You dedicate your life to it…
Spend thousands of hours training for it…
Sacrifice friends and fun to study and research about it…
Lay awake for hours at night thinking about it…
You want em, you need em, you just gotta have em.
You do all the right things…train hard, eat right, get enough sleep.
But what if all of your efforts are being sabotaged by poor gut health?
Over 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates said “all disease begins in the gut”, and we are only now just beginning to understand just how right he was.
One thing we know for sure though is…that guy was well ahead of his time.
So What’s The Big Deal About Gut Health?
The human digestive system is a highly sophisticated, not yet fully understood system that is essentially the cornerstone of our well-being.
What we do know so far, however, is that gut health is a huge contributing factor to overall health and well-being – and that an unhealthy gut can lead to a bunch of different diseases from constipation to auto immune disorders to chronic fatigue and depression.
One of the reasons your gut has so much influence on your health is because it is home to roughly 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) bacteria (approximately 3 pounds worth) that line your intestinal tract.
These microorganisms (over 400 known diverse species) outnumber the cells in your body by a factor of 10 to 1.
Now before we get any deeper into this gut stuff…I should probably tell you who I am and why I take this gut stuff so seriously…
For those of you who have never read this blog and don’t know my story, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease about 15 years ago.
If you have never heard of Crohn’s Disease feel free to Google it to learn more about it, but in layman’s terms, it is a disease that causes severe inflammation of the digestive tract, most often in the small intestine and colon.
If you’ve ever had a bad case of food poisoning…that feeling pretty much sums up what the general symptoms feel like. Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, cramps, and sprinting to the bathroom with bloody diarrhea 10-20 times every 24 hours…
Talk about a sh*tty day…
Now the reason I’m telling you this isn’t for sympathy votes or likes – I’m telling you this because I want to help you.
You see, over the past 15 years I’ve managed to keep my disease under control fairly well; and in the process, have learned a great deal about the digestive system…how it works…how to make it work better…what’s good, what’s bad…etc.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in my gut research and first-hand experience battling a gut issue is that there are two closely related factors that determine our gut health: the gut flora and the gut wall.
Gut flora is an extremely complex living system that fights relentlessly to protect your body from outside offenders.
Although experts don’t fully understand the extent of gut flora’s role in human health and disease, we do know that it makes up around 75% of your immune system, it helps promote optimal gastrointestinal function, and it helps to regulate metabolism.
To sum things up, your overall health is essentially tied to the health of your gut.
If your gut is unhealthy, your body will also be unhealthy. When your body is unhealthy, it’s nearly impossible to make gains in the gym.
The Gut Wall
The gut wall is essentially the “gatekeeper” who has the final say in what gets in and what gets out. It is essentially the front line of defense for our immune system.
When digestion is functioning normally (i.e. all molecules are screened properly and only pass into the blood stream through the mucosa cells) the Tight Junctions of the gut wall typically stay closed…
…but when TJs are disrupted, the intestinal barrier becomes permeable or “open” and allows un-screened molecules (i.e. bacteria, toxins, pathogens, yeast, incompletely digested proteins and fats, as well as unabsorbed waste) to flow directly into the bloodstream.
This is where we get the term “Leaky Gut Syndrome”.
As more and more of these foreign invaders break through your weakened gut barrier and pass through the weakened and overworked liver filters they will begin to settle and absorb into various tissue(s) throughout your body.
Since these proteins don’t belong outside of the gut, the body begins to manufacture T cells and antibodies directed against self-antigens in its own cells and tissues – triggering an autoimmune reaction that causes the attacked tissues to inflame.
Studies have shown that these attacks may play a role in the development in many autoimmune diseases.
Note: If you would like to read more about leaky gut and its relationship with health and autoimmunity on a deeper level (with supporting research), please check out this article.
The Truth About Gains
One of the worst things about living with Crohn’s Disease (especially from a bodybuilding perspective) is that making gains can be tough due to the malabsorption issues that usually accompany the gut inflammation.
You see, when it comes to making gains it’s not what you eat that counts, but what you digest and absorb.
This isn’t just true for people with stomach problems. This holds true for all of us.
You can eat as much food as you want to try and get jacked…but if you don’t absorb the nutrients from that food you’ll only be left stuck at the same size as when you started out (or smaller)…
…not to mention sad, depressed, and frustrated.
Fear not my friend, because today I’m going to share with you my best tips to help heal your gut, improve your digestion, and get the most out of every calorie you ingest.
Note: keep in mind that the tips I’m about to share with you aren’t only for people with stomach issues, they are universal truths that you should apply to your bodybuilding program right now, even if you feel healthy.
