Healing the gut with movement and exercise to STOP chronic disease
Due to their positive effects on clearing inflammation in the body and improving the health and diversity of the gut microbiome, movement and exercise are recommended as some of the most effective tools for healing and reducing the risk of chronic disease.
But in this case, NOT all forms of exercise are beneficial to everyone!
SOME forms of fitness will actually:
INCREASE the body’s stress response
cause leaky gut syndrome and consequently, associated health conditions, you will learn them soon.
So let's talk about:
Inflammation, what it is, why it's problematic and what causes it.
How the nervous system AND gut play a role in creating and clearing inflammation.
How movement and exercise INCREASES the health and diversity of the gut microbiome, BUT also has the potential to harm it and why that matters for chronic disease.
What forms of fitness are BEST for beginners and those struggling with chronic disease and how probiotics can also help!
I feel very strongly about this topic and feel that it's important for you to know that all the claims I'm about to make are supported by the peer-reviewed literature.
But if learning about that is NOT your jam, you can skip to the summary at the bottom.
It won't hurt my feelings.
Here we go!
What is inflammation?
Acute inflammation is a natural, healthy immune response that helps your body heal.
Chronic inflammation is associated with many modern diseases, including obesity, diabetes, Alzheimers, coronary heart disease, coronary artery disease, cancer, chronic fatigue, inflammatory bowel disease, fatigue and a whole host of other conditions! (Harvard Health, 2006)
Chronic inflammation occurs when the body creates an inflammatory response to a non-specific, perceived threat.
“The white blood cells swarm, but have nothing to do and nowhere to go, and they sometimes eventually start attacking internal organs or other necessary tissues and cells”. -Dr. Scott Walker, Gunnison Valley Hospital in Utah.
Chronic inflammation negatively impacts the central nervous system whose job it is to help clear inflammation. When left unchecked, the sympathetic nervous system has to work overtime, all of the time, which leads to high blood pressure, insulin resistance, muscle and body wasting, and cardiovascular mortality (Pongratz and Straub, 2014)
When chronic inflammation is suspected, doctors can test for C-reactive protein levels (CRP), which increase when the body is inflamed.
Gut distress and chronic inflammation are related for a number of reasons, largely the gut is home to the enteric nervous system AND 80% of the immune system.
What are common signs of chronic inflammation:
1. Lots of belly fat-I’m not talking gentle relaxed, soft bellies here-which I love (folks are too obsessed with six-pack abs), but rather growing fat storage around the middle.
2. High blood glucose levels-blood sugar imbalances, loss of insulin sensitivity.
3. Digestive problems like gas, diarrhea, bloating, or constipation.
4. Chronic fatigue or exhaustion.
5. Skin problems like eczema or psoriasis, or your skin is red and blotchy.
7. Puffy face, or puffy bags under your eyes.
8. Gum disease-see Dr. Lin’s The Dental Diet-FASCINATING!
9. Depression, anxiety, brain fog
10. Erectile dysfunction in men, pelvic floor dysfunction in both men and women.
The gut and its relationship to inflammation
One extremely common source of inflammation that is being linked to more and more chronic health conditions (diabetes, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, PCOS, autism and more!) is gut dysbiosis (imbalance of good and bad microbes) of the gut leading to erosion of the mucosal lining of your gut, aka-leaky gut syndrome.
The intestinal epithelium is the largest mucosal surface in the body.
It is the barrier between the rest of the body and the food, fluid and air that comes in from the external environment.
This barrier’s job is to be selective about what it allows to pass through into the blood stream and internal environment of the the body.
When the epithelium is compromised by toxins in your environment AND food, stress, gut irritants, antibiotics that kill good bacteria, other pharmaceutical drugs, pathogens, etc., it erodes (leaky gut syndrome) which allows toxins, food particles, etc. get into the blood.
These toxins and food particles (that often look much like our own proteins) can be attacked by the immune system causing a chronic immune and inflammatory response in the body, like food sensitivities and eventually the many chronic diseases filed under autoimmunity.
Our gut microbes are also in strong communication with our nervous system.
