“The road to health is paved with good intestines.”
Gut health is trendy right now. Microbiome this, microbiome that. Seems like everybody and their mother has completed a comprehensive stool analysis (CSA). More power to you, poop is important stuff.
But, before we delve deeper into the topic, it’s important that we get one thing straight - the typical American lifestyle is NOT conducive to fitness or health. Stress, excessive antibiotic usage, toxic environmental exposure, and the western diet all play a role in general gut dysbiosis.1
Dysbiosis: (Also known as “dysbacteriosis”) – refers to a condition of microbial imbalance within the gut or the skin. It may also occur on any exposed surface or mucous membrane (e.g. lungs, mouth, nose, eyes, etc.)
“We are what we eat” is one of the most misconstrued sayings in the world of nutrition and fitness.
Sure, the foods we consume directly impact our gut health, individual metabolic response, and physiological performance. But, in reality, these foods must go through a variety of complicated stages before we are able to metabolize them for energy:
You don’t just magically create ATP as you sip on a Coke or smash a soft pretzel. The digestive tract takes time to process food and there are a number of areas where issues can arise.
Related: 7 Scientifically Backed Tips to Help Improve Your Eating Habits
Bugs, Bacteria, and Butyrate: Oh My!
Right now, you have hundreds of millions of cells, bacteria, fungi, and viruses populating your gut. In a general sense, this combination of organisms is generally referred to as the human microbiome.
This summation of microorganisms influences production of neurotransmitters, regulates your immune system, controls caloric intake, and plays a variety of roles in other metabolic and physiologic processes. Needless to say, your gut is involved in nearly every process in your body as ATP (i.e. energy) is the substrate of life.
Now, in a perfect world we share a symbiotic relationship with our microbiome, meaning both parties benefit from a mutual partnership. However, given the fact that the microbiome composition can be shifted from external input, it’s important to consider each influential factor to reduce the potential for dysbiosis.
What About Supplementation?
Probiotics are being added to nearly everything these days – bars, shakes, pills, powders, and anything in between. Make no mistake, they can be very beneficial as research supports their use for repopulating the microbiome.
But, while probiotics serve a role, most forget that these organisms require food in the form of prebiotics. Prebiotics are essentially non-digestible carbohydrates that your gut bacteria “chew up” to promote proliferation of beneficial bacteria, lessening the chance for dysbiosis and improving the production of short chain fatty acids (e.g. Butyrate).4
PRO TIP: A recent study showed that cooking and cooling grains, legumes, and tubers significantly increased the concentration of fiber resistant starch (i.e. a prebiotic).3
If fact, some research shows that pre- and probiotic supplementation may enhance your immune system's response to the flu vaccine:
“The molecular mechanisms of how probiotics can enhance the immune reaction are still being sussed out, but evidence is currently pointing to metabolites, such as short-chain fatty acids, that are produced by probiotic species and can directly affect aspects of the immune response, as well as the immune system’s direct response to parts of probiotic bacteria like their cell wall and DNA fragments.
Since prebiotics are the food which lead beneficial bacteria to produce metabolites like short-chain fatty acids, some of the mechanisms by which they work may be similar.” – Examine.com2
Take care of your gut and it will take care of you, symbiosis at its finest.
IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Probiotics can be problematic in the case of certain gastrointestinal disorders such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). Thus, you should consult with a medical professional before consuming pharmaceutical grade probiotics to ensure you don’t exacerbate a prevailing medical condition.5
Similarly, some prebiotic foods are high in FODMAPS (Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides Monosaccharides And Polyols) which can cause digestive distress. As such, consumption of prebiotic supplements in high doses should be supervised by a medical professional certified in gastroenterology.
Do Not Mistake Common With Normal
If you ask most folks about their digestion, you’ll probably encounter a conversation that sounds something like this:
Me: “How has your digestion been lately?”
Them: “It’s fine, as far as I can tell.”
Me: “Well, do you ever have issues with bloating, flatulence, constipation, or changes in your stool composition?”
Them: “I mean I always get gassy when I eat ice cream and bread makes my stomach feel weird. But I’m sure that’s pretty common…right?”
Me: “Do not mistake common with normal.”
As I referenced in a previous article: “What does normal, healthy gut function look like? An ability and desire to eat a wide variety of foods without any GI symptomology (bloating, belching, excessive/poor smelling flatulence, heartburn, constipation, irregularity in stool composition or frequency, etc.) before, during, or after the meal.”
Gut dysfunction is common; however, it is anything but normal. The next time you’re considering your digestive health, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:
1. “Can you recognize food in your stool?”
Some vegetable matter (e.g. corn) may pass through the digestive tract without being dissolved due to its fibrous nature.
However, if you are seeing complete pieces of undigested food (i.e. proteins, fruit, starches, etc.) then you need to consider the current condition of your gastrointestinal tract. There may be issues with low stomach acid production, thyroid dysregulation, malabsorption, or poor eating habits (aka slow down and chew your food).
2. “Does your stool float?”
Floating stools can be indicative of a dietary change or even an intestinal infection. But often they are the result of fat malabsorption, which is typically seen in celiac or Crohn’s disease.
Occasionally a stool may float if you eat something different or get a small GI bug. However, if you notice this regularly, it’s time to consult with a GI doc.
3. “Are you regular?”
Stool frequency tends to differ significantly between individuals – once every 3 days to 3 times per day. I’m not suggesting that either is correct as it likely depends on several factors (hydration, fiber intake, intestinal transit time, stress, overall calorie intake, activity level, sleep quality, etc.).
Related: 4 Fitness Tests You Should Be Able To Pass
However, having had many conversations with athletes and general population alike, it seems that chronic constipation is considered normal to most. If you’re only going once every 4 days but consuming a copious amount of food relative to your bodyweight, there is likely an underlying issue which warrants further investigation.
Always Remember The 4 “S’s”
This simple rule is our final takeaway but it’s an important one to remember. Always consider the following 4 “S’s”:
Generally, if you find 2 or more of these have changed, your microbiome is trying to tell you something. Take some time to consider your lifestyle, hydration, nutrition, and training before considering supplementation.
- Intestinal microbiota in human health and disease: the impact of probiotics.
- Can you boost your flu shot with prebiotics and probiotics?
- Studies on effect of multiple heating/cooling cycles on the resistant starch formation in cereals, legumes and tubers.
- Probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth syndrome