With the increasingly alarming diagnosis of digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease and celiac disease, it is no surprise that we are hearing more and more about the importance of gut health. Specialised books, fermented foods and hip kombucha brands have become wildly popular amongst other health trends in the past couple of years. But what is really happening to our guts, and why is it so important for female athletes to take care of them?
Naturopath Alice Wilson explains that gut health is a gateway to overall holistic health. “What people don’t realise”, she says, “is that our immune system is mostly controlled by our gut. Hence if we have deficiencies on a bacterial level, we’re exposing ourselves to a multitude of ailments.” She explains that our daily habits, including sleep quality, food habits and stress levels all take a direct toll on our gut. Add endurance sports to the mix, and you’re asking for trouble. “Exercise is incredibly important, and it is a great stimulus for your secretary glands; in moderation, it ensures the healthy function of your gut. But long or arduous athletic efforts weakens your digestive system, which in turn can lead to reduced absorption of vital nutrients such as zinc, iron and Vitamin B, an issue particularly common with female athletes, as are autoimmune diseases.” She stresses that female athletes who have recently had children or plan to in the near future, to take extra care of their health; “women are exposed to higher levels of oestrogen, which can lead to an overactive immune system. In many cases, symptoms can be alleviated through the regulation of gut enzymes, likely to issues such as hyperthyroidism or polycystic syndrome.”
When training at a high volume, we are slowly chipping away at the healthy bacteria in our gut and without adequate upkeep, we are sabotaging our own performances, and occasionally causing bloating, constipation and vomiting during efforts. “If athletes don’t maintain a healthy level of digestive enzymes, they will experience increased fatigue, slower recovery and a higher tendency to falling ill”, explains Alice. She recommends following a digestive health programme in correlation with your training cycle; “when you train, you follow a programme that determines your efforts and goals. Once the cycle is done, you take the time to recover and repair. It should be the same with gut health. Re-assess the state of your digestive health and re-build a strong cellular structure.” In addition to this, Alice encourages athletes to incorporate glutamine and zinc to supplement their diets. “Glutamine, and amino acids in general, contribute to cellular repair, whereas zinc acts to strengthen cellular and muscular structures. But remember that before trying to strengthen your gut, you have to actively understand what is going on, and what needs replacing first.”
Overall, Alice presses endurance athletes, and even more so female ones, to consider their gut health as equally as intrinsic to their performance as their bodies. “Sometimes all it takes are a few small adjustments to improve recovery, strength and overall health,” she concludes.