In 2017, Zhu et. al., reported that ,
“Disorders in the composition and quantity of gut microorganisms can affect both the enteric nervous system and the central nervous system (CNS), thereby indicating the existence of a microbiota-gut-brain axis. Due to the intricate interactions between the gut and the brain, gut symbiotic microorganisms are closely associated with various CNS diseases.”
The microbes living in our gut talk directly with our nerve cells to control the brain and it's response to NUMEROUS stimuli.
Since the gut, immune system and nervous system are intimately involved in mediating chronic inflammation and also profoundly effected by fitness and exercise, let's talk about the how to use fitness training to HEAL and nourish the body WITHOUT pissing off the immune and nervous system, shall we?
Movement and Exercise Piece
Research shows that the health of the gut AND reduction of the inflammatory response can be improved with certain types of routine movement and exercise.
American adults who engaged in frequent physical activity are better able to clear inflammation than adults who live a more sedentary life.
For example, a 2010 study with eighty-two patients found that in type 2 diabetics, (key term coming up) long-term high intensity resistance and aerobic training reduced inflammatory markers over the course of a year (independent of changes in body weight, meaning activity was the key factor). (Balducci et al, 2010)
Numerous studies have shown that sedentary individuals have a different gut microbiome than active ones (Allen et. al., 2017, Cronin 2017) and that routine exercise modifies the composition of the gut microbiome creating significant differences in the community of microbes of active individuals vs. sedentary.
In fact, Bressa et al. 2017 found a significant correlation between the presence of specific species of microbes, fat-loss, body composition, and physical activity!
This means that there are certain microbes that live in the guts of leaner more active individuals AND that by growing our daily movement practices we can affect what bugs are there AND increase the diversity of the microbial community that lives in us and helps us maintain our health!
But what kind of exercise is best for the gut?
This seems to vary somewhat with the individual.
For example, a highly trained athlete or individual with lots of exercise experience is better able to recover from the stress of high intensity and strenuous exercise. They can routinely attend Crossfit, HIIT, participate in Triathlons and providing they consume enough nutrition and take time to recover, they will not experience negative health effects.
A beginner, on the other hand, someone that has historically been sedentary, individuals with over-taxed immune or adrenal system and leaky gut, or is sporadically consistent with exercise, will not respond well to fitness that is too intense and does not allow for adequate recovery time. (Barton, 2017)
These folks are better off turning to more from moderately challenging exercise like weight training, movement and mobility training and routine walking.
If they desire to be able to engage in high intensity fitness classes like HIIT, Crossfit or Metabolic Conditioning, then they should TRAIN for that slowly and give themselves adequate time to recover between intervals AND workouts.
You see, strenuous (relative to the individual) exercise diverts blood flow away from the gut and can increase leakiness of the gut lining, immune system activation, stress the kidneys and other forms of stress on the body. (Clark and Mach, 2016).
Unfortunately, the popularity of high intensity fitness classes for beginners or individuals that have been sporadic in their exercise practice or are already struggling with chronic inflammations can be counterproductive and harmful.
While initially folks will perhaps see an initial drop in pounds, this is often followed by a strong inflammatory stress response that leaves them susceptible to injury, fatigue, and experiencing STRONG cravings, gut distress and a frustrating lack of physique change.
If you struggle with symptoms of leaky gut syndrome (food intolerances, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.) then you are going to want to be vigilant about your workout intensity AND recovery time. Prioritize STRENGTH training to increase your fitness and gradually work to improve your conditioning and cut down on your recovery time.
To see an example of a training program appropriate for someone that wishes to build strength, increase their fitness, and improve their metabolic flexibility WITHOUT stressing their body, get my gut-nourishing Strong Guts and Butts Movement Protocol here!
Using probiotics to aid recovery and fitness
While exercise has been shown to improve the health of the gut, probiotic supplements and probiotic foods are ALSO important for recovery and health!
Intestinal microbes reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. Individuals with a more diversely populated gut are better able to recover from exercise and manage stress.
