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Functional Medicine Approaches to Gut Health in Teen Athletes: Nutrition and Lifestyle Guidelines

Medically reviewed by 
 
Functional Medicine Approaches to Gut Health in Teen Athletes: Nutrition and Lifestyle Guidelines

Gut health significantly influences adolescent athletic performance by impacting nutrient absorption, energy metabolism, immune function, and sleep patterns. A considerable number of athletes undergoing rigorous training often encounter digestive issues. Functional medicine offers a comprehensive assessment of gut health in teen athletes, aiming to prevent gastrointestinal symptoms from hampering athletic performance. The focus is optimizing the gut microbiome to enhance overall athletic outcomes, acknowledging the interconnectedness between gut health and the various facets of performance in adolescent athletes.

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Importance of Gut Health for Teen Athletes

Optimal gut health significantly enhances athletic performance by influencing key physiological processes, extending to nutrient absorption, immune function, and systemic inflammation modulation. Nutrient absorption is vital for athletes, directly impacting energy levels, muscle function, and overall recovery. The small intestine's role in efficiently absorbing essential nutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, and fats supports energy production and muscle repair, which is crucial for athletic pursuits.

Approximately 70% of the body's immune cells reside in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). The gut microbiome interacts with intestinal immune cells, promoting a healthy immune system. Gut imbalances, including dysbiosis, inflammatory GI conditions, and leaky gut, perpetuate immune dysregulation, which promotes chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation significantly impacts an athlete's energy levels, poses risks to recovery, increases injury and illness susceptibility, and hampers athletic performance. (3, 8, 12

Identifying Gut Health Issues in Teen Athletes

Up to 70% of athletes, particularly runners, cyclists, and weight lifters, experience some type of GI disturbance. Common GI issues in athletes include reflux, gastritis, exercise-induced abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, and lower GI bleeding. Pain complaints are most common in younger athletes and those participating in longer-duration activities. The severity of symptoms generally increases with the intensity of activity and fluid restriction/dehydration. (9

The GI disturbances observed in athletes can be attributed to various physiological changes that naturally occur during athletic activities, such as decreased blood flow to the digestive tract, reperfusion injury that can arise after exercise, mechanical forces to abdominal organs, and altered neuroendocrine function. These factors are associated with increased intestinal permeability, reduced motility, abdominal discomfort, and impaired nutrient digestion and absorption. (9

Clinical manifestations of gut health issues can vary. Signs and symptoms of gut health issues in athletes may include: 

  • Bad breath
  • Abdominal pain/cramps
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • Gas and bloating 
  • Acid reflux
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Food intolerance
  • Changes in appetite
  • Unintentional changes in weight
  • Fatigue
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Skin problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Changes in mood

Early detection of digestive problems is important, given the wide range of consequences linked to GI disease and intestinal dysbiosis. Long-standing gut imbalances contribute to chronic inflammation, a driving factor of chronic disease. Illnesses that have been linked to untreated dysbiosis and intestinal inflammation include inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, gastritis, gastric ulcers, metabolic disease, allergies, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, and mental health disorders. (22

The Role of Functional Medicine Testing in Gut Health Assessment

The gut microbiota of physically active individuals is characterized by a higher abundance of health-promoting bacterial species, increased microbial diversity, functional metabolic capacity, and microbial-associated metabolites. This "health-associated" gut microbiota is believed to confer benefits to the host athlete in improving physical performance and reducing recovery time. (21

Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) play a pivotal role in promoting health benefits for athletes through their influence on various physiological processes. These organic acids, produced by certain bacteria in the gut during the fermentation of dietary fibers, have been associated with improved energy metabolism, enhanced immune function, and reduced inflammation. SCFAs, particularly acetate, propionate, and butyrate, serve as a major energy source for the cells lining the colon, supporting their integrity and function. This is particularly crucial for athletes, as maintaining a healthy gut lining aids optimal nutrient absorption and helps mitigate the risk of gastrointestinal issues during intense physical activity. (23

The evidence supporting the importance of SCFA-producing bacteria in an athlete's gut microbiota is substantial. Studies have shown that athletes exhibit a distinct microbial profile, with an increased abundance of bacteria capable of producing SCFAs. The presence of these beneficial bacteria has been linked to improved exercise performance, efficient energy utilization, and a reduced risk of exercise-induced inflammation. Additionally, the positive impact of SCFAs on immune modulation is crucial for athletes who may experience temporary immune suppression during intense training. (21, 23, 28

Functional medicine testing for gut health via comprehensive stool analysis offers a means to map out the gut microbiome and measure markers related to nutrient digestion/absorption, intestinal inflammation, SCFAs, and immune function.

