Too Much Exercise Is Bad For Your Gut: Here's What To Do

Photo: Danny Owens

"I’m doing everything right, but I often feel tired and lousy," heavy lifters, runners, and other athletes sometimes tell me, especially as they approach middle age. Feeling terrible baffles them. After all, these health-focused men and women usually sleep well, manage stress, avoid sugar and processed foods, and supplement smartly.

Regardless of their herculean efforts, they’re often plagued with weight-loss resistance, fatigue, and other symptoms like frequent headaches. Worst of all, many lack the energy to sustain workouts. "I used to go to the gym five or six times a week, but now there are days when I can barely muster up the strength," one fitness buff told me recently.

Many athletes feel tempted to chalk up these shortcomings to getting older, but I’ve discovered another problem: Many of these 40- and 50-somethings are still hitting the gym or track hard like they did in their 20s, unaware that they need to modify their workouts with middle age. Overexercise sounds innocuous in a world where so many of us are plagued by inactivity; we applaud those who hit the gym for intense hourlong workouts or do 12-mile runs, but too much exercise can actually backfire. Among those repercussions, studies confirm what I see in my practice: Too much exercise can adversely affect your gut, and athletes sometimes unknowingly struggle with gut issues. Because they might feel otherwise healthy and "do everything correctly," they don’t realize how overexercise can stress the body and deliver a whammy to their digestion.

Your intestinal barrier, which is only one layer thick and extremely vulnerable to damage, keeps out food particles and other things that shouldn’t go through. But when that barrier becomes loose—when space forms between what we call your tight junctions—things not intended to get through the wall suddenly do. What results is intestinal permeability, more commonly called leaky gut, which creates an immune response and increases inflammation. Leaky gut also makes you more susceptible to autoimmune disorders and metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes. Other studies show leaky gut can create mood disorders like depression. That makes sense when you consider your gut manufacturers about 95 percent of your feel-good hormone serotonin.

Leaky gut culprits include food sensitivities, a high-sugar diet, antibiotics, and chronic stress. While many athletes manage these things well, they often overlook the fact that overexercise itself can become a stressor that wreaks havoc on your gut and overall health. Fixing your gut lowers inflammation, normalizes your immune response, and helps you sustain energy to work out regularly. In practice, I advocate for a gut-healing approach along with supporting nutrients and lifestyle factors that heal leaky gut and other gut issues. Among the strategies that help restore and optimize gut health are:

1. Lower inflammation.

Photo: Nadine Greeff

Heavy exercise increases chronic inflammation, and then gut issues like leaky gut make it worse. A low-sugar, anti-inflammatory diet with plenty of omega-3 rich foods like wild salmon as well as plant foods coupled with quality fish oil and other anti-inflammatory nutrients become an excellent gut-healing foundation. I also incorporate quercetin, curcumin, and other anti-inflammatory nutrients to support that process.

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2. Sleep better.

Optimal sleep supports detoxification, tissue repair, recovery, immune function, brain health, and so much more. Recovery and repair often get short shrift in the fitness world, but as you get older, they become crucial for peak performance. Everyone benefits from quality, uninterrupted sleep, but if you’re an athlete with gut issues, you’ll especially benefit from eight or more hours every single night.

3. Support good bugs.

Studies show your diet can substantially affect your gut microbiome, which houses an array of fungi, bacteria, and other critters. Those microbial cells outnumber your own cells an astonishing 10 to 1. While you’ll always have some bad bugs, you want the good ones to dominate. Your gut microbiome plays a critical role in regulating intestinal permeability. To feed the good guys, eat probiotic-rich foods like kimchi as well as high-fiber, prebiotic-rich sources like Jerusalem artichokes, onions, and asparagus.

4. Manage stress.

Chronic stress adversely affects your gut microbiome, creates adrenal burnout, and increases inflammation. You can’t eliminate stress, but you can reduce its impact by spending workout time more intelligently rather than going all-out for an hour or longer. Restorative exercise like gentle yoga can reduce stress. So can meditation, deep breathing, and finding joy and humor in everyday moments. Find something that works for you and do it regularly.

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5. Nix sugar and other food sensitivities.

Sugar and problematic foods like gluten and dairy can ramp up leaky gut, feed bad gut bugs, and create all sorts of other havoc. Insulin resistance, a condition marked by excessive sugar intake, adversely alters your microbiome diversity and harmony. As an athlete, you’re more aware of food reactions and how sugar, especially, can stall your game. If completely eliminating sugary foods isn’t on your agenda, make that piece of cake or other pleasure an occasional treat. Aim for healthy balance—not perfection.

Want a fitness routine that eliminates stress? Here's how to make your workout way more fun.

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