Q: I keep hearing about “leaky gut syndrome” affecting a growing number of endurance athletes. What’s the deal?
A: You aren’t what you eat—but you are what you digest! “Leaky gut” isn’t just a buzz phrase; it’s an increasingly common (and often overlooked) condition that impacts millions of people, and athletes could be susceptible to it if they don’t properly manage training load or a healthy diet. Caused by poor diet, chronic stress or overtraining, toxic overload (from foods sprayed with chemicals or that are overly processed) or bacterial imbalance, it is something every athlete should pay attention to when developing his or her training plan.
Leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, occurs when large openings start forming in the intestines and, consequently, the lining of the stomach, which allows things that are normally blocked to pass through into the bloodstream. Food particles such as gluten and casein leak through the gut, secrete into the bloodstream and cause
inflammation throughout the body, which reduces energy levels, causes joint pain, diminishes thyroid function and metabolism, impairs nutrient absorption of vital minerals (such as zinc, iron and vitamin B12) and hinders digestion.
Exercise-induced gut disorders are common in runners. The body reacts to high-intensity exercise by increasing gut permeability to help clear its contents and prevent toxins (present in gut organisms) from entering the bloodstream. This reaction can trigger symptoms such as diarrhea as well as diminish an athlete’s performance during heavy training. If the gut is not healthy, an athlete cannot train at his or her maximum capacity, cannot recover as effectively from workouts and cannot tolerate the chronic stress placed on the body through workouts.
If you suspect you could already be dealing with increased intestinal permeability, you can heal a leaky gut in four simple steps.
It is important to remove triggers that negatively affect the GI tract such as inflammatory and toxic foods. It may be important to test and identify food sensitivities to remove all inflammatory foods from the diet.
Prioritize replacing the essential ingredients the body needs to digest and absorb nutrients. This can be accomplished by supplementing with digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid (look for supplements of digestive enzymes with HCL).
Probiotics provide the beneficial bacteria needed to reestablish a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut. Try incorporating fermented foods such as sauerkraut and Kombucha into your daily diet for a probiotic boost.
Provide the nutrients necessary to help the gut repair itself. For example, L-glutamine is an amino acid that helps rejuvenate the lining of the gastrointestinal wall.
Heather Finley, RD, LD, CEDRD, lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, area, where she’s an avid triathlete and runs a practice specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, hormonal imbalances, GI disturbances and food allergies (Dietitianheather.com).