Microbiome and sport: Interplay between diet, exercise and gut heralds in personalised paradigm

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

‘Prescribed exercise’ is a distinct possibility in the future as consumers look to improve gut and overall health as part of the gradual shift towards a holistic personalised nutrition approach.

Physical activity, along with diet and the gut microbiome, form the pillars of a presentation that Dr Orla O’ Sullivan is to give at the upcoming NutraIngredients Sports Nutrition Congress later this year.

Dr Orla O’Sullivan, senior computational biologist, Teagasc Food Research Centre & APC Microbiome ©Orla O’Sullivan
Dr Orla O’Sullivan, senior computational biologist, Teagasc Food Research Centre & APC Microbiome. ©Orla O’Sullivan

“Everybody has their own unique microbiome and will respond differently to diet and exercise,”​ said Dr O’Sullivan, a senior computational biologist at Ireland’s Teagasc Food Research Centre and APC Microbiome. “Going forward I believe personalised health plans will grow in popularity.”

Taking place in Brussels, the inaugural congress is an opportunity for Dr O’Sullivan to present evidence that points to significant differences in the gut microbiome of elite athletes and the non-athletic population.

The findings are of particular relevance to the Sports Nutrition industry as accumulating evidence points to a much larger role of the microbiome in the relationship between exercise and health.

Dr O’Sullivan’s review will further examine this link and what it means for an industry trying to develop nutritional products to enhance athletic performance.

“Any product designed for athletes must be approved for use in competition and maintain overall gut health,”​ said Dr O’Sullivan.

Want to attend our Sports Nutrition Congress in September this year? 

Organised by NutraIngredients and hosted in partnership with the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), the SNC will offer a one stop shop for the latest must-have insights in the worlds of sports and active nutrition - including the use of ketones in sports.

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Top levels speakers already confirmed to join us in Brussels include:

  • Florina-Andreea Pantazi, European Commission
  • Daniel Davy, Leinster Rugby
  • Orla O’Sullivan, APC Microbiome Institute
  • Robert Walker, SCI-MX Nutrition
  • Professor Kieran Clarke, University of Oxford
  • João Gonçalo Cunha, KickUP Sports Innovation
  • Pia Ostermann, Euromonitor International
  • Katia Merten-Lentz, Keller and Heckman LLP
  • Adam Carey, ESSNA Chair
  • Alex Zurita, London Sport
  • Professor John Brewer, St Mary’s University
  • Tom Morgan, Lumina Intelligence
  • Luca Bucchini, Hylobates Consulting & ESSNA Vice-Chair

Click this link find out more about what’s on the agenda for the congress.

“This area of research is very new and it is too soon to say what strains will specifically benefit athletes.

“What we have seen is trends, for example we demonstrated that elite rugby players had increased numbers of Akkermansia which has been associated with a lean phenotype and a US study that saw an increase in Prevotella in endurance cyclists.  

“In general, any bacteria that’s beneficial to host health will be beneficial to athlete health.”

Prevotella and M. smithii

Dr O’ Sullivan refers to the work​ of Lauren Petersen, a scientist at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut that includes her work with professional and amateur cyclists.

Petersen and her team found that these athletes, when divided into three sub-groups of microbial diversity and prevalence, had a microbiome diversity that did not associate with performance level.

However, both professional and amateur cyclists who followed a rigorous training regimen — over 16 hours of exercise per week — had a high number of Prevotella​ in their gut microbiomes.

Additional findings revealed that professional cyclists had high levels of Methanobrevibacter smithii​ activity in comparison to amateur cyclists.

“These results provide a framework for common constituents of the gut community in individuals who follow an exercise-rich lifestyle,”​ the study said.

“These data also suggest how certain organisms such as M. smithii may beneficially influence the metabolic efficiency of the gut community in professional cyclists due to synergistic metabolic cross-feeding events.”

Specialised athletes and gut diversity

Dr O’Sullivan is under no illusions as to the task in hand commenting that her research is now looking into gut microbial communities in long-distance runners, powerlifters and sprinters.

“This is not something that has been reported yet and we have on-going studies that are looking at this,”​ she said.

“Athletes tend to have a more diverse healthier diet and many travel for training and competition exposing them to varied foods.

“Exercise, particularly endurance exercise, can alter gut transit time (e.g. runner’s diarrhoea) which can in turn alter the microbiome.

“Exercise is anti-inflammatory and can affect vagal tone, which may indirectly modify the gut microbiome. There is also the environment you train in, for example, swimmers are exposed to chlorine, which could potentially change the gut microbiome.”

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