How do you test your microbiome? If you listened to the podcast episode “How To Get 6 Gigabytes Of Data From Your Gut: The Fascinating Future Of Stool, Blood, Saliva & Urine Testing (From The Comfort Of Your Own Home).“ then you may already be aware of a company called “Onegevity.” They are creating an all-encompassing platform that allows you to keep track of your blood, stool, saliva, and urine testing results—along with self-quantified data from wearables—and even pulls in all health testing you've done in the past as part of a single dashboard.
But what exactly can we really learn from something like a poop panel from Onegevity when it comes to things like choosing which probiotics enhance performance, or the intricate link between our guts and our physical fitness?
You’re about to discover the fascinating connection between exercise, diet, longevity, and your “insides.”
Gut Integrity – Put To The Test By Stressors
Your gut integrity is influenced by the architecture of your microbiome and the nutrients and microorganisms available to it.
The key to health lies at the tight junctions at the epithelial cell layer (the cells that line the small intestine), influenced heavily by the presence of short-chain fatty acid (SCFAs).
When the epithelial cells are compromised, inflammation ensues. Inflammation can occur locally at the enterocyte, and systemically, as gut permeability allows unwanted larger molecules to interact with the immune system. Chronic inflammation and oxidation in the microbiome drives disease, hampers wellbeing, and impacts exercise performance.
The gut is sensitive to heat, hypoxia, hypoperfusion, and mechanical stress, the latter of which is especially true for running. Robust data shows increased gut permeability with exercise, with GI symptoms during exercise varying from 30-90%. Marathon legend Bill Rodgers is quoted as saying…
…“More marathons are won or lost in the porta-toilets than at the dinner table’’…
…a telling sign of the exercise-induced gut damages that can occur.
Hypoperfusion—a lack of blood flow through the gut during exercise—plays a major role in gut integrity too. The norepinephrine release from exercise results in vasoconstriction of blood supply to the gut (splanchnic), and understandably makes the blood available for redistribution to the organs that need it. At maximal exercise, this may result in as much as an 80% reduction in blood flow to the gut as well as gut dysfunction. To put it into perspective, the surface area of the gut is about 400 square meters, and it accounts for about 40% of the bodies’ total energy expenditure. The numbers clearly support Bill’s quote.
Endurance Exercise-Related Gut Damage
There's a plethora of research on exercise-induced permeability and inflammation, so the most important concepts will be highlighted. In one study, a challenging 90-minute run was shown to cause small intestinal damage and increase gut permeability.
The subset of runners who already had GI symptoms before the study had twice the levels of calprotectin after the run vs. those without previous symptoms (calprotectin is a conventional marker for gut inflammation).
Very similar results were seen in a 60-minute cycling trial with healthy men at 70% of the maximum workload. As expected, the hypoperfusion to the gut significantly increased markers representative of small intestinal damage, significantly increased gut permeability, and calprotectin went through the roof.
In a group of long-distance triathletes, blood samples were taken before, after, and one, two, and sixteen hours into the event. Three classic markers were analyzed, all of which skyrocketed. The markers for inflammation were TNF-alpha and IL-6, and the gut permeability marker called LPS, or lipopolysaccharide. LPS is a part of the cell membrane from a group containing a broad array of troublemakers. Our immune system reacts as if it recognized a foreign invader. Alarms are set off, and an arsenal of immune factors come into play. This cascade of events is crucial if we drank tainted water or needed to fight off an acute infection, but this is not a good thing long-term. The subsequent inflammation and immune dysfunction can have many undesirable effects.
So don’t think that GI distress isn’t going to interfere with your recovery.
Diarrhea is the obvious scenario whereby there’s a significant reduction in the absorption of macronutrients and electrolytes. However, many other forms of GI distress have been noted in trials, and even if there is no diarrhea, that’s certainly no guarantee that the exercise-induced damage to the gut is not going to compromise nutrient absorption. Studies show the opposite—diarrhea doesn’t need to occur for there to be a lack of absorption. And the damage can occur in distances shorter than the marathon. A 2017 review found that the threshold for significant gastrointestinal perturbations manifests, irrespective of fitness status, beginning at two hours of exercise at 60% of VO2max.
Diet Effects on Gut Permeability and Bacteria Counts
Your diet can complicate matters even more. Our microbiome is ours, and ours alone; but it can also be modified substantially and quickly.
Its shape is taken from the minute you are birthed—including major influence from the mode of delivery (vaginal vs. c-section), breastfeeding or lack thereof, genes, and further by lifestyle factors such as antibiotic use and diet.
Many think they have their diet down to a science, but the counts and ratios of bacteria in your system don’t lie and can tell a different story. Diet, among most people who are passionate about it, can be a touchy thing, like politics and religion. We are all different, and thus respond in different ways to foods—which is precisely why I advocate you run for the hills in the article “Exactly How To Figure Out What Diet Is Right for YOU.” the next time you're being pushed a “one-size-fits-all diet.
If you look at the science, a diet heavy in animal protein and animal fat is not going to result in a favorable microbiome. It relates to the tight junction at the epithelial layer, and how the microbiome is largely determined by the fuel it’s fed. So, if you’re not feeding the “healthy” bacteria with their fuel, they won’t thrive, and they won’t produce the all-critical SCFAs, which can be considered the crux of gut health. Instead, you’d be feeding the ever-present opportunistic pathogens, who thrive in this suboptimal gut pH and directly and indirectly wreak havoc on the gut.
If you are on a high-protein diet, which happens to contain a significant amount of animal fats and less than optimal fiber, then you should consider a suite of prebiotics. Which ones? Well, that would largely be determined by your microbiome analysis. This is because different fibers feed different bacteria directly or indirectly through cross-feeding. These “non-digestible” fibers usually comply with any keto or paleo philosophies.
