your legs felt great, but it wasn’t the race you were hoping for because of ‘stomach issues’…
Bloating, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, gas, uncertainty — WHAT is going on?!?
I’ve run one road marathon in my life. It was in Nashville and I was working the expo until late the night before. By the time I bought dinner and sat down to eat, it was past 11pm — the race was starting in 8 hours. What did I order for dinner? Pizza, breadsticks, salad w/creamy dressing, more breadsticks, probably garlic bread. It’s the night before the longest race of my life and my mind is going berserk:
“Carbs! Calories! Pizza! Sports drink! If you plan on running for 4 hours tomorrow you better fuel me up — find the nearest pizza shop, they’ll still be open and they’ll have everything we need, and don’t forget to eat SUPER fast! Besides, we’ve earned it!”
Earned it? Not quite, the only thing I earned by eating that way was hours of stomach torment, a porta-potty dependency, and near nasty pants at mile 23. An awful cramp joined me at mile 4 and never left my side. By mile 20 I was so stressed about my urge to go that it completely took away from the fun of running. I messed up, big time. It was during that race when I realized: you can put in the physical training, but if you don’t prioritize nutrition, sleep, and manage stress, you’ll barely make it to the finish line, if at all.
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What did I learn? I learned that those foods cause massive inflammation in your body and more specifically, your gut. What do sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed junk, white flour, dairy, fake garlic spreads, artificial colors, and vegetable oils all have in common? They DESTROY the gut. Even worse, I ate really fast, barely chewed any of it, and ate during a time of high stress — no wonder my body rebelled the next day!
At the time I was fueling the way I always did, but on a much larger scale because, you know, marathon. Now that I know how food is digested and the tools it needs to be effective, I understand where I went wrong. That wrong doing led me straight to acute GI distress, something that is all too common in not only the athletic world, but among most people in North America (with a lot of cases being chronic). At the end of this article I’ll tell you strategies to help heal and seal that gut! But first…
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky Gut is exactly what it sounds like: when the tight junctions in your intestinal wall become loose, causing microscopic holes and creating an opportunity for protein molecules to escape into your bloodstream. Food is suppose to stay in our digestive tract, and we get our nutrients by absorbing them through the micro-villi that protrude from the walls of our small intestine. When toxins and proteins escape into our bloodstream, it triggers an immune response. Our immune system marks these proteins as “foreign” and begin to create antibodies to fight them off. This attack causes inflammation, our natural way of healing.
This acute inflammation is just fine, we can handle it, but when it becomes chronic? Bad news bears. Chronic inflammation occurs due to the consumption of inflammatory foods, high stress, poor sleep, and it becomes a major health concern as these habits get repeated over and over.
Leaky Gut and the Athlete:
Athletes, especially endurance athletes, encounter the following issues all too often: cramping, diarrhea, bloat, nausea, gas, discomfort. One reason for these symptoms is the constant stress that chronic cardio puts on the gut – we never give it a chance to settle down and repair. I heard this just last week — after one long run, just ONE, it takes our gut 48-72 hours to recover… two to three days! Pretty humbling, huh? How many people run 6-7 days a week? Mmhmmmm (fine, me too.)
Another reason for gut inflammation is due to the particularly high junk food diet most endurance athletes eat. If anyone did athletics in college, you know that you could have MAJORED in a science I call, refined-carbo-loading. It was an anticipated and weekly event, and no one ever questioned it. Why? Short answer: because carbs are delicious, filled with serotonin (our feel-good hormone), and for most of us, a great comfort. We learned the art of refined-carbo-loading from a young age, and is still what the big players in the food industry are preaching.
Don’t get me wrong, carbohydrates play a major role in good health and provide the fuel we need in most situations, but I find it to be way overblown, and no one mentions the importance of quality in those carbohydrates. Everyone is different, but I find that a diet rich in nutrient-dense proteins, fats, and fiber is a great foundation for health. Then, depending on your activity level, adding in healthy carbs every night (or throughout the day as your lifestyle requires) to reload your glycogen stores and help aid in sleep (serotonin is the precursor to melatonin, our sleep hormone). This enhances recovery and gives you a great shot at waking up feeling refreshed and ready for your morning workout. This is just a guideline for everyday living and/or training, my recommendations for the 1-2 days before race day differ a bit. But trust me, they still don’t involve 4 slices of meatlovers pizza, ranch dressing, and a neon sports drink. Although, I do tend to play around with a more natural and lighter version of that (I love pizza, it’s in my life and probably won’t ever leave unless I become allergic to it).
Another danger of a leaky gut is the poor rate of nutrient absorption. When your gut walls are irritated, it doesn’t matter if you are eating a nutrient-dense diet because you won’t be able to absorb most of it. Common deficiencies include: iron, magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, B12 and B5. All of these contribute to low energy, trouble sleeping, hormonal imbalance, muscle cramping, and lack of focus and motivation.
