Anyone who strives to get strong, muscular, and lean knows that they need to watch what they eat. So you obsessively count your macros, spend hundreds of dollars a month on supplements, and you couple this with hard training sessions in the gym.
You look great, you’re getting stronger, and you’re building muscle... but you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot.
That’s because you’re probably not taking care of your digestion.
It boggles my mind how fitness minded individuals will obsess over every aspect of their diets, but will let themselves walk around with severe digestive problems.
Walk into any gathering of bodybuilders, powerlifters, and fitness models and your nose is likely to be assaulted by a putrid gaseous smell coming from those chiseled protein fueled bodies. I walked into the Olympia Expo in Las Vegas a few years ago toward the end of the day, and I was amazed that the attendees managed to fill up the entire convention center with such a smell.
It may be funny, but it’s really no laughing matter when you consider how poor digestion can kill your gains and your health in the long run.
How Do You Know if You Have Bad Digestion?
Of course one of the worse things about having poor digestion is how it makes you feel. Bloated, gassy, and sluggish are common terms we hear from bodybuilders having trouble digesting their meals, but that’s normally only half the story. Achy joints, poor workout recovery, insomnia, itchy dry skin, and chronic headaches are also signs of bad digestion.
Having some or all of these symptoms could mean that something is very wrong. The problem is that most of us in the strength game ignore these things as part of enduring “the lifestyle.” It’s not just a matter of bad gas and heartburn. Bad digestion can also lead to a number of serious issues that can disrupt your progress and your health.
Your digestive system isn’t just a tube that runs from your mouth to your butt. It’s also a central hub for many of your body’s vital processes. Much of your immune system is located in your digestive tract, and it’s protected in some places by a lining that is only a single cell thick.
If this lining is damaged it can become permeable, and food particles can cross that barrier into your bloodstream. When this happens, your immune system releases protein antibodies called inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines spread inflammation throughout your body. This can lead to a number of far more serious consequences.
Inflammation is a known cause of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and neurological disorders that include alzheimer’s and dementia. It is also known to increase the severity of autoimmune diseases like crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis1.
Increased Risk of Injury and Slow Healing
Chronic inflammation can lead to brittle ligaments and tendons, vastly increasing the possibility of injury. For anyone looking to hoist heavy weights or train with any degree of intensity, this is bad enough, but inflammation can also inhibit recovery and weaken muscles and tendons over time.
This will reduce muscle mass and can cause you to steadily get weaker as long as it goes unchecked.
Low Testosterone and Hormone Imbalance
Probably most disturbing for the male readers of Muscle & Strength is that chronic inflammation can also rob you of your vitality by turning off your testosterone at the source2.
Leydig cells, the cells that produce testosterone in your testicles, are extremely sensitive. High levels of chronic inflammation can actually kill them off. As you well know, low testosterone means loss of muscle, strength, and libido along with extreme fatigue and depression.
How to Fix It
Hopefully I got your attention by explaining what inflammation could do to you. Now, let’s help you fix it.
Here are five things you need to be doing to protect and heal your gut:
1. Make Your Food Digestible
Regardless of what type of diet you’re on, whether it’s a typical bodybuilding diet, paleo, vegan, or keto, two factors trump everything else in nutrition: nutrient density and digestibility.
Digestibility describes your ability to extract nutrients from the food you eat. Any food that is not digestible can cause damage to your digestive system. This means that you need to take certain precautions when preparing certain types of foods:
Vegetables can be extremely nutrient dense but they’re also notoriously hard to digest for many people. This is largely because most people do not prepare their vegetables properly. To make them digestible you’re gonna need to break down and soften that tough exterior wall. This is especially true with leafy greens and broccoli.
To start the process, you’ll want to cut, slice, or dice them and then leave them to sit for around ten minutes. Plants have a defense mechanism that allows them to heal after they’ve been damaged. When they get damaged, they release enzymes that break down their cells to release polyphenols. These polyphenols help to heal the remaining plant tissue.
