When it comes to health and wellness, digestive health is central to overall health. Those who are proactive and take control of their digestive health will realize significant improvement in their health and quality of life. For athletes, a healthy gut can have a dramatic impact on athletic performance. Gut health influences not only digestion, but also immunity, nutrition absorption and recovery.
That said, what exactly is digestive health? Optimal digestive health is the body’s ability to break down, absorb and use nutrients. It is also the body’s ability to effectively eliminate waste in a way that optimizes health. People with good digestive health don’t normally experience certain digestive conditions including constipation, diarrhea and heartburn, among others. Athletes can achieve ideal digestive health by eating a nutritionally sound diet, minimizing emotional stress and exercising.
One statement that has always resonated with me was made by a health professional who said, “health begins in the gut.” Better digestive health equals better overall health—period. The digestive tract is exposed to more than 60 tons of food during a lifetime! The digestive tract lining is one of the body’s first lines of defense against toxins and infections from harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites. Moreover, the digestive tract is a crucial aspect of the immune system. And many fail to realize that poor digestion dramatically impacts an athlete’s athletic performance, as well as general quality of life.
Eat Right for Digestive Health
As previously mentioned, eating a nutritionally sound diet will promote digestive health. We live in an age of processed foods. Additionally, we don’t eat enough fiber, fruits and vegetables. Consuming a diet that is high in fiber and rich in whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits will significantly improve digestive health. A high-fiber diet allows food to move more efficiently through the digestive tract which helps with constipation. Also, a high-fiber diet will prevent unpleasant digestive conditions including diverticulosis, hemorrhoids and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Many fail to realize that a high fiber diet can help achieve or maintain a healthy weight, which is crucial for all athletes.
Another critical nutritional element to boost digestive health is to limit foods that are high in fat. Fatty foods tend to slow down the digestive process which may promote constipation. However, it is very important to consume healthy fats. And healthy fats consumed with high-fiber foods will have a positive impact on your digestive system.
Furthermore, protein is an essential part of a healthy diet and should be included for ideal digestive health. Be sure to eat lean meats, not fatty cuts of meat, which may lead to digestion problems.
Maintaining digestive health is always a challenge, especially with processed foods being so prevalent in today’s world. Therefore, in an effort to supplement your diet where food might be lacking, I always recommend that athletes supplement with digestive enzymes, prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics. These products are found in abundance in health food stores nationwide.
Digestive Enzymes: Digestive enzymes are proteins that the body uses to break down the food we eat into useful nutrients and waste products. You can only get the full benefit of food and nutritional supplements if your body has enough enzymes to properly digest and absorb the nutrients. However, many digestive enzymes are found only in raw foods. With processed foods being so prevalent, most of us will eat little, if any, raw food. Additional digestive enzymes are produced by the body, but this process becomes less efficient with age. A lack of digestive enzymes can contribute to a myriad of illnesses including many digestive maladies. Many athletes supplement with digestive enzymes to increase digestive enzyme levels in the body which dramatically improves digestive health.
Prebiotics: Prebiotics are the food source for healthy bacteria in your gut. Probiotics eat prebiotics making prebiotics essential for a robust and healthy gut microbiome. Specifically, prebiotics are non-digestible fibers found in plant foods such as vegetables and whole grains. Prebiotics remain undigested as they pass through your GI (gastrointestinal) tract, until they reach the colon, where they are broken down by your gut bacteria. Prebiotic supplements are widely available in natural products retailers nationwide. Studies have shown that these extremely efficacious supplements can help digestion by feeding good bacteria in the gut.
Probiotics: There are many foods that contain probiotic bacteria all of which can be found in natural products stores nationwide. Yogurt is perhaps the best-known food that contains probiotics. Kefir and fermented vegetables are examples of other probiotic foods. The good bacteria contained in probiotic foods will help establish or maintain a population of “beneficial” bacteria in the gut that will keep the gut in balance. There are also many probiotic supplements on the market. These probiotic supplements contain a different balance of beneficial bacteria for both the large and small intestines. The probiotic should have at least six different strains and should have lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. These micro-organisms are found in large numbers in the normal healthy intestine. However, you should consult your health professional on the different strains that are available, potency, etc., as all probiotics are not created equal.
Postbiotics: Relatively new to the digestive health landscape, postbiotics are the waste left behind after your body digests both prebiotics and probiotics. Healthy postbiotics include nutrients such as vitamins B and K, amino acids and substances called antimicrobial peptides that help to slow down the growth of harmful bacteria.
Stress and its Impact on Digestive Health
The digestive system is an intricate system that can be disrupted by mental and physical stress that many athletes experience. Too much stress or anxiety can cause the digestive system to go into overdrive.