13 Ways Improve Your Digestion For Greater Gains in The Gym:
1. Reduce or remove offender foods from your diet. There are quite a few foods out there (even so-called health foods) that can act as major stressors on our digestive systems when we eat them.
A few of the chief offenders include: sugar (especially high-fructose corn syrup), cereal grains (especially foods containing Gliadin and Lectin), processed foods (especially processed soy), Omega-6 oils (soybean, corn, cottonseed, etc), caffeine, alcohol, and many dairy products.
Pro Tip: Most of these foods irritate the gut in some way, give bad bacteria their favorite foods to feast on, and often create an inflammatory response. It’s in your best interest to significantly reduce these foods, or eliminate them from your diet entirely.
2. Chew your food well. Back in the day, our parents used to remind us at just about every meal…”slow down and chew your food!”
This elementary and little used digestive principle still holds true today. Chewing is the first step of digestion, and salivary amylase, (an enzyme secreted in saliva) begins the process as you chew.
Pro Tip: Your food should be liquefied by chewing and thoroughly mixed with saliva before swallowing so that you give your food the best possible chance to be digested properly. A good rule of thumb is to “drink your food”.
3. Avoid eating fruit with other foods. This rule isn’t set in stone, but if you have a sensitive gut it’s usually a good idea to eat fruit by itself and not to combine it with any other foods.
Also, do not to eat fruit immediately after a meal. I know fruits are healthy and can make for a delicious healthy dessert but try to wait about an hour or so after your meal before you eat any fruit.
The reason is simple: the sugar in many fruits may start a fermentation process in the stomach and cause gas, bloating, and indigestion.
If you’ve ever felt ‘fruit bloat’ or ‘fruit cramps’ you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about here.
4. Avoid drinking liquids with meals. Many experts have argued that drinking liquids during meals can interfere with hydrochloric acid (HCl) levels and impede the digestion process.
I don’t drink liquids with my meals (for obvious reasons), but if you insist on having a drink, I recommend limiting the quantity of liquids to 4 ounces or less of room temperature or warm liquids.
Also, try to wait 45 minutes to an hour after eating before drinking large quantities of liquid or cold liquids.
The goal here is to allow your digestive juices and stomach acids to remain concentrated enough to digest your food completely and efficiently.
Pro Tip: the reason I recommend drinking warm water instead of cold water is because cold water has been shown to slow digestion, reduce the concentration of stomach acid, and also cause cramps in sensitive individuals.
5. Reduce stress. The gut, also known as the enteric nervous system, is often referred to as your “second brain”.
Home to over 100 million neurons within the intestinal wall, this super sophisticated system (which initiates and sustains digestion on its own) has an intricate relationship with your “regular” nervous system that has only recently begun to be explored by science via the field of NeuroGastroenterology.
You see, the enteric nervous system transmits information throughout the body, signaling the brain and letting it know what’s going on inside your gut.
When you’re stressed, the brain sends stress responses to the gut causing digestive function to decrease as the muscles that push bacteria and waste begin to slow down, reducing blood flow. This is definitely not what you want to happen if you’re eating for performance.
Bottom line, stress responses (especially chronic stress over time) can lead to a poorly functioning digestive system, so do yourself a huge favor and experiment with a few stress reduction techniques if you find yourself chronically stressed or overwhelmed with anxiety on a consistent basis.
Pro Tip: stress can wreak havoc on the digestive process so always try to avoid eating when you are upset or angry. Wait until you are calm, and at least 45 minutes to an hour after you workout before eating.
6. Use Glutamine. With all of the crap we put into our bodies these days (i.e. excessive gluten consumption, gmo foods, prescription & over the counter drugs, chemical additives, etc), the integrity of our gut lining can get progressively weaker over time.
Perhaps this may be one of the reasons we are seeing a rise in the incidence of digestive disorders year after year.
On the bright side, however, there is strong evidence that shows you can heal you gut and restore the integrity of the gut lining by supplementing with the amino acid l-glutamine.
You see, glutamine has been shown to act as a healing agent which can help strengthen and protect the lining of the intestines and stomach – as well as help restore healthy gut barrier function and ensure the entire digestive process runs smoothly.
Many experts believe glutamine may also play a role in the health of the mouth, esophagus, liver, and pancreas. I highly recommend supplementing with glutamine to help restore gut barrier function as well as support the healthy function of the intestinal lining.
Pro Tip: always follow the instructions on the label, but glutamine doses of 500mg, 1-3 times per day have been shown to be safe and effective.
Pro Tip: do not add glutamine to hot beverages because heat destroys glutamine. Take it with cold or room temperature foods or liquids.
Pro Tip: do not use glutamine if you have liver disease, kidney disease, liver disease, or Reye syndrome.
Pro Tip: invest in a top quality glutamine supplement from a company you can trust.
