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Go With Your Gut...

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

In today’s blog post, and my very first blog post, I wanted to address a topic that has been getting increasingly more attention in the health and fitness industry, and that is... 


exercise-induced stress and its affect on gut-microbiota

and the psychological implications


Now, if you are new to this side of health and fitness, welcome, we’ve been waiting for you! This side of the industry is often overlooked and neglected, however it is one of the most important aspects. I’ve always said, you can look as good as you want, but if you’re not healthy internally, it doesn’t mean jack. But before I really dive into this subject, I want to address what gut-microbiota / the gut-microbiome is: 


Gut-mi·cro·bi·o·ta / Gut-mi·cro·bi·ome 

The name given to the population of microbes living in our intestines; home to trillions of microorganisms that play a crucial role in our own human biology.

Our metabolism, endocrine, neuronal, and immune functions are all effected by the health of our gut-microbiome. Among all of these systems within the body that are affected by our gut, the connection between our gut and our minds is often overlooked. It is crazy to think that even our behavior can be affected by our gut, but it is true and is possible via the the Gut Brain-Axis (GBA). Crazy, huh? "You mean to tell me that the health of our guts can affect our mood?"  Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying, among other things. But the main focus of this post will be about the psychological implications of exercise-induced stress and the gut’s role in it all.


We all know that exercise is essential to living a healthy life and believe it or not, stress also is an essential part of life. However, when thinking about stress, we often associate it as a bad thing, but there is such thing as good stress. It's important to recognize that exercise is technically a stressor being imposed on the body, which is a perfect example of how stress can be a good thing. However, what happens when exercise is taken to the extreme? Well, that good stress it once was, now turns into bad stress.


So let’s take a deeper look into stress and what it does for the body. Stress can be caused by three different types of stimuli: physical, physiological, and psychological. During times of stress, the body perceives stimuli as unpleasant or threatening, which causes the body to attempt to regain homeostasis


Exercise causes a number of changes within the body in order to regain this homeostatic state, such as physiological, biochemical, and cognitive-behavioral. But because exercise-induced stress is multi-facetted, the physical and psychological effects of it are difficult to identify and differentiate, therefore this issue is commonly overlooked. 



But let's get to the important part...what are the signs of exercise-induced stress? 


Some signs that are commonly seen and accepted are as follows:

  • Clinical and hormonal indicators

  • Fatigue

  • Poor performance 

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Appetite changes

  • Weight loss/gain

  • Mood swings

  • Anxiousness

  • Loss of motivation

  • Poor cognitive function (inability to focus)

  • Depression

  • Systemic inflammation

  • Suppressed immune system

Now, you might be thinking, “okay, but I thought exercise was a good thing.. but now you’re telling me it’s not?”


No, please don't get me wrong here. Exercise is an amazing thing and is vital to living a healthy life. But just as with anything else, too much is still too much. 



I have seen this topic become more and more apparent in athletes, avid exercises, the average individual, and I even noticed it in myself at one point in time. Before even increasing my knowledge on the gut's role in all of this, I was always hyperaware of the number of individuals who suffer from this type of extreme stress. The vicious cycle of overtraining and over-exertion > resulting in chronic fatigue > followed by decreased performance. This cycle causes many people to continue to exercise, often increasing their load, in an attempt to work the fatigue away,  but they ultimately end up making matters worse.


On top of the decreased physicality’s, the athlete’s mood is highly affected as well. It is believed by many scientists that one of the major indicators of stress, is in fact the athletes psychological state, as changes in mood is actually one of the most common symptoms. 


This is ultimately due to the relationship between the gut and the brain, via the GBA.. This system has revealed a communication pathway between the gut and the brain that, although complex, its purpose is to ensure the maintenance of homeostasis in the gut. When this relationship is on the rocks, is has shown to have multiple effects on motivation, depression, anxiety, and other cognitive functions. Additionally, gut functions as well as emotional and cognitive centers of the brain are monitored by the GBA, such as intestinal permeability, immune activation, enteric reflex, and enters-endocrine signaling. 


But for simplicity sake, below is a nice little infographic showing a simple explanation of the relationship between the gut and the brain:


The GBA consists of multiple networks within the body, including… 

  • Both the brain and the spinal cord

  • The central nervous system (CNS)

  • The autonomic nervous system (ANS)

  • The enteric nervous system (ENS)

  • The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. 

That’s a lot of systems! The GBA is quite popular.


To even further demonstrate the relationship between the gut and the brain, the Central Fatigue Hypothesis was developed and is a biological mechanism that is used to explain the cause of these mood disturbances in athletes. This hypothesis states that an increase of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that aids in mood, pain perception, sleep, etc.) secretion is associated with drowsiness and central fatigue, which can contribute to a decrease in an athletes performance. 


Furthermore, (this will probably blow your mind like it did mine when I first learned about this), a wopping

production is found in the enterochromaffin cells (EC) of the intestines… aka the gut. This only further confirms the relationship and connection between the brain and the gut. 


But I digress..


So how does the relationship between the gut and the brain get back on good terms? Although I am not going to go into full detail (that’s for another day), I will say that the answer is not necessarily simple, as it requires multiple interventions and lifestyle changes. However, the good news is that it can be mended and prevented.


The major thing to take away from this post, is to understand that exercise-induced stress has the potential to modify gut microbiota, which may result in major gastrointestinal disturbances, as well as anxiety, depression, and decreases in physical performance. The importance of modifying the stress put on the body is crucial to keeping the GBA working properly. 


If you are having any of the symptoms listed above, it may serve you well to dig beyond the surface. Maybe the 6-7 days per week training program (that you probably find difficult to manage anyway), is what's actually causing your IBS-like symptoms. Maybe ignoring the fatigue and pushing past it, isn't the best course of action. And maybe, just maybe... the increased anxiousness you feel in the pit of your gut, has everything to do... with your gut. 


If you have a gut feeling about it, if any of this resonates with you.. I suggest you go with it. 


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About the Author 

Hi, I'm Karissa. Thank you for stopping by my blog! I am a certified Integrative Health Coach, certified Personal Trainer, and have my Bachelors Degree in Nutrition Science. I am currently studying to obtain my Masters in Nutrition Science as well as to become a Registered Dietitian. I focus specifically on functional medicine practices and holistic approaches to guide individuals towards optimal health, while still reaching their fitness goals.