There is probably no system in the body that’s impacted more by stress than the digestive tract. When we feel ill, the obvious focus is on the physical aspects of the illness. However, negative feelings and stress can affect digestion. In fact, research indicates that stress can have a harmful effect on gut flora.
The bottom line is that stress will hinder digestion. Athletes often try relaxation therapies including yoga, meditation, hypnosis and even music to minimize stress. Many athletes have powerful instinctual responses to stress. These responses indicate that stress is directly connected to the gut. People with digestive diseases such as IBS, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and Crohn’s disease, may not realize their condition is directly related to stress. While this is not the root cause of their condition, it’s definitely one of the triggers that make most digestive conditions worse.
Interestingly, for many athletes with digestive difficulties, the gastrointestinal tract becomes a part of the body that may function as an indicator when confronted with a stressful situation. Whether we’re anxious about an upcoming game, race, tryout, etc., athletes will often find themselves in the restroom dealing with gut problems. We all know the feeling—butterflies in the stomach and nervous diarrhea. For so many people, the gastrointestinal tract becomes a focus for the body and an expression of excessive stress.
Exercise and Digestion: Allies in Health
Exercise and its profound benefits on health have been widely documented in the mainstream media for many years. However, how many people truly understand the impact that exercise has on gut health? Exercise and digestion truly are partners in health. The normal digestion process takes between 24 and 72 hours. That said, exercise will help improve the efficiency of the digestive process, as well as help to maintain a healthy weight. Let’s take a closer look at this.
The digestive system is made up of organs that help the body change food into smaller molecules of nutrients. These nutrients are absorbed into the blood and carried to cells throughout the body. When the digestive system breaks down, it results in gastrointestinal distress.
For example, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, more than 42 million Americans suffer from constipation. This is most commonly caused by a lack of fiber in the diet and a lack of physical activity. That said, athletes can prevent this uncomfortable condition by incorporating simple lifestyle changes as follows:
• Consume 20-35 grams of fiber per day (beans, fresh fruits, whole grain breads and vegetables). Also, limit foods with little fiber, including ice cream and cheese.
• Exercise two hours after a meal. Most athletes do resistance training to sculpt the body and stimulate metabolism. However, weight bearing exercise has also been shown to impact bowel function. When you perform weight bearing exercise on your feet, the abdominals are forced to stabilize the spine which creates pressure within the abdominal cavity. This abdominal pressure is responsible for simulating many internal organs which aids in moving food through the digestive tract.
Another example of a widespread gastrointestinal disorder is heartburn. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 60 million Americans report having heartburn at least once a month, and some studies report that more than 15 million Americans have symptoms every day. This condition is closely related to the digestive system and the primary symptom of GERD. Certain exercises can reduce heartburn including:
• Using a Stairmaster or riding a stationary bike
• Yoga for flexibility and stress reduction
• Pilates for core strength
When the topic of digestive health comes up, I often encounter a certain degree of ignorance. This is something I personally experienced. Before I truly became a health and wellness advocate, I did not understand the importance of digestive health. The numbers are staggering.
More than 80 million Americans suffer from daily digestive problems. Statistics show that more than $100 billion annually is spent on medical treatment for digestive problems including $10 billion for over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription antacids. Heartburn drugs have become the top selling OTC and prescription medication in the U.S. While these medications may treat the symptoms, they fail to address the underlying and systemic issues plaguing the millions of Americans who seek relief.
Increasingly, athletes are placing a greater emphasis on digestive health, driving demand for new and innovative products. Athletes are always looking for ways they can improve performance and are constantly pushing hard to attain fitness goals. The solution can be found by minimizing stress, eating fresh, organic wholesome foods, consuming quality supplements and maintaining a strategic training regimen. Those athletes that are proactive and take control of their digestive health will see vast improvement in their overall health and athletic performance.VR
Mark Becker is a Senior Account Executive for Vivion LLC, a raw materials distributor, based in Gardena, CA. He has worked as a natural products sales and marketing executive for 30 years. Becker has written more than 300 articles and has hosted or been a guest on more than 500 radio shows. He obtained a bachelor’s in journalism from Long Beach State University and did his Master’s work in communications at Cal State Fullerton. For more than 35 years he has participated in numerous endurance events, including more than 150 triathlons of Olympic distance or longer, 103 marathons and numerous other events including ultramarathons and rough water swims from Alcatraz to the mainland. He has relied on a comprehensive dietary supplement regimen to support his athletic, professional and personal endeavors. For more information, visit www.vivion.com or www.alliedbionutrition.com.