Research is now being conducted on how the use of probiotics (good bugs for your gut) and prebiotics (food for your good bugs) can be used therapeutically to aid athlete’s nervous systems, mitigate their stress response, decrease inflammation and in some cases even avoid harmful conditions like exertion heat stroke! (Armstrong, 2018)
“Preliminary experimental data obtained from studies using probiotics and prebiotics studies show some interesting results, indicating that the microbiota acts like an endocrine organ (e.g. secreting serotonin, dopamine or other neurotransmitters) and may control the HPA axis [THIS IS YOUR CENTRAL NERVOUS RESPONSE] in athletes.” (Clark and Mach, 2016).
“In athletes, the administration of different Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains might help maintain a state of general health, enhance immune function, improve gut mucosal permeability, reduce oxidative stress and obtain energy from plant-carbohydrate sources.” (Mach and Botella, 2016).
Movement and improved fitness are the keys to reducing your risk of developing or recovering from many chronic diseases because of its positive effect on the immune and nervous systems stress and inflammatory response.
The key is to choose the BEST forms of movement and training for your current state of health and fitness ability.
The lowest risk forms of training that will increase health and fitness are leisure walks, mobility and natural movement coupled with routine strength training.
Supplementation with probiotics and prebiotics is being shown in the literature to aid recovery and reduce inflammation because of it’s positive effects on the gut, nervous and immune systems.
In short, if you are “out-of shape” or battling chronic disease, start walking, lift some heavy objects, move all of your body in all the plains, eat probiotic foods and give yourself adequate time to recover between training sessions.
Grab my MOVEMENT protocol, complete with daily natural movement training AND strength training!
Also, I read a ton of science to write this article. References below.
Sarah Smith is a personal trainer, level two Russian Kettlebell Instructor, postnatal fitness specialist and pelvic floor and gut health advocate working online and in Raleigh, North Carolina.
She specializes in helping women online and in-person feel strong, confident and capable in their bodies!
Sarah is a mom to three boys and one English Bulldog. She loves soil, coffee and not folding laundry.
Check her out on social media here or get on her email list!! for more content!
Allen, J.M. , L. J. Mailing, J. Cohrs, C. Salmonson, J. D. Fryer, V. Nehra, V. L. Hale, P. Kashyap, B. A. White & J. A. Woods (2017) Exercise training-induced modification of the gut microbiota persists after microbiota colonization and attenuates the response to chemically-induced colitis in gnotobiotic mice, Gut Microbes, 9:2, 115-130, DOI: 10.1080/19490976.2017.1372077
Armstrong LE, Lee EC, Armstrong EM. Interactions of Gut Microbiota, Endotoxemia, Immune Function, and Diet in Exertional Heatstroke. Journal of Sports Medicine. 2018;2018:5724575. doi:10.1155/2018/5724575.
Barton, Wiley & Penney, Nicholas & Cronin, Owen & Garcia-Perez, Isabel & G Molloy, Michael & Holmes, Elaine & Shanahan, Fergus & Cotter, Paul & O'Sullivan, Orla. (2017). The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level. Gut. 67. 10.1136/gutjnl-2016-313627.
Barton, W. et al. The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level. Gut, doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2016-313627 (2017).
Bilski J, Brzozowski B, Mazur-Bialy A, Sliwowski Z, Brzozowski T. The Role of Physical Exercise in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. BioMed Research International. 2014;2014:429031. doi:10.1155/2014/429031.
Bressa C, Bailén-Andrino M, Pérez-Santiago J, González-Soltero R, Pérez M, et al. (2017) Differences in gut microbiota profile between women with active lifestyle and sedentary women. PLOS ONE 12(2): e0171352. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171352
Clark A, Mach N. Exercise-induced stress behavior, gut-microbiota-brain axis and diet: a systematic review for athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2016;13:43. doi:10.1186/s12970-016-0155-6.
Cronin O, O'Sullivan O, Barton W, et al Gut microbiota: implications for sports and exercise medicine Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 11 January 2017. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-097225
Harvard Health Letter, Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease. April, 2006. (Link)
Núria Mach, Dolors Fuster-Botella, Endurance exercise and gut microbiota: A review, Journal of Sport and Health Science,Volume 6, Issue 2,2017,
Zhu X, Han Y, Du J, Liu R, Jin K, Yi W. Microbiota-gut-brain axis and the central nervous system. Oncotarget. 2017;8(32):53829-53838. doi:10.18632/oncotarget.17754.