7. Use digestive enzymes. There are many different digestive enzymes that all perform specific tasks at various stages of the digestive process.
From mouth enzymes (amylase), to the stomach enzymes (most notably, gastric amylase and pepsin), to the pancreatic enzymes (pancreatic amylase, protease, and lipase; which digest starches/carbohydrates, proteins, and fats respectively); these enzymes provide great aid to the digestive process and prepare the nutrients for absorption.
Unfortunately, many people suffer from ‘enzyme deficiency’ these days (which can make many foods difficult to digest) so I am a big proponent of digestive enzyme supplementation.
When choosing a brand, be sure it is high in active units of amylase, protease, lipase, as well as cellulose, which the body does not make on its own, and is necessary for the proper digestion of fiber.
Pro Tip: These days I use Digest Gold by Enzymedica – it’s a high potency formula that is superior to most other brands on the market.
8. Eat prebiotic and probiotic whole foods. By eating more whole plant-based prebiotic foods you can help support the growth of good bacteria in the gut by giving the good bacteria the fuel they need to grow and thrive.
Some of the best prebiotic foods to add to your diet include: bananas, raw onions, garlic, artichokes, leeks, and dandelion greens.
On the probiotic side, eating fermented whole foods will also help the cause a great deal. Great examples include: kimchi, microalge, sauerkraut, coconut kefir, and miso.
Pro Tip: avoid pasteurized and vinegar-based probiotic foods as these two things have been shown to kill off good bacteria.
9. Fight gut terrorists with probiotics. Probiotics are the friendly bacteria (I like to think of them as the Special Forces for your gut) that reside within the gastrointestinal tract.
The three primary types are: Lactobacillus acidophilus (the most well-known out of the group), which protects the colon; Lactobacillus bifidus, which protects the small intestine; and last but not least, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which travels through the entire digestive system and supports the efforts of the other two.
Taking a daily probiotic supplement will help make it a lot easier to build the good bacteria in your gut, boost your immune system and help keep the harmful microorganisms (aka gut terrorists) under control.
This is especially helpful following a cycle of antibiotics as antibiotics destroy bad AND good bacteria which can leave you vulnerable for attack by other microorganisms at the end of your cycle.
Pro Tip: invest in a top quality probiotics supplement. Right now I’m using Primadophilus Optima Max Potency 100 Billion by Nature’s Way and it has worked great for me.
Pro Tip: you can also find Lactobacillus Bulgaricus in yogurt made from live cultures.
Pro Tip: when using Lactobacillus Acidophilus, make sure the supplement contains at least 200 million organisms per cubic centimeter. Clinical evidence shows that this probiotic needs to be taken in large doses in order to be effective.
Pro Tip: It usually requires approximately one month of proper probiotic supplementation in order for natural gut floral to return to optimal levels.
Pro Tip: Various over-the-counter medications (pain killers, antacids, etc) have been shown to have negative effects on the friendly Lactobacillus bacteria in the gut.
10. Maintain a healthy gut flora balance. As with anything you do that’s fitness/health/goal related, it’s always a good idea to track your progress from the beginning to see if any improvements are being made as you go along.
So before you get started with the probiotic supplementation, you may want to invest in having a few tests run to check the health of your gut flora. I’ve had quite a few of these tests done and I’ve found them to be incredibly helpful.
Pro Tip: if you’re chronically sick, have allergies, rashes, frequent headaches, are chronically fatigued, experience chronic constipation/diarrhea or a mix of both, regularly take antacids or are on antibiotics, or have any other weird chronic aliment, there is a good chance you may have a gut flora imbalance and should think about starting probiotic supplementation.
Pro Tip: many experts believe that the optimal gut flora balance level should be roughly 85% “friendly” bacteria and 15% “hostile” bacteria.
Pro Tip: it is extremely difficult to restore gut flora using diet alone. Studies have shown that it takes approximately one year on a new diet to produce any type of noticeable change in flora.
Pro Tip: If you’re interested in getting a stool analysis I highly recommend Genova Diagnostics. I’ve used them quite a few times myself with great results. Their analysis will help identify abnormal bacteria levels, parasites, yeasts, and other gastrointestinal issues. Once you have a clear profile of what’s going on inside your gut, you can begin crafting a gut restoration and/or supplement plan with the help of a Naturopath or Integrative MD.
Pro Tip: many of the cheaper labs you’ll find online are less than reputable, so if you decide to use another company be sure to ask your doctor about them first and be sure to triple check sources.
11. Give your system a break. I know that most lifters typically eat around 5-6 meals per day (some even eat up to 8 per day), but in order to give your gut a chance to clear out the bad bacteria and waste, you’ve got to give it a break from digestion from time to time.
