Looking After Your Gut
Your gut, or your digestive system, is the process by which food travels in to the body, is digested and converted in to a format that the body can extract energy and absorb vital nutrients needed to function. It is made up of the mouth, the oesophagus, the stomach, the small intestine, the colon or large intestine, the pancreas and the liver and gall bladder. We require it to be working efficiently in order to stay fit and healthy, therefore we need to take good care of it. The term gut is more commonly used to refer to the small and large intestine section of the digestive system and that is the area I am focusing on in this post.
Our gut is constantly being exposed to many germs, bacteria and toxins as well as food and drink. It has to protect the body from any harmful damage by filtering out anything dangerous, while also absorbing everything that the body does actually need. It is an incredibly tricky process that is often not appreciated enough by us humans.
There is more and more evidence being produced to suggest that the gut actually has its own “brain” containing over 500 million nerve cells and controlling what we absorb in to our body and what we let go, how we respond to what we have eaten, how hungry or full we feel, our immune response to what we have eaten and even controlling remotely our actual brain and other parts of the body. As you can see there is a reason why people say we should listen to our gut or go with our gut feeling, because it actually has a lot more control and say over what we are doing.
In order for the gut to function correctly, millions of bacteria are employed to help it do its job. We are brought up as children to believe that bacteria are bad, and will make us sick, when in fact this is only bad bacteria that does this. There are many, many, many strains of bacteria that are healthy and good and needed by our gut in order to do its job. We need to provide our gut with good bacteria, while also feeding them. This is done by including pre and probiotics in our diet.
Prebiotics are not actually living bacteria, but a type of fibre that is not digested by the body. Their job is to provide food for probiotics and provide an environment in the gut where efficient digestion can take place. Eating a high fibre diet, which includes plenty of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables will help to keep the gut well supplied with prebiotics. Easy to include foods in your diet that are naturally a good source of probiotics include garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, barley, oats and bananas.
Probiotics are live microorganisms, mainly bacteria and yeast, that live in our gut and help with digestion, as well as keeping the body healthy. Another name for them is friendly bacteria and they are found in mainly fermented foods such as yogurt, meso, sourcrout and kimchi. A healthy gut should contain millions and millions of them, mainly found in the large intestine. Without them you would not be alive.
Our gut is very in tune with our thoughts and feelings and responds to them. They are very closely linked. When we are stressed, nervous, anxious or tired, our gut responds to this and becomes unsettled, resulting in stomach pain, bloating, indigestion, flatulence, and nausea. I can guarantee that the week of any important race in which I am nervous about or anticipating, my gut will respond to this and I will experience feelings of bloating and unsettlement. I will generally have an increased need to go to the toilet, especially come race day. All athletes I have spoken to about this say they experience very similar symptoms.
Back in the summer of 2015 I was really struggling with my stomach. I felt bloated after every meal, struggled with stomach cramps and was often very gassy. In May of that year I had crashed and got road rash on my arm from sliding along the ground. It got infected and I needed a strong course of antibiotics to clear it up. I didn’t realise at the time but this not only wiped out the bad bacteria from the infection, but a lot of the good bacteria in my gut as well. As I wasn’t aware what had happened I didn’t take good care of my gut and so suffered for it. I was also struggling with some stress and anxiety at the time, as I wasn’t happy with my cycling situation. I was struggling with my coach at the time, as we didn’t see eye-to-eye, and I was nervous about being on a tandem as I had lost confidence following the crash. This was all interlinked and lead to my stomach issues. I eventually got some advice from a nutritionist friend at the time who advised me to start taking a probiotic yogurt drink daily to help supply my gut with good bacteria and I never looked back. I noticed a massive improvement almost straight away. My stomach was less bloated and unsettled. I could finish my meals without pain or discomfort and my appetite came back. This also majorly impacted on my overall mood as I was no longer sore and uncomfortable. I felt a lot happier within myself.
Since then I try to have an actimel or yakult everyday before breakfast. They are both fermented milk-based yogurt drinks that contain a large amount of probiotics. They both contain different strains of bacteria but are both as beneficial. If your gut is in need of a really strong boost of probiotics, then taking one of each, one in the morning and one before bed is recommendable. You can get your probiotics from a tablet if you prefer and sometimes this is easier. This is especially useful when travelling a lot with no access to a fridge, as the yogurts need to be refrigerated, whereas the tablets don’t. I prefer to avoid taking tablets whenever possible but when travelling abroad to major competitions I do use them as i’m potentially exposing my gut to new and different bacteria, which could upset my gut and make me ill. I want to avoid this.
From personal experience I can definitely recommend you including a probiotic yogurt drink in your diet irrelevant to whether you are an athlete or not. It is advisable to have one pre breakfast every morning when your stomach is empty so that the good bacteria can pass straight through to your small intestine, where they generally accumulate. They can then also fight off any bad bacteria that might have been accidentally ingested during sleep. The impact this small adaptation to your diet can have on your general health and wellbeing is incredible. If your gut is happy and well fed then you will feel happier and more comfortable yourself. This can lead to better sleep, better energy levels, better mood and so a less stressed, more relaxed, more energised version of yourself. Listen to your gut and take good care of it. It is the biggest organ in your body, so show it the attention it needs.
Thank you for reading and speak soon.