Of course, the use of prebiotics doesn’t have to be limited to the keto/paleo crowds, or the relatively easily fixed GI-symptoms group, but to potentially any athlete or person interested in maximal vitality.
The Good And Bad Bacteria To Look For In Your Gut
Looking at exercise frequency, from never to daily, there is a correlation between exercise frequency and increases in the exceptionally healthy species, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii (F Prausnitzii) and species from the highly health-promoting genera Oscillospira, Lachnospira, and Coprococcus.
These are some of the taxa seen as beneficial across disease states within the data and meta-analyses. Although they do not exist in probiotics, the great news is prebiotics can increase their abundance.
In a study comparing elite rugby players vs. BMI-matched controls, athletes present with more of the health-promoting taxa Ruminococcaceae, Prevotella, and the genus Akkermansia, which is essentially entirely comprised of another healthy superstar Akkermansia muciniphila (A muciniphila). A muciniphila is quite possibly the most interesting bacteria we possess. Its actions go way beyond what’s discussed here, but it’s well represented in athletes and healthy aged people compared to the frail. Interestingly, it’s a bit of an energy sensor, akin to sirtuin enzymes and their resveratrol connection.
For more information on the connection between sirtuins, NAD, and health, watch this webinar.
A 2016 study with women aged 18-40 with a BMI between 20-25 were analyzed for fecal microbiome differences. The active group was defined as participating in at least three hours of exercise per week. These levels of moderate exercise vs. sedentary controls showed a significant increase in some of the healthiest taxa known, to include Bifidobacteria, and even more significant increases in A muciniphila, F prausnitzii, and Roseburia hominis. Three of these taxa are reported in the Keystone Taxa section of a Onegevity Gutbio report.
It begs the question: if moderate exercise can have this result, and we know how to drive these taxa higher using prebiotics, then what could that do to your exercise performance?
Some of the answers may have to do with the benefits of SCFAs, specifically butyrate. In a 2016 study of healthy young adults aged 18-35, researchers found a significant correlation between VO2peak and fecal butyrate. Butyrate producers are primarily from the order Clostridiales, which includes many key taxa such as the species F prausnitzii and the genera Roseburia, Coprococcus, and Ruminococcus, to name a few.
Longevity, Anti-Aging, And The Microbiome
If we take this a step further, and look at older individuals, and ask the question, “What are the microbiome differences between the strong and the frail?” we see the same patterns.
For example, in a 2016 study of 728 female twins with a mean age of 63, their fecal results tell us that the strong were significantly associated with the very healthy family Ruminococcaceae, more specifically F prausnitzii, and the frail were associated with the occasional trouble-maker Eggerthella lenta.
And looking at centenarians, we see some interesting dynamics. By and large, the studies are consistent on a few points.
- There is a significant loss in microbial diversity with age. However, this can be supported with prebiotics, which are typically well-tolerated in the aging GI tract when consumed in powder form.
- Centenarians have significant reductions in the healthy SCFA-producing species and an increase in opportunistic pathogens**, like species from the genus Escherichia, which contains E. coli.
- They have changes in the metabolic pathways (and physiology) of their microbiome. It’s to be expected because of the changes in the species themselves, but they also seem to have an ability to make lemonade out of lemons.
A significant determinant of a person’s longevity may be attributed to their microbiome’s ability to make SCFAs from simple sugars and amino acids. If you have a microbiome that possesses the enzymatic machinery to convert more of the amino acids into SCFAs, then you have an advantage, especially as that coincides with a loss in the beneficial fiber-consuming species.
A highlight of SCFA benefits:
- Increased GI mucus secretion
- Improved integrity of the tight junctions/reduced gut permeability
- Reduction in luminal pH, which inhibits opportunistic pathogens
- Anti-inflammatory benefits by driving regulatory components of the immune system
- Metabolic benefits such as appetite regulation and insulin/glucose improvements
- Improvements in water, electrolyte and mineral balance
- Improved production of a variety of neurotransmitters and hormones (SCFAs meet the definition of a hormone – think of them as powerful hormones which you feed through prebiotics)
- Anti-tumor benefits, in part via nuclear receptors
- The #1 energy source for the colon, and an energy source outside the GI tract, as all three make their way into the periphery
We know a good deal about the microbiome. For the most part, good and bad actors are identified, and we know how to drive them in the appropriate direction. SCFAs are at the center of a healthy gut, and a healthy gut is central to our overall health. Many “good” bacteria, which do not yet exist as probiotics, have several direct benefits to our health, like the superstars A muciniphila and F prausnitzii.
Ultimately, if you’re going to punish your gut with intensive training, then you should nourish it during your recovery phase just as you would nourish and repair your muscles and connective tissue.
Although outside the scope of this article, there is a tremendous amount of ongoing research connecting the microbiome to various conditions. Whether it’s autoimmune, metabolic, cognitive, mental health, gastrointestinal or more, if you or a loved one does suffer from a condition, it’s well worthwhile to consider a microbiome analysis.
So how do you test your microbiome? Onegevity's Gutbio™ analyzes your unique microbiome and gives you precise recommendations tailored to your needs. Click here and use code: BEN20 to save $20. Included is an easy-to-read report that includes your SCFA levels along with a full community download of every identifiable microorganism (including all mentioned in this article) from your gut and compares you to others.
In the meantime, if you have questions, comments or feedback about what you've discovered in this article, leave them below and I'll reply! In addition, for more information on specific conditions, visit the Onegevity Journal, and follow Onegevity on Facebook and Instagram for education and their expanding webinar series.