Genova Diagnostics' GI Effects Comprehensive Profile with Microbiomix uses gold-standard metagenomic shotgun/whole genome sequencing to map out the patient's gut microbiome and evaluate its function. Similarly, the GI-MAP by Diagnostic Solutions is another robust option using advanced DNA sequencing technology to map out the gut microbiome. These findings allow healthcare to devise a customized plan incorporating nutrition, lifestyle adjustments, and specific supplements. This individualized approach aims to align the microbiome with optimal parameters, enhancing overall health and athletic performance.

As mentioned previously, increased intestinal permeability is one of the mechanisms responsible for the higher incidence of GI disorders and symptoms among athletes. Sixty minutes of vigorous-intensity endurance training leads to changes in the body characteristic of leaky gut syndrome. Food sensitivities can perpetuate gut leakiness but can be difficult to identify through observation alone. Using a food sensitivity test like the 96 IgG Food Sensitivity Panel by Alletess Medical Laboratory can help identify trigger foods aggravating symptoms, helping personalize nutritional strategies for athletes.

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Nutritional Strategies for Enhancing Gut Health

Evidence suggests that implementing specific nutritional strategies is instrumental in fostering a health-associated microbiome in athletes, subsequently optimizing athletic performance. First and foremost, a diet rich in diverse fibers, prebiotics, fruit, polyphenols, and fermented foods has been associated with the promotion of beneficial gut bacteria. These compounds serve as essential substrates for the growth of beneficial microbes, contributing to a more balanced and diverse microbiota. A ketogenic Mediterranean diet, differentiated from a standard ketogenic diet by its composition of healthy fats, fiber, plant-based protein, and fermented foods, has been shown to improve exercise performance, metabolic function, gut health, and inflammation by supporting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and the production of SCFAs. (17, 29)

Probiotics, which are live microorganisms with proven health benefits, are also crucial in supporting gut and systemic health. Including probiotic-rich foods or supplements in the diet introduces beneficial bacteria, positively influencing the gut microbial composition. Studies have reported that using Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium probiotic strains positively modifies the intestinal ecosystem, regulates immune responses, maintains a healthy intestinal barrier, and exerts musculoskeletal health benefits. Bacteria belonging to the genera Fusobacterium, Bacteroides, and Veillonella improve the synthesis, digestion, and absorption of amino acids (protein building blocks). (1

Ensuring adequate energy, macronutrient, and micronutrient intake is vital for supporting young athletes' growth, development, and athletic performance. This should be a primary focus for all teen athletes, especially those who require elimination diets for food sensitivities. Caloric requirements for adolescents will vary depending on age, activity level, and growth rate. Carbohydrates sourced from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes should constitute 45-65% of total caloric intake for 4- to 18-year-olds. Proteins from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, and nuts support muscle growth and repair and help maintain blood sugar as exercise duration increases. Protein should comprise 10-30% of total energy intake for 4- to 18-year-olds. Healthy fats in avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are a calorie-dense energy source and should comprise 25-35% of energy intake for 4- to 18-year-olds. Ensuring adequate micronutrient requirements is equally important for bone health, muscle function, and overall growth and development. Special attention should be emphasized on ensuring teen athletes meet nutrient requirements for calcium, vitamin D, and iron. (26

Athletes are at increased risk for dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, given the loss of fluids and electrolytes through sweat. The American College of Sports Medicine gives the following advice for fluid replacement during exercise: ​​To optimize hydration and support performance, individuals should maintain a nutritionally balanced diet and stay adequately hydrated 24 hours before an event, with particular attention to the meal preceding exercise or competition. Approximately 500 ml (about 17 ounces) of fluid should be consumed around 2 hours before exercise, allowing time to excrete excess ingested water. During exercise, athletes should initiate fluid intake early and maintain regular intervals to replace the water lost through sweating or consume the maximum amount tolerated. (10

Lifestyle Modifications to Support Gut Health

Implementing lifestyle changes, in addition to optimizing nutrition, can significantly contribute to positive gut health outcomes. Chronic physical and emotional stress can negatively impact gut microbiota composition, alter GI motility and secretions, enhance visceral sensations, and increase intestinal permeability. These physiological changes increase the risk of intestinal dysbiosis, leaky gut, and undesirable GI symptoms. Mitigating stressors through relaxation techniques, physical activity, and adaptogenic herbs may contribute to a healthier gut. Stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises, have been shown to modulate the gut-brain axis, promote a balanced microbial environment, and reduce GI symptoms (31, 33). 

