Wednesday 23 August 2017

Guts and glory: the inside secrets of our rugby team's success

Conor Murray celebrates as Robbie Henshaw scores a try against New Zealand in Chicago last autumn. New research is showing that gut health plays a big role in athletic performance. Photo: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Conor Murray celebrates as Robbie Henshaw scores a try against New Zealand in Chicago last autumn. New research is showing that gut health plays a big role in athletic performance. Photo: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

It's not just muscle and skill that power Ireland's rugby team - the real secret to success may be in their guts.

We already know that 'friendly' bacteria in our human digestive tract bring many health benefits.

They help us to break down food and support our immune system. This good bacteria is known as gut microbiome and is a growing area of investigation by scientists who want to find out why it influences our well-being so much.

Now this gut microbiome in athletes, including elite rugby players, has been found to play an important role in helping to fuel their performance, according to scientists in University College Cork (UCC).

Work on 40 Irish rugby players by the team at the UCC APC Microbiome Institute and Teagasc found that being physically active may encourage beneficial germs to thrive in the gut.

In particular, the scientists found that an athlete's microbiome is primed for tissue repair and to harness energy from diet.

The latest research sheds more light on how physical fitness boosts the gut bacteria, which are so central to our overall state of health.

Dr Orla O'Sullivan, senior researcher, said the findings can benefit whole areas of exercise, fitness and nutrition, which support sports people and the wider population.

The research adds more to our knowledge about the importance of having a healthy, balanced microbiome.

When it works well it helps protect us from infection and manufactures vitamins, such as K and B12. It is believed to regulate blood sugar and metabolism. It can also influence our brain, appetite and mood.

But the microbiome can become unbalanced as a result of poor eating habits, lack of sleep and stress.

When it does not function well it has been linked to depression, high blood pressure and other health problems, including obesity.

The Irish researchers, along with Imperial College in London, have already established that rugby players, whose exercise and dietary habits tended to be more extreme than those of the general public in Ireland, had a healthy gut balance.

Their level of exercise - and protein consumption - helps the microbial diversity in the gut to flourish.

The rugby players ate a very high-calorie diet with a higher proportion of protein. The latest findings, published in the journal 'Gut', said the athlete's microbiome is primed for tissue repair.

It allows the athlete to build up energy from diet and helps with the "high cell-turnover" evident in elite sport.

It's part of what sets athletes apart from the rest of us and provides some insight into why the men in green can deliver victories on the playing fields.

The message for the rest of us is to try to eat more prebiotics. They help feed good bacteria. Sources include artichokes, chicory root, onions, garlic and leeks.

Other common vegetables, such as potatoes, are beneficial if they are eaten with the skins, and sweet potatoes are better than the common spud. Experts recommend eating apples, pears and bananas which are good if eaten whole. Consumed as juice they lack the necessary fibre.

Irish Independent

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