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The Role of Gut Health in Fitness and Mental Wellness

Medically reviewed by 
 
The Role of Gut Health in Fitness and Mental Wellness

Many people think of bacteria as a precursor to illnesses or infections. However, good bacteria in your gut that make up your gastrointestinal flora have many important body functions. They aid in digestion, optimize gut immunity, minimize harmful inflammation, and more.

Having a healthy gut plays a key role in maintaining an exceptional quality of life, including optimal fitness and a happy mood. The gut’s effects on wellness are profound, as the gut-brain axis interconnects your physical and mental well-being.

Making a few simple lifestyle changes can enhance gut health, keeping your microbiome balanced to reduce the risk of mood disorders, fatigue, digestive issues, and huffing and puffing during workouts. 

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Gut Health and Its Impact on Fitness

Your microbiome’s impact on fitness is astounding, as having a balanced gut microbiome offers numerous benefits for physical training. It can increase nutrient absorption, improve your workouts, optimize recovery after exercise, and boost energy metabolism.

Exceptional gut health in athletic performance is vital for success. Adding probiotics (healthy gut bacteria) to an athlete’s diet can improve performance, optimize body composition, and enhance cardiovascular fitness — while reducing fatigue and muscle pain.

Healthy gut microbiota is also linked to exercise improvements, a stronger immune system, better muscular performance, and improved cognition (thinking power) during athletics. This means having a healthy digestive tract puts you in the right headspace when participating in sporting events.

Eating a diet rich in good bacteria and focusing on your gut health can increase the quality of your workouts, improve brain function during exercise, and help your body recover faster after intense sweat sessions.

Because a healthy gut also benefits your mental health, maintaining balanced gut bacteria might boost your motivation to work out regularly.

The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health

Balanced gut microbiota has profound effects on your mental health (your mood, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors). They may reduce unpleasant symptoms of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many researchers have examined the link between the gut microbiome and mental health. 

The effects of gut health on mood disorders and developing brains are fascinating. Researchers found that anxiety and depression are linked to specific microbes in the gastrointestinal system. They showed that modifying your diet by eating nutritious foods can improve gut microbiome balance and reduce the risk of common mental health challenges. 

Examples of healthy dietary interventions described in the above study include consuming fish, omega-3 fatty acids, synbiotics, postbiotics, probiotics, and prebiotics.

Researchers found that the gut-brain axis helps regulate stress. They demonstrated that gut-bacteria balance early in life can shape health outcomes in people with stress-related conditions, such as anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and depression. The same researchers showed that antibiotic exposure, birth by cesarean section, lack of breastfeeding, stress exposure, infection, and other environmental influences early in life can alter microbiome composition.

The good news is that there are numerous ways to improve gut microbiota balance to better cope with stress and reduce the risk of mental health disorders and their complications — such as financial and relationship challenges, thoughts of suicide, and substance misuse.

Functional Lab Testing for Gut Health

Functional lab testing for gut health is an excellent way to determine if your gut microbiota is balanced and if you would benefit from taking dietary supplements, changing your diet, or altering other lifestyle habits. Examples of such tests include:

GI-MAP®

GI-MAP testing by Diagnostic Solutions is a stool analysis that measures gastrointestinal microbiota DNA using a single stool sample. It assesses bacteria, gut pathogens, viruses, parasites, yeast overgrowth, and more to detect microbes that disturb gut bacteria balance or contribute to illnesses. The GI-MAP + Zonulin is the same test, but it also evaluates zonulin, which is a marker of "Leaky Gut". 

Comprehensive Stool Analysis + Parasitology - 3 Day

The Comprehensive Stool Analysis + Parasitology test by Doctor's Data analyzes stool samples over three days to thoroughly evaluate the gastrointestinal system. Stool composition can vary on a daily basis, so this test may catch things that would go unnoticed on a single stool sample test. The test assesses bacteria, yeast, parasites, infectious pathogens, absorption, digestion, and inflammation.

SIBO Breath Test

The trio-smart SIBO breath test by Gemelli Biotech measures fermented gasses, including hydrogen sulfide, methane, and hydrogen in your breath. The test can identify small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which is a condition where too much bacteria is inappropriately located in the small intestine. Typically, high bacteria levels are meant to only be located in the large intestine. This is a condition that leads to many uncomfortable gut symptoms, so evaluating for this condition is advised when identifying the root cause of any gastrointestinal issue.

Microbial Organic Acids (MOAT)

The Microbial Organic Acids Test (MOAT) by Mosaic Diagnostics is another test that screens for markers of harmful and beneficial bacteria. Rather than detecting the actual levels of pathogens, which is how stool samples work, the MOAT is a urine test and detects metabolite byproducts from pathogens that can assess for imbalances. It can also be used to assess treatment effectiveness. The MOAT measures Candida species, Clostridia species, fungal metabolites, yeast, and dysbiosis (microbiota imbalance). 

These functional medicine tests help providers create personalized strategies to improve gut microbiome balance, optimizing mental wellness and fitness levels. 

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Dietary Factors Influencing Gut Health

Good nutrition plays a crucial role in enhancing gut health, as making simple dietary changes can dramatically improve gut bacteria balance. What you put into your body can positively or negatively impact microbiome composition, which affects mental and physical fitness. 

A healthy diet for gut health includes probiotics, prebiotics, and fiber-rich foods (whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables, and fruits). 

