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Early Exercise Changes Your Gut, Health and Future

Early Exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exercise during your youth may lead to a more favorable composition of gut microbes as an adult
  • The microbial make-up of your gut may be especially adaptable early in life, but researchers are still trying to determine when exactly these “critical growth periods” occur
  • The balance of bacteria in your gut is interconnected with your overall health and wellness.
  • You can help your body to balance bacteria in your gut through daily exercise, eating fermented foods, taking a probiotic supplement, eating prebiotic foods, and using stress-reduction techniques

By Dr. Mercola

Science is only just beginning to recognize the importance of the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut. They have a rather unique symbiotic relationship with your body and your health.

The bacteria depend upon the food you eat for nutrition, and the cells in your intestinal tract depend upon the chemicals released by the bacteria during metabolism. These chemicals are used to strengthen the cell walls of your intestines.

This is only one way that the bacteria in your gut interact with your body and your health.

Although the benefits of exercise are well documented for both adults and children, new research has demonstrated that exercise in the early years of development has a significant impact on the diversity of your gut microbiome.

This diversity of bacteria has an impact on everything from your metabolism to your emotional health. I believe that as scientists continue to study the balance of bacteria in the gut, they will find it has an impact on almost every bodily system and plays a role in most illnesses or diseases.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

The study, published in Immunology and Cell Biology, demonstrated that exercise in your early years will create an environment with better balance between the microorganisms that live in your intestines.1 Shortly after being born, bacteria begin to colonize your intestinal tract.

This microbial community continues to grow until, ultimately, there are over 100 trillion microorganisms living in your intestines, outnumbering the number of cells in your body.

The new study revealed that these microbes contribute 5 million genes to your genetic profile, including encoding proteins that play a role in everything from development and metabolism to brain and immune system function.2

Further, exercise in early life may be key to establishing a healthy microbial community. For instance, young rats that exercised daily had more beneficial bacteria in their gut as adults compared to rats that were sedentary in youth and even those who exercised as adults.3,4

Scientists have been able to determine that the symbiotic interactions between your body and the microorganisms living there are important throughout your life. However, they are now learning that these interactions may have a greater impact when developed during critical growth periods, especially in early life.5

Researchers involved in this study had previously reported that exercise in early life may increase the number of different bacterial species living in your gut, and thus the diversity of the bacteria.

In this review they looked at the interaction between early-life exercise and the promotion of neurological and metabolic function throughout life, signaled through microbial symbiosis.

Lead author of the study, Monika Fleshner, professor in Colorado University-Boulder's Department of Integrative Physiology, stated:

"Exercise affects many aspects of health, both metabolic and mental, and people are only now starting to look at the plasticity of these gut microbes. That is one of the novel aspects of this research."6

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It's Not Too Late

Although researchers determined that the microbial community in your intestines is especially adaptable at a young age and impacted by your level of exercise, your intestinal bacterial continues to be influenced by your behavior as an adult.

Diet, sleep patterns, stress, exercise and antibiotics play a role in the number and diversity of your gut microbiome. This study was unable to pinpoint an exact age at which your gut microbiome was more likely to change, but the early findings suggest that earlier is better than later. 

However, there are other studies demonstrating changes to the bacterial community in your intestines following exercise even in adulthood. So if you didn't exercise as a youth, don't worry — it's not too late to make beneficial changes.

In one such study, published in the journal Gut, scientists compared the gut microbiome of professional rugby players against that of other men of similar age and weight. They found significant differences.7

As expected, the stool samples of the athletes showed a greater diversity of bacteria in the gut and a higher level of specific bacteria often associated with good health.

The researchers chose to evaluate athletes because they could track the levels of exercise and observe what they were eating. As reported by NPR:8

" … [F]or instance, a bacterium called Akkermansiaceae. [Gastroenterologist and study author Fergus] Shanahan says the mechanism of how this bacterium influences health isn't clear, but low or decreasing levels of it are linked to bowel and metabolic disorders.

Whereas, he says, 'high levels are generally associated with good health.'"9

This evidence suggests that while your gut bacteria may be more likely to change as a child, there continues to be evidence that it is not too late as an adult to make changes to your lifestyle that will affect your overall health and wellness.

Dysbiosis Is Linked to Multiple Health Issues

Where once scientists believed that disease and illness were triggered by genetic response to the environment, the Human Genome Project demonstrated that genes are responsible for a mere 10 percent of disease.10

Instead, ongoing research has demonstrated that your health benefits from a healthy balance of bacterial growth in your intestines and doesn't rely solely on your genetic makeup. Although you may have heard about having "good" and "bad" bacteria in your gut, the reality is that you need both.

