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Dips in Performance: Could Your Athlete Suffer from Leaky Gut?

leaky gut

Could one of your athletes suffer from a gut permeability issue? What exactly does this mean and how can it occur? Athletes (translate: all) who participate in multiple bouts of intense exercise (both endurance and strength/power exercise sessions) can be susceptible to changing the quality/spacing of the tight junctions in the intestines and altering the gut microbiome  (called dysbiosis) (Vanuytsel et al, 2014). These junctions (along with gut flora) are responsible for regulating the size of the molecules escaping our digestive system and entering the blood stream. Called leaky gut syndrome, it’s when larger-than-normal molecules are permitted to be released from the gut, and problems can manifest in any number of performance-inhibiting ways. Therefore, an athlete’s regular training regimen, and especially overtraining, can likely be bad for the gut, and in turn, bad for the athlete’s body if left unmanaged. Add the compounding factor of academic or psychological stress associated with student athletes, and this, too, can change the balance in gut flora and permeability, putting athletes at risk for performance limiting problems and may increase vulnerability to injury because of potential inflammation.

Athletes who regularly take NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for pain can also change the level of gut permeability, as can those taking proton pump inhibitors (antacids and the like) for conditions like indigestion, acid reflux, heartburn and others (Lamprecht & Frauwallner, 2012; Van Wijck et al., 2012). These over-the-counter meds are given out with extreme regularity to athletes to “manage” pain and GI issues, yet regular ingestion of these substances can have a negative impact on gut, training, and competition performance.

What are some of the signs? Irritable bowel syndrome (i.e., bouts of either diarrhea or constipation), gassiness, stomach upset, fatigue, dehydration, muscle weakness, strength deficits or plateaus, inability to gain weight or muscle size, lack of focus, and inhibited performance measures, to name a few. The good news is that the gut replaces its cellular lining in as little as every 2-3 days, so if the reason for the gut stress is removed, the gut has the ability to heal itself rather quickly (Kresser, 2016). Depending on the season, there’s a variety of ways to “eliminate” the stressors, which will improve gut function and enhance the ready absorption of needed micronutrients that are used for everything from injury repair to mitochondrial functionality.

First, if you suspect your athlete is overtraining, then adequate rest/recovery can go a long way in helping the gut restore itself. If the athlete is taking OTC meds like NSAIDS and/or antacids, then put a stop to it, and consult your credentialed sports nutrition professional about adding in probiotics instead. Another favorite of this particular author for pain relief is the use of isometric exercise, which has been shown in many researched trials to have analgesic properties (Huber et al, 2011), even in-season (Rio et al., 2016). If you’re post- or off-season, and you suspect that a food or group of foods is causing the problem due to intolerance or sensitivity, then trying a simple elimination diet can help hone in on the problem foods or food groups (wheat, dairy, night shade vegetables, and more are a few common ones). Lastly, if you feel you’ve exhausted your possibilities, there are a few tests for “leaky gut” that can be administered to rule it in or out (Kresser, 2016). A link to the podcast concerning leaky gut and testing for it is available in the reference section.

In summary, common issues like overtraining, stress, NSAID use, and antacid use can result in changing the size of the tight junctions in the intestines and alter gut flora, allowing for molecules not normally found in the bloodstream to enter, perhaps evoking an immune response or changing how many nutrients are absorbed and assimilated for use by your athlete’s body (Kresser, 2016; Lamprect & Frauwallner, 2012). However, the gut restores its cellular layer rather quickly as long as the stressor is removed, so leaky gut is certainly not an athlete’s career ender, but it can be limiting otherwise optimal performance. Proper rest/recovery from training, stress management, and regulation of these common OTC meds, not to mention a healthy, diverse and appropriate nutrition plan, can go a long way in protecting your team’s performance!



Huber, J., Lisinksi, P., Samborski, W. & Wytrazek, M. (2011). The effect of early isometric exercises on clinical and neurophysiological parameters in patients with sciatica: An interventional randomized single-blinded study. Isokinetics and Exercise Science 19, 207–214 207 DOI 10.3233/IES-2011-0418 IOS Press

Kresser, C. [podcast]. (2016, September 1). How to tell if you have a leaky gut. Retrieved from https://chriskresser.com/how-to-tell-if-you-have-a-leaky-gut/

Lamprecht, M, & Frauwallner, A. (2012) Exercise, intestinal barrier dysfunction and probiotic supplementation. Acute Topics in Sports Nutrition, 59, 47-56. Doi: 10.1159/000342169 

Rio, E., Van Ark, M., Docking, S., Mosely, M., … Cook, J. (2016). Isometric contractions are more analgesic than isotonic contractions for patellar tendon pain: An in-season randomized clinical trial. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 2-7.

Vanuytsel, T., Van Wanroov, S., Vanormelingen, C., Verschueren, S., … Verbeke, K. (2014) Original article: Psychological stress and corticotropin-releasing hormone increase intestinal permeability in humans by a mast cell-dependent mechanism. Gut,;63(8) 1293-1299 doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2013-305690

Van Wijck, K., Lenaertis, K., Van Bunen, A. A., Boonen, B., … Buurman, W. A. (2012). Aggravation of exercise-induced intestinal injury by ibuprofen in athletes. Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, 2257-2262.

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