When you leave sliced vegetables out after cutting them, those enzymes go to work on breaking down those cells. This makes them more digestible. The added bonus here is that the plants have even more bioavailable polyphenols after you cut them up.
In addition to this, steaming or sautéing your vegetables can also help to soften that exterior wall.
Nuts and Grains
Nuts are some of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, but most of them are completely indigestible. Large nuts should be soaked for at least 24 hours, then dried and stored in a freezer to avoid mold buildup.
Grains are also very difficult to digest, but they also contain phytic acid. This nutrient stealer binds to minerals and keeps them from being absorbed. Soaking and sprouting grains helps to reduce the phytic acid content and increases their digestibility.
2. Chew Your Food
Remember that digestion actually starts in the mouth. Your saliva contains enzymes that help to begin to break down proteins, fats, and sugars3. The more you chew, the more those enzymes do their work.
Swallowing before they’ve done so can lead to large food particles entering your digestive tract where they can cause damage.
3. Feed Your Friendly Gut Bacteria
Your intestinal tract is host to an ecosystem of billions of bacteria. Some of these bacteria are helpful allies in keeping you healthy, and others are like a really bad roommate that ruins the place.
Friendly bacteria feed off of insoluble fiber, and providing them with this food source can allow them to take up more real estate and fight off unfriendly bacteria. When the friendly bacteria feed, they also release butyrate, a fatty acid that helps to reduce gut inflammation and heal the gut lining4.
One great source of insoluble fiber is celery. Having a stalk or two throughout your day can really help your friendly bacteria thrive. Another great source of insoluble fiber is called resistant starch. This helpful starch is abundant in bananas, or in rice or potatoes that have been cooked and then cooled off.
4. Populate Your Gut with Friendly Bacteria
In addition to feeding your friendly bacteria, you can also add to their numbers by consuming fermented foods5.
Foods like raw sauerkraut, kimchi, and fermented drinks like kombucha and kefir can provide you with a good steady source of friendly bacteria if you consume them daily.
5. Heal Your Gut
Make sure you’re getting gut healing nutrients into your diet. Foods rich in collagen are extremely helpful in healing the intestinal tract and reducing gut inflammation6,7.
One of the best sources of collagen you can get is bone broth. It’s also a good source of glutamine, which is also helpful in healing gut inflammation8. Sip it like a cup of coffee or tea a couple of times a day.
Don’t Neglect Your Digestion
You’ve worked hard to build muscle and to get strong, but remember that in addition to getting the right macros and calories into your body, you need to make sure that those nutrients are being put to proper use.
If you aren’t optimizing your digestion you could end up watching that body you worked so hard on fall apart for reasons you could have avoided.
- Leaky Gut as a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Qinghui Mu-Jay Kirby-Christopher Reilly-Xin Luo - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5440529/
- Immune-endocrine Interactions and Leydig Cell Function: the Role Of Cytokines.T Diemer-D Hales-W Weidner - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12558529
- Chewing Bread: Impact on Alpha-amylase Secretion and Oral Digestion. M Joubert-C Septier-H Brignot-C Salles-M Panouillé-G Feron-C Tournier - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27966720
- Dietary Fiber and Prebiotics and Intestinal Microbiota Hannah Holscher - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5390821/
- Health Benefits of Fermented Foods: Microbiota and Beyond. Marco et al. https://isappscience.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Marco-health-benefit...
- Gelatin tannate ameliorates acute colitis in mice by reinforcing mucus layer and modulating gut microbiota composition: Emerging role for ‘gut barrier protectors’ in IBD? Scaldaferri et al. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4040816/
- Gelatin tannate reduces the proinflammatory effects of lipopolysaccharide in human intestinal epithelial cells. Guisepinna et al. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3358810/
- Glutamine and Intestinal Barrier Function Bin Wang-Guoyao Wu-Zhigang Zhou-Zhaolai Dai-Yuli Sun-Yun Ji-Wei Li-Weiwei Wang-Chuang Liu-Feng Han-Zhenlong Wu - https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00726-014-1773-4