Can Too Much Exercise Cause Leaky Gut?

Jim was a 50-something patient who, despite eating healthy and exercising vigorously, couldn’t lose weight, frequently felt tired, and struggled with regular headaches, post-meal bloating, and other miseries.

Jim’s doctor ruled out the usual suspects. He got about seven hours’ solid sleep nightly, kept work-related stress under control, and supplemented smartly to complement his low-sugar diet. Extensive testing showed his adrenal, thyroid, testosterone, and other markers fell within a normal range.

Yet his doctor remained baffled how everything could check out well and yet Jim continued to struggle. His frustration mounted as fatigue sabotaged his consistent workout routine that included six days in the gym every week.

Around that time, Jim read a study that revealed what many conventional and even alternative practitioners overlook.

The study, published in mid-2016 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed among other issues like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and autoimmune disorders, heavy exercise could trigger or exacerbate intestinal permeability, more commonly called leaky gut.

This double-blind, placebo-controlled test divided eight athletes into two groups. They either received a placebo, zinc carnosine alone, colostrum alone, or zinc carnosine and colostrum for 14 days before they started to train hard.

Researchers found zinc carnosine improved their intestinal barrier and worked even better with colostrum. (1)

Nutrients aside, the study’s bigger point argues athletes often struggle with gut issues, an often-overlooked culprit with potentially devastating consequences.

Therein lied Jim’s problem: Over-exercising triggered leaky gut, sabotaging his weight and energy levels among other problems.

What is “Leaky Gut”?

Leaky gut occurs when your intestinal barrier, which is just one layer thick and thus extremely vulnerable to damage, becomes compromised. (2) Toxins and other “foreign offenders” subsequently bombard your body, sparking chronic inflammation that contributes to nearly every major metabolic disease including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. (3)

Obviously, athletes aren’t the only ones susceptible to gut issues. They can also affect, for instance, people with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a condition with numerous symptoms including fatigue, muscle pain, and joint pain, sore throat, headaches, difficulty sleeping, post-exertion malaise, and gastrointestinal (GI) issues. (4)

One recent study published in the journal Microbiome showed how gut bacteria – collectively called your microbiome – could affect CFS.

This study involved 48 participants with CFS and 39 healthy control subjects. Among CFS patients, researchers found fewer overall and healthy gut bacteria. In other words, they had more bad “bugs” and fewer overall good ones compared with healthy folks. They also showed specific inflammation markers linked to intestinal permeability. (5)

Studies show optimal gut microbiota can help maintain intestinal barrier function. (6) Considering your gut bacteria outnumber your cells 10 to one, you can understand the significant roles your microbiome plays in gut health but really, pretty much everything including metabolism, immunity, and weight loss.

Among their duties, gut microbiota produce vitamin K and other nutrients, synthesize essential and non-essential amino acids, create bile, boost immunity, and reduce harmful pathogens. (7)

Simply put: When you improve microbiome health, you can improve overall health. (7)

Conversely, gut microbiota imbalances – called dysbiosis – contribute to numerous problems including IBD, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.

Your gut even affects brain health: About 95 percent of your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin gets manufactured in your bowels. (8) If you struggle with depression, optimizing gut health can help tremendously.

Some gut issues are easier to diagnose than others. For some people, an elimination diet with specific gut-healing nutrients can alleviate leaky gut. A functional practitioner can also test for these and other gut issues like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

If you suspect gut issues, please see a functional practitioner, since conventional doctors frequently overlook or misidentify these issues.

While some gut issues are complex and require time to heal, the following seven foundation strategies can help restore and optimize gut health for most people.

7 Strategies to Improve Gut Health

1. Dial down inflammation.

Heavy exercise and leaky gut amped up Jim’s inflammation, but chronic inflammation impacts nearly every patient thanks to an inflammatory diet among other culprits. Patients with CFS, for instance, often have inflammation-related gut issues. (9) A low-sugar anti-inflammatory diet with plenty of omega 3-rich foods like wild salmon as well as plant foods coupled with quality fish oil and other anti-inflammatory nutrients become an excellent gut-healing foundation.

2. Get amazing sleep.

Optimal sleep supports detoxification, tissue repair, recovery, immune function, brain health, and so much more. (10) Everyone benefits from quality, uninterrupted sleep, but people with gut issues especially benefit from eight or more hours every night.

3. Manage stress.

Chronic stress adversely impacts your microbiome, creates adrenal burnout, increases inflammation, and makes you a massive mess. (11) Freeway traffic can create stress, but like Jim learned, so can things like over-exercise. Restorative exercise like gentle yoga can reduce stress. So can meditation, deep breathing, and finding joy and humor in everyday moments. Find something that works for you and do it.

4. Optimize prebiotics and probiotics.

Studies show supplementing with probiotics and gut-flora-feeding prebiotics can relieve stress, improve brain function, (12) and positively impact your microbiome. A high-quality prebiotic/ probiotic supplement provides therapeutic doses. So can fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, fermented veggies, sauerkraut and no-added-sugar live-cultured yogurt (unless you’re dairy sensitive). Foods like asparagus, carrots, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, radishes, and tomatoes provide prebiotic fibers like inulin and arabinogalactan. (12)

5. Dial down sugar.

Sugar and other carbohydrates (that break down to sugar) ramp up leaky gut, feed bad gut bugs, and create all sorts of other havoc. Insulin resistance, a condition marked by excessive sugar intake, adversely alters your microbiome diversity and harmony. (13) If completely eliminating sugary foods isn’t in your agenda, make that piece of chocolate cake or other pleasure an occasional treat. Aim for healthy, not perfection.

6. Eliminate food intolerances.

Temporarily pulling common offenders like dairy and gluten –remove them for three weeks and then challenge them one by one – often becomes the magic bullets that help heal your gut. Studies show a gluten-free diet can reduce inflammation and insulin resistance (14), creating a win-win by healing leaky gut and other conditions while helping your waistline. A good starting point is my friend JJ Virgin’s The Virgin Diet.

7. Take gut-healing supplements.

Beyond prebiotics and probiotics, among the nutrients to repair leaky gut and other gut issues include L-Glutamine, N-Acetyl Glucosamine, quercetin, and the aforementioned zinc carnosine. You can find these and other nutrients in synergistic gut-healing supplement formulas.

As microbiome research continues to make news and researchers focus on how gut issues affect overall health, have you become more conscious about maintaining optimal gut health? What strategy would you add to optimize gut health? Share yours below or on my Facebook page.

Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is an organic food fanatic, green living aficionado, and has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he wrote his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, which has now been used professionally in over 500 health clinics. Dr. Hardick regularly blogs healthy recipes and holistic health articles on his own website, DrHardick.com, and speaks to numerous professional and public audiences every year. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario.

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