome help athletic performance exactly? Below you will find nine ways in which the microbiome affects athletic performance.

1.    Reduces Inflammation

The gut microbiome 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 chronic diseases. Gut microbiome imbalance, or dysbiosis, is associated with inflammatory conditions, so it’s important that we maintain a healthy microbiome to help reduce overall body inflammation.6

2.    Boosts Energy Levels

 When your gut microbiome is balanced and healthy it helps boost energy levels, which can translate 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.    Improves Mental Strength

This may come as a surprise, but our gut microbes talk to our brain along the vagus nerve. In fact, they have a huge role in our state of mental health and when they are imbalanced, they can contribute to mental illness. Gut imbalance, or dysbiosis, has even been linked to anxiety and depression. The gut-brain axis is an invisible hand that shapes mental fortitude, which is essential for professional athletes who can’t afford to buckle under pressure.

4.    Shapes Ideal Body Composition

The gut microbiome helps the body run more efficiently and when it is balanced, it makes being healthier in general easier because 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, because 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 to proper absorption and nutrient use.12 If you have a toxic gut microbiome, then the microbes are fighting just to survive and don’t have time to pull out important vitamins, proteins, and enzymes. Moreover, the gut microflora actually provide a lot of nutrients by taking food your digestive tract can’t process and turning it into nutrients you need to survive.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 key factor in proper hydration, which a healthy gut microbiome also helps maintain.13

8.    Improves Sleep

Gut microbiome imbalance, or 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 and build you up—or drag you down. Athletes know they need proper sleep to perform well. But, many might not realize that there’s a pharmacy of sleep-promoting neurotransmitters generated by their own gut.  

9.    Antioxidant Defense System

There’s an impressive system within the body called the antioxidant defense system, or redox signaling, that uses antioxidant enzymes to keep you healthy. Athletes need this system 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 buffering 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 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.

This is where Viome comes in. Viome uses metatranscriptomic sequencing technology and artificial intelligence to develop your one-of-a-kind food recommendations. With Viome, you can fine-tune the function of your gut microbiome to minimize production of harmful metabolites and maximize the production of beneficial ones, so that you experience increased energy and general well-being, all while reaching and maintaining a healthy weight and improving athletic performance.




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