When you go to a yoga class, you bring a towel, a drink and that’s pretty much it. Right? No, not quite. You also bring the 100 trillion microbes residing in your gut with you.
These 100 trillion (1) cells are predominantly bacteria, but also include fungi and viruses. It’s called the gut microbiome and it is difficult to find an aspect of human health that’s not affected by it.
In fact, our human cells are outnumbered 10:1 by the cells of the microbiome (1), so technically we are only 10% ourselves and 90% microbes.
Researchers keep discovering new ways of how the gut microbiome impacts health. What we do know so far is that it acts as a barrier between the outside world and our body, it affects our mood through the production of serotonin, it supports immune function, it facilitates the absorption of nutrients and it influences inflammation. Additionally, those who engage in regular physical activity may see quicker recovery from exercise due to faster metabolism of lactic acid facilitated by a healthy gut microbiome (3,4,5).
These are good reasons for keeping our gut microbiome happy because ultimately a happy microbiome makes a happy, healthy you!
Diversity of the gut microbiome is key (6) and it is a fine balance between microbes with a potential to cause disease and those that support human health. Reduced diversity has been observed in autoimmune diseases, type 2 diabetes, eczema, and obesity. So how do we support those bacteria that keep us well, whilst keeping the others at bay?
Here are the most important strategies to achieve this goal and if you are a regular sweaty, you are already doing one of them!
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
This one should go without saying, but sadly we are still overusing antibiotics. We all know about the risk of resistance and antibiotics not working any longer if used too liberally. Researchers are finding that there’s another cost to antibiotic usage: damage to the gut microbiome. Antibiotics don’t discriminate and they will kill bacteria, whether they are harmful or useful to us, so the fine balance between different bacteria in our gut gets destroyed (7) with a detrimental effect on our health. As with any medication, consider carefully whether the risks are worth the benefits and discuss with your doctor.
There are many benefits of regular exercise, covering both mental and physical aspects of health. Relatively recently it has been discovered that exercise can also impact your gut microbiome (8,9). In studies with healthy adults, there was a clear correlation between physical fitness and gut microbial diversity. In other words, the more active participants were, the more of the health-promoting bacteria they had in their guts. Interestingly, those who engage in regular exercise have a specific bacterium in their gut microbiome that breaks down lactic acid after exercise (10). In comparison to non-athletes, they also had a significantly larger population of this bacterium in their gut. This may be one of the reasons why athletes and those who engage in regular exercise, recover faster than those who do not exercise. Although this effect was independent of their diet, it makes sense to combine nutrition with exercise to maximise the benefit for our gut microbes and ultimately for our own health.
Up your veggie and fruit game
The microbiome ferments dietary fibres, thereby supporting the growth of specialist microbes that produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
Randomised controlled trials have shown that higher production of SCFAs correlates with lower diet-induced obesity and reduced insulin resistance. Additionally, there is evidence from animal studies that some SCFAs control gut hormones and reduce appetite and food intake (2).
So we need to feed our gut microbiome fibre, for it to keep us healthy. As this is only found in plants, it benefits us to eat a diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. As a nice side effect, the increase in dietary fibre also resolves constipation symptoms. Where dietary changes are made, this often generates changes in the microbiome very quickly, sometimes within days (11).
The authors of a paper in the British Medical Journal conclude “Fibre is a key nutrient for a healthy microbiome and has been overlooked while debates have raged about sugar and fat” (2).
It’s really simple. To keep our gut microbiome diverse and healthy we need more fibre, more exercise and fewer antibiotics. So next time you do a class at Sweat, think about the fact that you’re not just doing this for yourself but also for 100 trillion cells residing in your gut. And they will reward you with many benefits in return. How’ss that for motivation?
About the author
As well being a regular Sweaty, Cornelia Libal is a pharmacist and former synchronised swimmer turned personal health consultant and founder of Optimia Health. Cornelia’s goal is to inspire people to become informed consumers of health care and recognise the power of lifestyle changes. She focuses on the role that nutrition and exercise play in your health to balance out an overemphasis on the role of medications and supplements.
Want to learn more?
You can sign up to Cornelia’s mailing list here (http://eepurl.com/giGgMT). As a “thank you” she’ll send you a link to a free eBook about common barriers to optimum health and how to overcome them. You can find Cornelia on Facebook (fb.me/optimiahealth) or YouTube, where you can subscribe to her channel.
(1) britishgut.org, accessed on 15th February 2019
(2) Ana M Valdes et al. Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health. BMJ 2018;361:k2179
(3) Hank Schultz “Probiotics developer finds functional candidates in athletes’ microbiomes.” NutraIngredients May 29 2018
(4) Hakansson A, Molin G. Gut microbiota and inflammation. Nutrients2011;3:637-82
(5) Clair R. Martin et al. The Brain-Gut-Microbiome Axis. Cell Mol Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2018; 6(2): 133–148.
(6) Levy M, Kolodziejczyk AA, Thaiss CA, Elinav E. Dysbiosis and the immune system. Nat Rev Immunol2017;17:219-32.
(7) Blaser MJ. Antibiotic use and its consequences for the normal microbiome. Science 2016;352:544-5
(8) Estaki M. et al. Cardiorespiratory fitness as a predictor of intestinal microbial diversity and distinct metagenomic functions. The FASEB Journal. 2016;30(1):1027–1035.
(9) Mach, N.; Fuster-Botella, D. Endurance exercise and gut microbiota: A review. J. Sport Health Sci. 2017, 6,
(10) Hank Schultz “Probiotics developer finds functional candidates in athletes’ microbiomes.” NutraIngredients May 29 2018
(11) David LA, Maurice CF, Carmody RN, et al. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome.Nature 2014;505:559-63.