Poor sleep is reported as one of the leading causes of fatigue in athletes. Sleep loss and poor sleep quality impair various aspects of athletic performance, including muscle strength and speed. Additionally, sleep loss increases the risk of injuries and slows recovery time following injury. (4) Poor sleep also has negative ramifications for gut health. Suboptimal sleep interferes with the body's normal circadian rhythms, which, among other functions, govern gut motility and digestive patterns. Patients with sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia, have marked changes in their microfloral composition and diversity, translating to increased intestinal barrier damage. Poor sleep habits are associated with higher rates of self-reported irritable bowel syndrome. (5, 11) General guidelines state that teen athletes (ages 13-18 years) should get between 8-10 hours of sleep every night and that school-age children (ages 6-12 years) need at least 9-12 hours.

Addressing Food Sensitivities and Allergies

Food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities can have profound negative impacts on athletic performance related to increased inflammation, loss of physical and cognitive resiliency, nutrient deficiencies, immune dysfunction, and GI symptoms. 

Identifying and managing food sensitivities and allergies in teen athletes involves a systematic approach, often utilizing elimination diets and reintroduction protocols. The process begins with thoroughly assessing symptoms, such as gastrointestinal discomfort, fatigue, or skin issues, that may indicate a potential food sensitivity or allergy. 

To initiate the identification process, an elimination diet is implemented. This involves temporarily removing common allergens or suspected trigger foods from the athlete's diet. The most common food allergens include milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Food sensitivity tests can identify foods that should be eliminated based on an individual's level of reactivity. The elimination phase typically lasts 2-4 weeks, during which the athlete meticulously avoids the specified foods. Following the elimination phase, a gradual reintroduction of eliminated foods is conducted under controlled conditions. This step is crucial in pinpointing specific triggers. Each food is reintroduced one at a time, with a waiting period between each reintroduction. Recurrence of symptoms during this phase indicates sensitivity to the reintroduced food item. 

Close communication between the athlete, their parents or guardians, and a healthcare professional is essential throughout this process. These professionals can provide guidance on constructing a well-balanced diet during the elimination phase and interpreting the results of the reintroduction phase. 

Implementing a Gut Health Plan for Teen Athletes

Creating a gut health plan for athletes involves a systematic and collaborative approach between healthcare practitioners and coaches. Here is a step-by-step guide to navigate this process:

Assessment of Current Health and Dietary Habits

Begin with a thorough assessment of the teen athlete's current health status, including any existing gastrointestinal issues, dietary preferences, and activity levels. Collect information on the athlete's daily dietary intake, emphasizing the types and amounts of foods consumed.

Screening for Gut Health Issues

Perform screening for potential gut health issues, considering symptoms such as digestive discomfort, irregular bowel habits, or fatigue. Conduct specific tests, such as comprehensive stool analysis or food sensitivity testing, to identify underlying gut health issues if necessary.

Collaboration Between Healthcare Practitioners and Coaches

Foster open communication between healthcare practitioners (dietitians, gastroenterologists) and coaches to share relevant information about the athlete's health, training schedule, and performance goals.

Personalized Nutrition Plan

Develop a personalized nutrition plan that aligns with the athlete's specific needs, considering energy requirements, macronutrient distribution, micronutrient needs, and food sensitivities. Incorporate gut-friendly foods like fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, fermented foods, and probiotics into the nutrition plan. Establish a hydration strategy that ensures the athlete maintains optimal fluid balance, considering factors like the duration and intensity of training sessions and environmental conditions.

Implementing Gut Health Practices

Encourage lifestyle modifications that support gut health, including stress reduction techniques and adequate sleep. Educate the athlete about the role of gut health in athletic performance and the importance of maintaining a balanced and diverse diet to promote a healthy gut microbiome. Empower the athlete to make informed dietary choices, fostering a sense of ownership over their gut health.

Monitoring and Adjustment

Regularly monitor the athlete's gut health status and adjust the plan as needed based on their response to dietary changes and interventions. Continue collaboration between healthcare practitioners and coaches to address emerging issues and modify the gut health plan as needed.

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Gut Health in Teen Athletes: Key Takeaways

Prioritizing gut health in teen athletes should be prioritized in the pursuit of optimizing immediate athletic performance and supporting growth, development, and recovery. Emerging research highlights multiple mechanisms by which the gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal systems are connected. By supporting digestion, absorption, and microbiome diversity, functional medicine plans meet the nutritional requirements for teen athletes and correct root causes of gastrointestinal symptoms. In doing so, this comprehensive and individualized approach supports teen athletes in achieving their athletic goals.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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