Gut health and mental health—and by extension, whole-body health and physical performance—are connected in more ways than one. (Read more about the fascinating gut-brain axis here). To improve one, you have to look at the whole system. But you can start small, and let little steps build on each other. And for runners, we already have a head-start with our exercise routine.
To begin, consider focusing on a more “traditional” diet, like Mediterranean, versus a modern diet. Think of it as eating more food from the fridge and less food from the pantry. “You’re only made up of what you eat,” says Stephanie Small, a Boulder, Colorado–based mental health nutritionist. “So the way your digestive system is working is crucial for using your fuel correctly.”
7 Steps to Gut and Brain Health
For runners, it’s critical to evaluate what fuel you put in the “gas tank” so that you’re thinking, focusing, and physically performing at a high level. If you approach your health holistically (including the oft-neglected gut) and implement these gut-health best practices, you can reap the running rewards.
1. Consume enough protein, often.
A major focus of Small’s mental health nutrition program is stabilizing blood sugar. “When your blood sugar drops, people can experience symptoms like poor focus, low energy, depression, and they also experience cravings for something that will spike their blood sugar,” Small says. “When the blood sugar drops, the adrenaline fires, and the adrenaline can cause anxiety, irritability, even rage for some people.” To regulate blood sugar and your moods, she recommends eating three meals per day that each have healthy fats and at least 15 grams of protein—and never go more than four or five hours without protein.
2. Take probiotics, in moderation.
Dr. Ellen Stein, associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, looks to other cultures when giving guidance on probiotics—cultures that have fermented or cultured food, like kefir, cheese, kimchi, and yogurt. “If you go around the world, there’s not a single culture that doesn’t have some kind of fermented food,” she says. “So it’s meant to be a part of the diet.” Researchers don’t yet know a specific “recipe” of types or quantities of probiotics, but she recommends finding a fermented or cultured food that you enjoy having a few times per week.
3. Incorporate anti-inflammatory foods.
Take the average American diet and add running on top it, and you have a recipe for a whole lot of inflammation. Small recommends combating it naturally by consuming omega-3, a highly anti-inflammatory fat found in fish, flax seeds, and walnuts, or curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric.
4. Hydrate often.
We cannot emphasize this enough: Water is critical for a well-functioning gut. And dehydration could do damage to your gut. If you go for an intense run while under-hydrated, you could experience the “runs,” which is a result of the gut being cut off from blood supply, termed gut ischemia. It also tends to happen when you’re pushing beyond your fitness ability. If you feel the urge mid-run, she recommends walking for a few minutes to allow the blood supply to return to the gut and prevent further injury to your intestines.
5. Practice self-care.
That looks like getting a solid eight hours of sleep per night and finding methods to deal with your stress, like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or therapy.
6. Eat more fiber.
“We know that when you deprive the gut of fiber, you can change the microbiome,” Stein says. As an athlete, you need carbs for fuel, so focus on fueling with nutrient- and fiber-rich carbs like whole grains, quinoa, and oats.
Preaching to the choir here, but if you’re looking to keep your gut functioning well, keep exercising. The caveat: Listen to your body and rest or slow down when it tells you to. That slower time might coincide with your menstrual cycle. You might be sluggish and hungrier around your period but less hungry and more energetic at a different time of the month. Notice those ebbs and flows (no pun intended) in your body, and work with them—not against them.
If you try these methods and are still struggling, either mentally or gastrointestinally, call in a professional. “If you can find a practitioner who knows these natural approaches for working with the gut and optimizing mental health, it shouldn’t be hard and mysterious,” Small says. You’ll have to get comfortable talking about something you never talk about (poop!), but healing your gut can only help your energy and mood.
“It’s the fuel for the rest of the body that passes through your gut,” Small says. “Don’t ignore that piece. Don’t suppress that piece, because how your gut works dictates how the rest of your body works.”