No Guts, No Glory. Enhancing Athletic Performance via the Microbiome.

Posted by Dr. Rick Cohen on Sep 11th 2019

You may have heard the term, microbiome. What was something of passing interest, the microbiome is now at the forefront of health, performance and longevity.

No Guts, No Glory. Enhancing Athletic Performance via the Microbiome.

You may have heard the term, microbiome. What was something of passing interest, the microbiome is now at the forefront of health, performance and longevity.


The microbiome is the collective term we use for the trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living on and throughout the multiple microbial ecosystems in the body. They influence inflammation, stress resilience, and neurological function. Recent studies of these microbes — have led to insights into both a wide range of diseases ranging from obesity to arthritis to our mood and energy.

And when it comes to athletes, research has found that athletes have a very different composition of microbes within their guts compared to non-athletes and the microbiome varies based on your athletic endeavor. In addition, the gut microbiome significantly influences how well you perform and recover as the microbes in our gut regulate energy and can even impact mental toughness.


While it is still not yet clear how these differences contribute to an athlete’s health and performance, these findings have researchers looking for ways to improve the microbiome for better performance and faster recovery.


Questions that are being asked these days include...

Could microbiome genomics help us predict the next superstar?

Could we harvest the microbes of professional athletes to pass on high performing microbial capabilities?

Will we one day be able to produce proven “performance probiotics?”

While no one can possibly predict the end result of these findings, the implications are thrilling with new findings coming to light on a regular basis.


Fox example, a few months ago, a study was published identifying a special type of gut bacteria found in elite athletes that may play a role in boosting their performance during rigorous exercise.


The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine found that after exercise, marathon runners and endurance athletes have higher levels of a bacteria called Veillonella in their digestive microbiomes that produces a molecule that helps increase exercise endurance.


The Harvard researchers sampled the gut microbiomes of athletes training for the Boston Marathon. After the marathon, the runners showed a spike in one type of bacteria.The researchers later did a second analysis of 87 ultra-marathoners and Olympic-trial rowers and found similarly high levels of Veillonella. In addition, when comparing the gut microbiomes of rowers and ultramarathoners. They found differences in composition, which suggests that certain sports might foster certain microbial ecosystems.


Digging deeper It appears that Veillonella thrived by feeding off lactic acid, a compound produced in the muscles during exercise. Lactate is produced in the muscles and travels through the bloodstream to the liver, where it is converted into glucose to fuel exercise.


The bacteria then turns the lactic acid into a compound called propionate (a common short-chain fatty acid), which may aid in boosting one’s athletic performance. Though a few groups of bacteria in the gut are able to eat lactate, Veillonella is one of the only groups that can convert lactate into short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids are typically a hallmark of healthy guts as they have a number of beneficial properties including fighting inflammation and serving as an energy source for cells. .


This connection between Veillonella, lactate, and exercise prompted the researchers to wonder whether giving Veillonella to mice might affect their endurance.


So they performed a series of further experiments to investigate.


First they isolated a sample of the species Veillonella atypica from one of the marathon runners and administered it to 16 mice. Then they gave Lactobacillus bulgaricus, another bacterium that does not eat lactate to another 16 mice. Then they had all the mice run on a treadmill until exhaustion.


Sure enough, the mice given Veillonella ran 13% longer than the mice given the microbe that could not eat lactate. But the researchers wondered how the lactate made its way into the gut, where the Veillonella bacteria were waiting to break it down.


To find out, they tagged lactate molecules with a radioactive marker and injected them into the tails of four mice. They found that a portion of the labeled lactate molecules moved from the bloodstream into the liver as expected, but a portion also traveled directly into the gut.


This finding prompted the researchers to wonder whether they could boost the endurance of mice introducing propionate directly into their colons via a standard enema.


And it did!


The mice given propionate directly ran just as long as the mice that were given Veillonella. The researchers saw this as an indication that the propionate produced by Veillonella, not the Veillonella itself, was allowing the mice to run for a longer time.


This discovery was a “lightbulb” moment for the researchers because lactate is a metabolite that accumulates in the blood after strenuous exercise. And, when your ability to utilize lactate gets outpaced by your ability to produce it, lactic acid starts to accumulate in the blood causing fatigue.


In short, the researchers feel that someday we may be able to take Veillonella or other bacteria just before we exercise so we can go harder, longer and faster.

While there’s much more research to be done (the concept hasn’t been tested on humans yet), the researchers have already launched a new company, FitBiomics, along with several of the study co-authors from Harvard. The team at the New York-based early-stage start-up (which is venture-funded and also has a slew of private investors) is already working on a prototype probiotic supplement containing Veillonella mined from elite athletes.



FitBiomics' goal goes beyond helping athletes increase stamina during  workouts and increase their ability to do meaningful exercise. They want to use what they learn about the microbiome to help decrease the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.


The take-home point:


While boosting certain isolated bacteria within the microbiome for performance is an intriguing and still yet to be proven concept, having a diet and lifestyle that promotes and maintains a diverse microbiome is now globally accepted as critical for both health and performance.


In my next two posts, I'll share with you 9 ways our gut microbiome impacts both our athletic performance and health as well as my experience with assessing and optimizing my own gut microbiome from data learned from an innovative company, Viome.


With a simple pea-sized stool assessment, Viome, identifies and analyzes the living microorganisms in your gut microbiome and then provides you with personalized nutrition recommendations that help optimize your unique gut microbiome.


It really is a must assessment for everyone!


More to come..