Your intestinal tract is teeming with bacteria – trillions of them, of a variety of different species. In fact, your gut contains 10 times more bacteria than the number of cells in your body. Unlike bacteria that cause illness, many of the bacterial residents in your gut are “friendly” and help shape your immune system as well as keep the lining of your gut healthy.
In fact, there’s growing evidence that these tiny, microscopic organisms play an active role in health and disease. Disruptions in gut bacteria may play a role in a number of health conditions from infections to autoimmune disorders. Gut bacteria also play a helper role – they aid in the digestion of nutrients and some produce vitamins, like vitamin K and vitamin B12.
Your gut microbiome is your signature, much like your fingerprint. The resident bacteria in your gut likely differs from your husband, children, and closest friends. In fact, the unique gut bacteria you possess is called your microbiome. Lots of things can influence the citizens that nest in your gut – from genetics to lifestyle factors like diet.
Plus, medications, particularly antibiotics, can destroy healthy gut bacteria, creating empty real estate that less desirable bacteria can take up. So, you want to keep a healthy balance of gut bacteria. One way to do that is to eat more fermented foods. Cultured and fermented foods contain viable bacteria that help replenish your gut’s supply of beneficial bacteria. But what about another healthy lifestyle factor – exercise? Does it play a role in keeping your gut bacteria healthy?
What is a Healthy Gut Microbiome?
We often hear about the importance of having healthy gut bacteria – but what does that mean? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to list of the exact types of bacteria you want in your gut and in what proportions. Research looking at this issue is still in its early stages. As of yet, researchers don’t know precisely how much of each type of gut bacteria you need for optimal health.
What current research shows is a more diverse population of gut microbes is better. Studies show people with a variety of different types of gut bacteria are at lower risk for health problems relative to those who a less diverse microbiome. So, from what we know now, diversity creates the most healthful gut environment.
Interestingly, a diverse microbiome is not only linked with better health but a healthier body weight. According to research, obese folks have a less diverse population of gut bacteria relative to normal weight folks.
Exercise and Gut Health
Can exercise change your gut microbiome for the better? As of yet, there’s not enough research to say what role physical activity plays in fostering healthy gut bacteria. However, a study involving professional rugby players suggests that exercise MAY be beneficial for gut health. As you might guess, rugby players are active individuals, especially compared to the general population.
In this study, researchers recruited 40 healthy, male rugby players and followed them as they went through pre-season training. They also followed a group of healthy, normal weight men who weren’t athletes and didn’t work out regularly, although they weren’t completely sedentary. They exercised lightly on occasion Finally, they recruited men who were overweight or obese and almost completely sedentary.
The researchers compared the composition of the men’s gut microbiome with the amount of exercise they did. What they found was the rugby players had a gut microbiome that was considerably more diverse than the other two groups. The degree of diversity was most pronounced when they compared the rugby players to the sedentary, obese guys. Another interesting find in this study was the athletic guys had more of a bacterium in their gut called Akkermansiaceae, a type of bacteria linked with a lower risk of obesity and metabolic problems.
As compelling as this study is, it can’t completely control for the effects of diet. An athletic Rugby player eats a diet that markedly differs from an obese, sedentary guy. For example, a rugby player eats more protein than a non-athlete. That’s important since differences in diet can impact gut bacteria. Still, the results raise the possibility that exercise may increase the diversity of the gut microbiome in a favorable way. Fortunately, the results are convincing enough that future research is in the works looking at how moderate-intensity exercise influences gut bacteria.
Cultivating Healthy Gut Bacteria
Whether or not it plays out that exercise contributes to a more diverse gut microbiome, exercise is one of the best prescriptions for health – and there are other ways to keep your gut bacteria as diverse and healthy as possible:
Eliminate processed foods from your diet and replace them with whole foods.
Eat more fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods contain prebiotics that feed healthy gut bacteria.
Add fermented foods to your diet – yogurt with active cultures, Kimchi, fresh sauerkraut, kefir, miso, and tempeh.
Don’t take antibiotics unless you absolutely have to. If you do have to take them, take a high-quality probiotic too.
Find ways to deal with stress, like meditation, spirituality, or yoga. Stress can disrupt your gut microbiome.
The Bottom Line
A healthy gut is the key to a healthy body and it’s a factor that can impact your body weight too. Keep eating whole foods and add more fermented foods to your diet to reseed your gut with friendly bacteria. Whether or not exercise changes your gut microbiome is still under investigation. But just as exercise changes almost every aspect of bodily function, don’t be surprised if it changes the bugs in your gut for the better too.
Medical News Today. “Gut Bacteria Diversity Improves with Exercise, Study Shows”
Science Daily. “Exercise boosts diversity of gut bacteria, study show”
New York Times. “Exercise and the Good Bugs in Our Gut”
Chris Kresser. “A healthy gut is the hidden key to weight loss”