Athletes tend to have compromised immune systems from the chronic physical (and mental) stress placed on the body. Having a weak immune system leaves you extremely vulnerable to the smallest toxin to come in and mount an immune response. This response will leave you inflamed, bloated, bathroom-dependent, foggy, lethargic, and overall just plain down-and-out. And if you’re sitting there on your phone reading this blog thinking, “there’s no way I have a compromised immune system because I NEVER get sick” then please continue reading…
Hey there, I heard you never get sick?
Getting sick is a sign that our immune system is alert and responsive. You should feel strong about your immune system when you bounce back quickly after a round of the cold or flu, and should seek more information if you are down and out for way longer than you’re used to. Therefore, a good marker of health can be determined by how WELL we get sick, not how often. So don’t stress over getting a cold or 2 or 3, just set your body up to handle it well because it can actually strengthen the immune system after each bout.
Also, not to be the bearer of bad news, but when people don’t ever get sick, it usually comes on pretty strong and fast because the immune system just can’t fight anymore. So take action now, and start making moves towards a healthier lifestyle (if you haven’t already.)
“The time to repair a roof is when the sun is shining” – John F. Kennedy
Now, what you’ve been waiting for…
Strategies to Reduce Digestive Distress:
Cut DOWN on these foods and ‘food-like substances’ that wreak havoc on the intestinal wall:
- Refined carbohydrates
- Artificial sweeteners/Food dyes (yellow#5 in that sport drink, anyone?)
- Processed and low quality dairy
- Vegetable oils (canola, safflower, peanut, soy, sunflower)
- GMO’s, hormone-injected animal products, and all toxins and chemicals added to our food
- NSAIDs (ibprofen, motrin, aspirin, advil)
- Non-organic Soy & Corn (GMO-ville)
- Food allergies/sensitivities
Load UP on these foods to support a strong intestinal wall:
- Bone broth
- Small, wild-caught fish
- Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
- Soaked chia&flax
- Grass-fed and organic animal products
- Dark leafy greens
Well there goes my loaf of wonder bread, now what?
Swap out refined carbohydrates (white flour, processed foods, chips/pretzels, pastries, cereal, simple sugars) for quality carbohydrates such as:
- Sweet potatoes
- Cruciferous veggies
- Locally fermented sourdough bread
By making these swaps, your inflammatory and nutrient-VOID carbohydrates become ANTI-inflammatory and nutrient-DENSE carbohydrates. They are recognized by your body and therefore digested and absorbed with far less fuss. Ah, the power of real, whole, organic food.
Lifestyle Strategies to Reduce Gut Inflammation:
Food plays a huge role, but there is more to the story.
You may need to cut back on mileage. Try to chop up your workout into little segments over the course of the day. This will provide a dose of acute stress that is good for us, and lessen the negative impacts of chronic stress. It will also help with more functionality and reduce the harmful consequences of sitting for long periods of time. 5 minutes here, 3 minutes there, burpees and air-squats are my favorites! I don’t leave a bathroom without doing 10 air-squats, fun fact.
Proper sleep is a must. We all require a different amount each night, so find how much is right for you. My sweet spot is 9 hours, but there are definitely times when I need 10-11, mostly in the summer when my output is at its peak. Sleep is our only time to truly repair, and as we go about our days demanding so much from our bodies, the least we can do is give it the proper rest it deserves. Get yourself into a rhythm with a set bedtime and wake-up, turn off electronics at LEAST an hour before bed, keep WIFI out of the bedroom, sip on a calming chamomile tea, get your room as dark as possible, and set the temp in the mid to low 60’s.
Deep breathing is my favorite way to reduce stress. It only takes 6 deep abdominal breathes to switch from our Sympathetic (survival) nervous system, into our Parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. We aren’t meant to spend the amount of time we do in our sympathetic system, but in our current world we all kind of live in a survival state. This causes a lot of inflammation and hormonal imbalance, so do check-ins with yourself throughout the day and take 6 deep breathes. You’ll feel the magic immediately. I also like to do some during my runs to chop things up a bit and give my body a break. Otherwise, it just assumes I’m running from a bear and shuts down all systems of my body except for blood flow to my arm and leg muscles! (just in case I decide to fight that grizzly, or run away from it faster)
Lastly, this isn’t an attack on all carbohydrates, because they are critically important, but they have a time and a place. It all comes down to the quality of the carbohydrate. The choice is yours, to inflame or not to inflame?
Last tidbit about me: I love sweets. I love cookies and bread and ice cream, I just try to make sure they are baked locally (or by me). When they are made at a local bakery, they go bad within a couple of days, and that’s how I like my sugar: with a handful of ingredients, made with love, eaten with gratitude, and after a big day on the trail 🙂
Have any gut stories of your own? Can you trace it back to a particular food or meal? Would love to hear about it in the comment section!
Interested in learning more? I offer free 15-minute discovery calls where we talk 1 on 1 about your main health concerns!