You see, the normal digestion process requires a ton of energy, and the increased meal frequency required when eating for bodybuilding gains can place even more stress on the digestive system.
Every 2 hours or so, the smooth muscle in your intestines move to keep the waste and bacteria moving smoothly through your digestive track. When you eat, however, this process gets put on hold. So the more frequently you eat, the higher your risk of slowing down digestion and promoting bacterial overgrowth.
Now, before you skip to the comments section and tell me how stupid and wrong I am for saying you should take a break from eating on an article about “Gains”, let me just say in my defense that the human body is definitely CAPABLE of eating 5-8 times per day, it just isn’t the healthiest option if you do it consistently for long periods of time.
It’s not really rocket science, the more meals you eat each day the more stress you place upon your digestive system each day, so sometimes it is just a good idea to give your system a rest and fast.
Fasting will give your digestive system a much needed break, allow the liver to detox, and give the body a chance to heal itself.
Pro Tip: I do not recommend fasting for extended periods of time without your doctor’s supervision. I also do not recommend or endorse any sort of extreme ‘detox’ diets or radical fasts.
12. Poop regularly. I know many people get uncomfortable talking about their poop, but after living with Crohn’s for this long I no longer have that problem…so I’m just going to give it to you straight: if you want a healthy gut it’s super important to keep your bowel transit time on point. This means you need to drop a deuce at least twice a day at the minimum!
Many people (including some doctors) believe normal bowel elimination/transit time to be anywhere from two to fourteen times per week (roughly 36-72 hours after each meal).
That’s decent for an average person I guess, but if you want optimal performance you need to take it one step further and speed that up to around 20-24 hours – also, if you’re eating 5-6 meals per day you should shoot for around 18 hours.
If you only poop once a day, for example, the colon can contain the residue from those six full meals. On the other hand, if you poop less than once per day, the colon can hold up to 9 meals or more and you’ll begin suffering the effects of chronic constipation.
Note: my Gastroenterologist often refers to constipation as the “modern plague”.
The negative effects of slow transit time and constipation are numerous: autointoxication, increased workload of excretory organs, slowed cellular metabolism, functional decline in cellular activity, increased acute and chronic illness predisposition, pain, fatigue, and even some cancers.
The longer food resides in the bowel, the higher probability intestinal flora will be altered, toxic substances will form, and intestinal toxemia will result.
Trust me, you aren’t helping the cause by eating 5-8 meals per day so yourself a big favor and make bowel transit time a priority for yourself going forward.
Pro Tip: keep bowel transit time on point by drinking lots of water, eating fruits and veggies, and using a fiber supplement when necessary.
13. Use bitter herbs. Research has shown that ‘bitters’ can help increase the gastric secretions of the stomach and produce digestive enzymes – which is believed to help break down and digest food.
I’ve found that using bitters can be a pretty decent effective digestive aid when I use them before eating large meals (especially cheat meals).
Here are a few examples of bitters: peppermint, angelica, chamomile, rue, ginger, goldenseal, milk thistle, cinnamon, dandelion, fennel, and gentian.
Pro Tip: Keep in mind that even though many herbs are believed to have various stomachic effects, their therapeutic value based on modern pharmacology isn’t quite clear. I have noticed decent results when using herbs, but since this stuff isn’t actual medicine your results will vary.
14. Drink more water. This one should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately, many people out there still aren’t drinking enough water each day to help support a healthy digestive system.
Your gut needs water to help move bacteria and waste smoothly through the digestive system…and when you’re dehydrated your system is unable to work as efficiently as it needs to. This “gut dehydration” can lead to constipation, bloating, and even an inflammatory response in some cases.
Pro Tip: a good rule to follow if you want to stay properly hydrated is to drink roughly 60% of your bodyweight in ounces of water each day. For example, if you weigh 175 pounds, you should be drinking around 100 ounces of water per day.
When it comes to making gains, it all begins with digestion; from the second you put the food into your mouth, until the minute you poop it out at the end of the digestive process.
It’s no secret, if you have poor gut health, you will constantly feel run down and sick, your body will function at less efficient levels, and your chances of making gains in the gym decrease significantly.
However, by following the simple tips outlined above, you should start to see incremental improvements in your gut health, as well as increased nutrient assimilation and absorption. This should help you feel healthier, stronger, and hopefully lead to greater gains in the gym.
Thanks for reading – I truly hope these tips work as well for you as well as they have for me over the years. Here’s to your health, and future gains in the gym.
Now it’s your turn: What are you currently doing to improve your gut health right now? Do you know of any great tips I may have missed? If you’ve been on a similar journey and are now healthy, what did you do to help yourself heal? Drop a comment below and share your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you.