Ariana Bissinger | 10.18.2017

Why is gut health important?

Gut health is critical for an athlete. Did you know that blood is shunted away from your gut during times of intense physical exertion? As a result, digestive processes take a back seat to your cardiac and respiratory functions that keep you going. The GI tract is crucial for keeping you hydrated and delivering essential nutrients to your body during physical exercise. Additionally, this gut ischemia leads to the abdominal discomfort, bloating, and diarrhea that athletes are all too familiar with.

Gut health also plays a key role in regulating oxidative stress and inflammation, which are crucial processes to athletes. The gut’s flora also makes up part of your immune system. So, a healthy gut means a healthy body.

Though it is not completely understood, research has connected the gut microbiome to the harvest, storage, and use of energy obtained from the diet. This means that if you are taking care of your gut, you are also maximizing your performance by enhancing your ability get fuel from the food you eat.

How functional medicine can help

Every individual needs a unique approach, and functional medicine helps to get to the root cause of what is going on inside the body and improve gut health. By using fecal testing to evaluate the gut microbiota, we can get a picture of any imbalances that might be in place and use diet, lifestyle changes, and supplementation to help.


As they say, you are what you eat. Nutrition plays a major role in overall gut health. Different diets work for different people. An elimination diet can help determine if you are having reactions to certain foods. Additionally, adding nitrate rich foods to your diet can boost nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide contributes to vessel dilation and thus increased blood flow which can help athletic performance from several standpoints, including decreasing the level of ischemia in the gut.

Do you need to change how you fuel?

Avoid “sports drinks” with higher than 3-4% carbohydrate as this negatively impacts osmolality. Use a carbohydrate source that has fructose AND sucrose such as maple syrup for easier digestibility. Practice, practice, practice! Just like you train your muscles, you also need to train your gut to work under the stressful conditions of race day. On your big training days, eat exactly what you plan to eat on race day to both see how you do with it and get your body used to digesting it.

Here is a recipe I use regularly to fuel myself with real, whole foods. Tart cherry juice has been studied as a natural anti-inflammatory food and has been implicated in relieving muscle pain and enhancing recovery.

Blackberry-Tart Cherry Chia “Energy Gel”

This was adapted from I Run On Nutrition.


  • ½ cup frozen blackberries
  • ½ cup tart cherry juice
  • 2 tbsp chia seeds
  • ¼ tsp sea salt
  • ¼ cup maple syrup


  1. Blend blackberries and tart cherry juice in a blender or food processor.
  2. Add chia seeds and salt and stir just until well combined.
  3. Store in refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.
  4. Add maple syrup and stir to combine.
  5. Using snack sized plastic bags or reusable food pouches, divide into 5 even portions and freeze.
  6. The night before consumption, place in the refrigerator to thaw, or keep it frozen if you will be taking it into the backcountry for a multi-day trip.

To consume:

  • If using a plastic bag, rip a small hole in the corner to consume gel.
  • For a re-sealable option, use reusable food pouches with an option to add a flip top if one-handed consumption is ideal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: This post was created in collaboration with Ari Herrick-Kunitz at Evolution Healthcare & Fitness in Portland, Oregon. Ari is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner who practices functional and sports medicine. To learn more about Ari’s practice visit her website. Call Evolution Healthcare & Fitness at 971.236.7610 to schedule a free 15 minute consultation.


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