You may have heard that all disease starts in the gut. I would argue that all disease starts in our brain, but indeed, the gut is the first place, where stress and negative thought patterns show their negative consequences. The opposite is valid, too – if you keep your gut health in check, this contributes to an improved mental state and physical well-being.
We are used to linking gut health with food alone, although our overall lifestyle plays a huge role in maintaining the healthy environment there. New research, linking physical activity to gut health is giving some astonishing results that may surely surprise you.
In fact, recent research has discovered that activity alone, independent of diet changes, has the ability to alter gut bacteria by increasing short-chain fatty acids that are integral for not just gut health but overall health.
What is the Gut?
Let’s begin from ground zero. What exactly are people referring to when they talk about the gut?
Dr. Ganjhu, a professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, explains that “the gastrointestinal system is more than the body’s primary site of taking in and absorbing nutrients … This system of critical digestive organs also acts as a type of switchboard or communication center to and from the brain, and functions as one of the body’s frontlines in the fight against disease.”
The gut goes by many names including gastrointestinal system or tract, digestive system, and digestive tract. No matter which identifier you choose, the gut still refers to the same “group of organs that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum.” These organs work in tandem to create a complicated, yet balanced ecosystem that is integral in “sustaining and protecting the overall health and wellness of our bodies.” These tasks include absorption of nutrients and water, separation, breakdown, and distribution of nutrients, filtering toxins and chemicals, and much more!
What’s all the hullabaloo surrounding the importance of gut health?
Recent research has found that the health of your gut, specifically the lacking of a diverse bacterial environment, may be directly linked to an increase in certain serious health conditions. These include physical ailments — such as diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, heart disease, arthritis, and certain cancers — as well as mental ailments — such as depression, anxiety, and even autism.
One of the main components of a healthy gut is healthy and diverse bacteria. The gut is naturally populated with trillions of bacteria, which “help digest food and play an important role” in the bodies well-being. Yet, these trillions of bacteria aren’t all identical. In fact, the gastrointestinal ract has “300 to 500 different kinds of bacteria containing nearly 2 million genes.” On top of that, all of these different bacteria are able to pair up with viruses and fungi, also called microorganisms. This conglomeration of bacteria and microorganism makes the microbiota which populates the microbiome.
Every human body is different and the gut is no exception! In fact, the bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract is curated from birth and throughout our entire life, beginning with “your mother’s microbiota – the environment that you’re exposed to at birth — and partly from your diet and lifestyle.”
One of the newest discoveries in regards to gut health is the amazing positive effects of exercise. More and more studies are finding a slew of evidence showing that, even apart from diet, exercise can alter your gut bacteria for the better. Yet, as always, let’s take a look at the actual science behind the statement and get informed!
Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects
In this article, published in the Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity Journal, a wealth of research was collected from various studies in order to “shed some light over the recent knowledge of the role played by exercise as an environmental factor in determining changes in microbial composition and how these effects could provide benefits to health and disease prevention.”
“exercise appears to be an environmental factor that can determine changes in the qualitative and quantitative gut microbial composition with possible benefits for the host.” Furthermore, the article suggests that “exercise is able to enrich the microflora diversity … which could potentially contribute to reducing weight, obesity-associated pathologies, and gastrointestinal disorders; to stimulate the proliferation of bacteria which can modulate mucosal immunity and improve barrier functions, resulting in reduction in the incidence of obesity and metabolic diseases; and to stimulate bacteria capable of producing substances that protect against gastrointestinal disorders and colon cancer (such as, SCFAs).”
Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans
An even more recent study published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal, a team of researchers sought to understand the relationship between modulated exercise training in humans and the “gut microbiota and associated metabolites.” The study “explored the impact of [six weeks] of endurance exercise on the composition, functional capacity, and metabolic output of the gut microbiota in lean and obese adults with multiple-day dietary controls.”
To begin, Mayer breaks down how the gut and the body communicate in regards to exercise. Basically, how does our body know that we are exercising? Mayer explains that “physical exercise activates the autonomic nervous system, which sends signals to the gut, which can change peristalsis, regional transit, and secretion of fluid and mucus … During a high-intensity endurance exercise, these autonomic nervous system signals can increase the leakiness, reduce blood flow to the gut, and even directly affect gut microbial behavior.”
“In one study, the investigators wanted to find out if high-intensity endurance exercise altered the gut microbiota composition and metabolic activity, and if this effect was related to a change in intestinal permeability or the leakiness of the gut” and in a second study “investigators explored the impact of six weeks of endurance exercise on the composition and function of the gut microbiota in lean and obese adults with multiple- day dietary controls.”
Energizing and Microbiome Boosting Plant-Based Foods
While one of the surprising findings in these studies is that exercise can positively change the microbiota independent of dietary changes, this doesn’t mean that diet can’t affect gut bacteria health, as well as the quality of your exercise. Not only does diet provide energy reserves that can boost the effectiveness of your workouts, but the nutrition you gain from food helps the recovery process.
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