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Gut Health for Athletes

Parents who attend my workshops are often keen for advice on nutrition. I do cover a nutrition module within my standard workshop, but it is very difficult to be specific in a multi sport environment, as the nutritional needs of a 12 year old, female gymnast for example, will be vastly different from those of an 18 year old, male rugby player. There is not a one athlete diet fits all. However, there are some basic principles of healthy eating that definitely apply across the board, and we are going to look at one of them today.

Very much a hot topic at the moment, today we are talking about gut health. It's been in the news a lot lately as recent studies have found that the UK has the poorest gut health in Europe.

I know, it's not sexy and it's not glamorous, but what is going on in your (and your child's) intestines has a huge bearing on overall health. The gut is designed to provide a home for a vast variety of bacteria that help us to digest food, absorb nutrients, produce hormones, absorb toxins amongst many other things. People that have a healthy range and numbers of gut bacteria probably don't give it a second thought, as their body is working fine. But if your gut bacteria becomes compromised, which is becoming an increasingly common problem in the UK and the US, there can be far reaching effects which compromise the body's ability to work effectively. For an athlete, as their body is their primary tool, this will affect their ability to perform at their normal level.

So what sort of things might happen if a young persons gut bacteria is not tip top?

  • Gastro-intestinal problems – it may seem obvious, if the bacteria in your gut are not right, your gut won't be right! Expect indigestion, diarrhoea and / or constipation. All potentially performance busting for a young athlete.

  • Mental health issues – the gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain. Without going into the science of it, the gut plays a huge role in metal health by helping to balance mood and reduce stress and anxiety. Remember, these are teenagers we are talking about, any help for parents with mood control and stress reduction will be welcome I'm sure!

  • Poor sleep – the gut is involved in the production of serotonin which affects mood and sleep patterns. In the short term, what parent wants an overtired athlete prone to mood swings and depression? But in the long term gut health has been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome which for many young athletes signals the end of their sporting career.

  • Immune system – a healthy gut equals an effective immune system. Athletes with poor gut health will be more susceptible to all the nasty bugs that fly round schools and clubs throughout the year.

  • Weight fluctuation – a poor range of bacteria in the gut can affect the way the body processes food and absorbs nutrients. Studies have found a strong link between both unexplained weight loss and obesity and poor gut health, and there are numerous examples of people who have improved their gut health and found it easier to achieve their optimum weight.

So as a parent of a young, ambitious sportsperson, what might be causing your child's poor gut health ?

  • Diet– This is the main culprit. Refined wheat and sugar products eaten habitually are not good for the healthy bacteria in your gut, in fact they feed the unhealthy bacteria. A poor range of carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables and a lack of adequate dietary fibre will all be a problem.

  • Antibiotics – these are designed to kill bacteria, any bacteria. So as well as the bad stuff, they will kill the good ones too. Of course taking antibiotics is often unavoidable, but make sure your child is not taking them needlessly, for example, antibiotics won't work for a virus. Sometimes time is the only cure.

  • Alcohol – I would hope that an aspiring young athlete is not regularly getting stuck into the booze. But there can be a strong drinking culture in some sports. Too much on a regular basis, or even the odd binge night will kill off the good bacteria in the gut. However, good news, the odd glass of red wine appears to feed the good bacteria, just don't drink the whole bottle.

  • Not enough sleep – I know, I know, the lack of good bacteria causes insomnia so it's a bit chicken and egg. But having a good sleep routine and getting to bed on time will help guard a young athlete's gut health.

  • Too clean? – the jury is out on this one, but there is evidence to suggest that our over-sanitised world of anti-bacterial soaps, sprays, hand gels, shower gels, toothpastes and mouthwashes might not be doing our gut health any good. The best advice is to be sensible about this, being particularly vigilant when there are bugs going around in your child's school or training group, but not going over the top.

So, in short, what will ensure your young athlete is arriving at training every day with a gut full of healthy, active bacteria?

  • Eat a wide range of unprocessed food from all food groups

  • Eat a range of whole grains

  • Eat 8+ fruit and vegetables a day

  • Eat fermented food like live yogurt

  • Only take antibiotics when absolutely necessary

  • Adopt a good sleep regime

  • Drink alcohol in moderation

  • Don't get too paranoid about germs!

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