Elite athletes have a tendency toward having a better gut microbiota than the general population, raising the possibility of a new target for improving performance.

Emerging evidence suggests that the benefits of a healthy gut go far beyond digestion, with poor gut health linked to depression, obesity, intestinal diseases and even some cancers. Now researchers at Teagasc Food Research Centre in Ireland have discovered a connection between gut microbial diversity and athletic performance.

Paul Cotter, speaker during the Foodvalley Summit Sports & Nutrtion 11 October, is Head of Teagasc’s Food Biosciences Department and a Principal Investigator with APC Microbiome Ireland. He and his colleagues, including Dr Orla O’Sullivan and Prof Fergus Shanahan, have been examining the gut microbial diversity of sportspeople, including members of the Irish national rugby team.

Microbial diversity
“We found their gut microbial diversity was much greater than those in the general population,” Cotter said. He explained that greater microbial diversity was correlated with high exercise levels and whey protein consumption.

The researchers also aim to identify which gut microbes are particularly desirable for athletes. An as yet unpublished follow-up study examined the gut health of the Irish national cricket team, who travel a lot and have suffered from gastrointestinal difficulties during these trips, potentially because of the food they ate away from home.

“From that sort of information we are now beginning to get a picture of what represents a robust microbial diversity in athletes,” Cotter said. “…When you think of elite athletes, anything that can provide an advantage over their competitors is of interest, even if it’s just one or two per cent.”

Probiotics
Other than consuming whey protein, as many athletes already do, Cotter says that certain probiotics could help provide a protective effect while travelling. For companies working in the sports nutrition sector, a lack of EFSA-approved health claims for specific probiotic strains has been a stumbling block. But in the future, Cotter suggests that EFSA could consider a health claim for ingredients shown to increase gut microbial diversity, considering that increased diversity has been repeatedly linked with lower disease risk.

“If that’s the case, that could revolutionise things, because there are a lot of ingredients and fibres that could meet that goal,” he said.

Fermented foods
In addition, he envisages that artisanal fermented foods could become more tailored toward sportspeople.

“We generally suggest the consumption of fermented foods, not just those that everybody will have heard of, like cheese and yoghurt, but also sauerkraut, water kefir and kombucha. These could also contribute to increases in gut microbial diversity.”

Apart from implications for athletes, the findings could affect the general population too. Cotter and his team have started testing what happens when usually sedentary people start exercising and add protein to their diets – and he says results are promising so far.

Interested? Join the Foodvalley Summits Proteins of the Future & Sports & Nutrition, 10-11 October, Ede, The Netherlands with a.o.:

Improve functioning gastro-intestinal tract in athletes, 11 October 13.30hrs
The gastro-intestinal functioning is of utmost importance for the digestive proces and is also expected to play a role in immune-response related to sports performance. The changes of composition of GI-tract microbiota will be highlighted in this session and discussed in view of novel targets for sports performance:

More information: Program & Registration