Probiotics and mental wellness are linked. Foods rich in beneficial gut bacteria include:

  • Yogurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Fermented pickles
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir
  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Buttermilk
  • Kombucha
  • Nato (fermented soybean product)

Prebiotics are abundant in:

  • Vegetables
  • Fortified yogurts
  • Cereals with added prebiotics
  • Bananas
  • Garlic
  • Chicory root
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Beans
  • Seaweed
  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Soybeans
  • Honey
  • Breastmilk and some infant formulas

Foods that help boost postbiotics in your gut include:

  • Flaxseed
  • Seaweed
  • Garlic
  • Yogurt
  • Buttermilk
  • Cottage cheese
  • Oats
  • Fermented pickles
  • Miso soup
  • Fermented sauerkraut
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Sourdough bread
  • Tempeh

It’s vital to ensure your diet is well-balanced, containing an array of whole (primarily plant-based) foods. 

Probiotics, prebiotics, postbiotics, and fiber, as well as other helpful gut healing supplements are also available and may be indicated for some individuals based on the results of their functional medicine gut health lab tests.

Limit foods that aren’t beneficial for gut microbiome balance, including highly processed foods, fried foods, meats containing antibiotics, added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. 

The Impact of Exercise on Gut Health

The link between exercise and the gut microbiome is well-documented. Gut bacteria composition affects your fitness level, and how often you exercise affects the quality and quantity of microbiota found in your gut.

Physical activity’s impact on gut health is noted in numerous studies. Researchers explain that exercise boosts the number of helpful microbes in the gut, enriches microflora diversity, and improves the development of a healthy digestive tract. 

Exercising at a moderate to high intensity for 30-90 minutes at least three times weekly (for eight weeks) offers significant improvements in gut bacteria balance. Examples of beneficial exercises for gut health are walking, cycling, elliptical training, jogging, running, circuit training, and resistance training.

Therefore, getting regular exercise contributes to a healthier digestive tract, optimal fitness, and improved mental well-being. Regular sweat sessions also reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and other chronic conditions.

Choose exercises you enjoy that last at least 30 minutes (most days of the week) and keep your body moving as often as possible throughout the day. Be active when you’re outdoors, and recruit family or friends to exercise with you to make workouts truly enjoyable.

Managing Stress for Gut Health and Mental Wellness

Stress management for gut health is vital, as stress affects microbiome balance and the gut-brain axis. 

Studies show that stress and depression increase cravings for specific foods that alter the gut’s microbiota. Researchers found that stress reshapes gut bacteria composition by altering stress hormones and increasing inflammation. This can release toxins and other substances that may negatively affect mood, alter eating behaviors, and increase the risk of depression. The same researchers showed that taking probiotics supplements can reduce the harmful effects of stress on the gut’s microbiome and minimize the risk of mental health concerns.

Use the effects of gut health in stress reduction to your advantage by:

  • Lightening up a busy schedule
  • Removing stressors in your life
  • Trying yoga, tai chi, meditation, or massage
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Taking mental health days off from work
  • Sleeping at least 7 hours each night
  • Avoiding exposure to toxins and other harmful substances 
  • Getting in touch with your spirituality
  • Spending time with family and friends
  • Doing things you enjoy
  • Being physically active daily

Prioritizing things in life that truly matter can kick stress to the curb and revitalize your mind, body, and soul.

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Key Takeaways to Supporting Gut Health for Fitness and Mental Wellness

Making lifestyle changes for gut health is vital for optimal microbiome balance, better workouts, and a happier mood. The following habits enhance gut health in overall wellness:

1. Eat Non-Processed Foods

Choose nutritious, whole foods that increase healthy gut bacteria. Pick fruits, vegetables, whole grains, Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds, legumes, avocados, and other plant-based options. 

2. Consume Polyphenols

Eat foods rich in polyphenols to minimize microbiome inflammation. Consume dark chocolate, green and black teas, blueberries, cherries, plums, strawberries, apples, black olives, black currants, pecans, hazelnuts, and certain spices (cloves, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and cumin).

3. Avoid Harmful Substances 

Avoid highly processed foods and drinks, including those containing artificial sweeteners, added sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, animal fats, fried foods, and large doses of caffeine. Steer clear of smoking, alcohol, and antibiotics whenever possible. 

4. Get Plenty of Sleep

Getting plenty of high-quality sleep is important for maintaining superior gut microbiome composition. And, researchers found that probiotic supplements help improve sleep quality. Establish a regular bedtime schedule and sleep in a quiet, dark, cool room. Your body functions at its best when you get at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. 

5. Hydrate

Research demonstrates that staying hydrated has profound impacts on gut health and plays an important role in balancing gut microbiota. Daily fluid needs vary by gender; many women need 11.5 cups of fluids daily, while men often require 15.5 cups of fluids per day. However, individualized fluid needs vary by your size and the amount of fluids lost by sweating. 

Recognize the signs of dehydration and sip on water often throughout the day. Add ice to your water or flavor it with lemon juice, cucumbers, mint, or chunks of fruit. 

6. Exercise

Take advantage of the beneficial effects of exercise on gut health by moving your body more and sitting down less. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week and alter your workout routine often. Increase activities of daily living, such as doing yard work, cleaning your house, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

7. Reduce Stress

Minimize stressors to restore gut health and diminish the risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. 

A healthy, balanced gut is more important than you may have thought; don’t neglect your microbiome!

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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