Problems occur when the balance between the "good" and "bad" bacteria becomes disproportional. Given the right nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress reduction, your body can regulate the balance of bacteria.

An imbalance in bacterial growth is called dysbiosis or dysbacteriosis, and most often occurs in the gut.

Specific bacteria appear to have a greater influence on specific disorders. For instance, by simply eliminating four different species of bacteria in the gut of lab animals, researchers were able to trigger metabolic changes that led to obesity.11

Other research demonstrated that children who have symptoms of autism also have a very different balance of bacteria in the gut compared to otherwise healthy children.12 Patients with Crohn's disease also have a lower than normal level of Faecalibacterium prausnitzii bacteria in their gut.13

Further, the bacteria Clostridia may help reduce symptoms of food allergies when a proper number are recolonized in the gut.14,15 Researchers have also identified the link between gut flora and the neurotransmitters in your brain that control emotions.16

This suggests that biochemical imbalance in your brain may be initiated in your gut. Research continues to suggest it is unreasonable to assume that you are merely the sum of your parts. Instead, science is beginning to recognize the interconnectedness between body systems, microbes and health.

The Simplest Ways to Ruin your Microbiome

You make choices every day that affect the bacteria in your gut. Antibiotics, antibacterial soaps, processed foods and foods high in sugar contribute to massive changes in your gut flora, and therefore to your overall health.

Although necessary in some instances, antibiotics kill not only the bacteria causing the problem, but also bacteria in your gut necessary for your health. If you do need antibiotics, take them with probiotics and eat plenty of fermented foods to "reseed" your gut with healthy bacteria. In addition use the steps below to ensure your bacterial balance remains healthy.

Proton pump inhibitors, medications used to treat gastroesophageal reflux, affect the bacterial growth in your intestines as well. These medications include Prilosec, Nexium, and Prevacid. Chlorinated or fluoridated water will also alter the bacterial balance in your intestines.

Conventionally raised meats in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are fed low-dose antibiotics to prevent illness and disease. These antibiotics may be present in the meat when you eat it. Dermatologists may also prescribe low-dose antibiotics in the treatment of acne, but taking antibiotics chronically may decimate your microbial health.

Five Easy Steps to Balance Your Gut Bacteria and Change Your Health

There are five easy steps you can take starting today to help balance the bacteria in your intestines and improve your overall health.

1. Get regular exercise, including high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

Exercise will help to improve the balance of bacteria in your gut and provide you with other health benefits, such as reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. But, don't stop there! Although you may be satisfied with your routine, sitting behind a desk for eight hours every day may contradict the benefits you get from your exercise routine.

Having now been dubbed "the sitting disease," this lack of activity throughout the day increases your overall health risks.

Instead, stand up as much as possible (consider a standing workstation) and at least get up every 20 minutes to stretch, grab a glass of water, or do a few jumping jacks to get your blood moving again. You'll find you are also more productive and creative the more you move throughout the day.

2. Eat fermented foods and consider probiotics

Considered the ultimate superfood, fermented vegetables may help reduce your acne, improve your weight management, reduce your risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers and improve your mood. You can easily make fermented foods at home.

If you don't eat about ¼ cup of these vegetables each day, you can also take a quality probiotic to help "reseed" your gut with beneficial bacteria.

3. Include some prebiotics as well to nourish the good bacteria in your gut

Probiotics help to reseed your gut while prebiotics feed the good bacteria to help them flourish. Prebiotics foods include onions, leeks, jicama (Mexican yam), Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens and garlic. If you don't get enough fiber or prebiotic foods in your diet, you might consider supplementing with organic psyllium husk.

4. Reduce your use of antibiotics and other products that include antibiotics

These other products include antibacterial soaps and meat conventionally raised in CAFOs. Instead, wash your hands for one minute using regular soap and friction and apply a little coconut oil to help keep your skin moist and supple. The coconut oil is naturally antibacterial, good for your skin and health and the bacteria do not become resistant.

5. Reduce or eliminate your use of processed foods and refined sugars

Too much sugars and other "dead" nutrients will feed the pathogenic bacteria in your gut. Processed foods also contain emulsifiers, or food additives to stabilize the food for a longer shelf life. These emulsifiers, such as polysorbate 80, carrageenan and polyglycerols, may have an adverse effect on the health of your gut.17

Unfortunately, unless the foods are 100 percent organic and labeled as non-GMO, they may also contain ingredients that are heavily contaminated with pesticides, such as glyphosate. These pesticides also may disturb the bacterial balance in your intestines.