An endeavor to boost gut health is an endeavor to boost overall mental and physical well-being. While food is important for gut health, lifestyle also plays a role. Designing your home to be chemical free (think cleaning products, dish detergent, and even hand soap), as well as replacing cosmetics with plant-based, toxin-free alternatives is one lifestyle step in the right direction. With that said, illuminating research regarding the altering effects of physical activity on your gut is shedding new light regarding the importance of exercise.
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.
The Relationship between Bacteria and the Gut
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 tract 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 your entire life, beginning with “your mother’s microbiota – the environment that you’re exposed to at birth — and partly from your diet and lifestyle.”
Healthy and diverse gut bacteria require a nutritious diet that is high in fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics and low in ultra-processed and processed foods, sugar, and unstable vegetable oils, as well as regular physical activity and exercise and an appropriate amount of sleep. Yet, it’s not as simple as that. There are also certain things that can damage the delicate bacterial environment in your gut such as over-the-counter medicines and antibiotics, alcohol consumption (alcohol can lead to dysbiosis) cigarette smoking, and stress.
Exercise and a Healthy Gut
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.”
The article looked at various aspects of gut microbiota including composition, development, functions, and disease, before breaking down these counterparts in relation to exercise. From various studies, the article focused on the relationship between voluntary and controlled exercise with gut physiology, microflora, and microbiota. The article even went so far as to look at the effects of exercise and probiotic supplementation on the gut microbiota.
In conclusion, they found that “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.”
The study resulted in three distinct outcomes. First, that exercise increased the amount of short-chain fatty acids in the fecal matter of lean participants, but not obese participants. Second, “exercise-induced shifts in metabolic output of the microbiota paralleled changes in bacterial genes.” Third, once participants stopped exercising the changes in the microbiota not only stopped, but were actually reversed.
Basically, the study was able to deduce that “exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota.” With that said, these changes are dependent on lean versus obese body makeup, as well as the continuation of regular exercise, and yet are independent of diet.
The Effect of Physical Exercise on Our Gut Microbiome
Written by Emeran Mayer, M.D., referenced and researched broadly, and published on Psychology Today in 2018, this article entitled The Effect of Physical Exercise on Our Gut Microbiome offers a well-rounded look at exercise, gut health, and our psychological well-being.
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.”
Next, the article references several studies citing the effects of exercise on gut health:
“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.”
Through these studies, Mayer, M.D. noted the same exercise-based results that the previous studies from the Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity Journal and the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal. Mayer states that “endurance exercise does indeed have an effect on the community structure and function of the gut microbiome, which is independent of exercise-related dietary changes.”
Energizing and Microbiome Boosting Plant-Based Foods
Three Bean and Sweet Potato Chili/One Green Planet
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.
Here are some healthy, plant-based foods that serve both your workout and your gut bacteria!
Strawberry Pistachio Chia-Oatmeal Bars/One Green Planet
Chia seeds are a staple in a plant-based diet. These minuscule black seeds are oftentimes eaten raw, yet, most popularly they are used to make pudding. When in contact with liquids, the seeds produce an encasement of gelatin and swell. Three tablespoons of chia seeds can make an entire bowl of delicious pudding! On top of that, they are packed full of nutrients — calcium, fiber, protein, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, omega-3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats — and are an excellent source of energy for your next workout!
Try out a few of these chia-based recipes: Creamy Chia Cheddar Sauce, Cardamom Coconut Chia Pudding, Raw Chia Caramel Pecan Pie, or these Strawberry Pistachio Chia-Oat Bars.
Roasted Sweet Potato With Spiced Chickpeas/One Green Planet
Certain plant-based foods lack a physical heartiness that tells your brain that you’re full, yet not sweet potatoes! Slightly sweet, gloriously meaty, and completely satisfying, these wonderful tubers are a great addition to your energy boosting diet! They are “easy to digest so they won’t cause any energy-zapping digestive distress” and due to their nutrient density and high-fiber “their sugars are released very slowly into the bloodstream, helping them give you an even stream of energy.” Sweet potatoes are high in fiber and protein, vitamins A, C, E, K, folate, choline, and betaine, as well as a host of minerals including calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.
Try out a few of these sweet potato-based recipes: Sweet Potato Spiced Burger Patties, Roasted Sweet Potato with Spiced Chickpeas, Three Bean Sweet Potato Chili, or this simple and colorful Eat the Rainbow Salad.
Perilla Leaf Kimchi/One Green Planet
Along with energizing your body, try incorporating gut-boosting foods as well. This two-fold approach can offer an overall body boosting effect. One of the best forms of microbiota-enriching foods is fermented products. These include items such as pickles, yogurt, and sauerkraut. Products that have been fermented have gone through a fermentation process, which means that their “sugars are broken down by agents such as yeast and healthy bacteria.”
While you can make many fermented products at home, such as these Simple Fermented Vegetables and these Pickled Green Tomatoes, you can also use pre-made fermented items in delicious fermented food-based recipes such as Fermented Ginger Beer, Fermented Sweet and Sour Cauliflower, Perilla Leaf Kimchi, or these Blueberry Kombucha Ice Pops.
Roasted Chai-Spiced Pears/One Green Planet
These wonderfully tasty and versatile fruits are both great for boosting microbiota health and boosting your energy. Not only are pears packed with dietary fiber, which is great food for your gut bacteria, — over 4 grams for one fruit — but they are also a great source of vitamin C — 4.6 milligrams per fruit — which has been linked to increased energy. How does vitamin C increase energy, you ask? Well, the human body “needs vitamin C to make L-carnitine, which helps you burn fat for energy.” In fact, a group of researchers at the “National Institutes of Health reported that fatigue was one of the first signs of vitamin C depletion.”
Boost your gut bacteria and your energy reserves with some of these pear-inspired recipes: Roasted Chia-Spiced Pears, Chocolatey Pear Crisp, Pear Strudel with Pistachio Pesto, or this super simple 30 Minute Quinoa Pear Salad.
Mini Quinoa-Chickpea Cakes/One Green Planet
Last, but definitely not least, are chickpeas. Along with chia seeds, you’ll find vegan and vegetarian recipes chock-full of chickpea concoctions. Chickpeas are part of the legume family, which means they are rich in protein, one cup has close to 12 grams! Protein is an essential nutrient for your energy reserves, as well as your post-workout recovery. On top of that, chickpeas also have a large amount of dietary fiber (to feed that healthy gut bacteria), vitamins A and C (for that energy boost), as well as folate and choline, and a host of minerals including calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and sodium.
Try out a few of these yummy, easy, and plant-based chickpea recipes: Pear Salad with Crispy Chickpea Croutons (double-dose of both pears and chickpeas!), Chickpea Coconut Curry with Bombay Potatoes, Mini Quinoa-Chickpea Cakes, and these Zucchini Chickpea Fritters.
For more energizing and microbiota boosting recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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