By Page Love, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, USPTA; and Ansley Smith, Purdue Nutrition Student
Focusing on your gut health has many benefits. Your gut microbiome breaks down food into nutrients that your body can use while also housing good bacteria. Thus, your brain and gut health are connected. If you have an unhealthy balance of gut microbiome, your brain can get confused. A healthy gut can communicate with the brain through its nerves and hormones; this helps you maintain your health and general well-being.
A lack of beneficial bacteria in our gut can cause inflammation throughout the body. To keep your gut happy and healthy and to better manage stress, practice healthy, adequate eating. Now, you may be wondering, how does this relate to my athletic performance? Well, eating foods your gut also needs for fuels — for example, fibrous carbohydrates known as “prebiotics” — can increase your overall energy as well as to help you recover after a workout!
Prebiotic foods typically are high-fiber and act as fuel for human microflora. Some examples include whole grains, beans, legumes, bananas, watermelon, pears, raspberries, leeks, onions, garlic, chicory, soybeans, and artichokes. Prebiotic foods tend to act like fertilizers, stimulating the growth of healthy gut bacteria. These short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) can be made from carbohydrates and prebiotic fiber. SCFAs play a huge role in muscle recovery and energy levels for exercise. Healthy gut microbes increase the production of SCFA, which are also fuels for tennis play in longer matches. SCFAs produce essential nutrients for your gut that can result in maintaining and building muscle, which means more strength and power for your tennis game. When we play tennis, our muscles build up lactic acid, which causes pain in your muscles and soreness later. A healthy gut bacteria called Veillonella atypica helps reduce lactate by changing it into SCFA and thus improving your training capacity and increasing time to exhaustion in those three-set matches!
Research also shows that those who prefer to have a diet consisting of plant-based and anti-inflammatory foods and lean meats, are improving their gut microbes. Training also increases the production of butyrate (an SCFA), which improves the health of the gut as an energy source for the cells of the gut lining; it also plays a role in combatting inflammation and preventing illness.
By feeding your gut good microbes with fiber-rich foods, your body will gain energy, reduce inflammation, and supply your muscles with necessary oxygen. Whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are great options. When considering the training, diet, and performance of tennis players, the gut microbiota is greatly increased with training. Tennis is considered a moderately intense activity. Research on this type of exercise has shown that it improves circulation, bowel motility, and immune function.
Other ways that tennis players can keep that gut healthy is by consuming probiotic foods, which have cultivated naturally occurring healthy bacterial growth. They benefit our bodies by assisting in digestion and bowel function, inhibiting unhealthy bacterial growth, and improving the health of the immune system. Examples include cultured dairy, such as yogurt and some milks; and pickled foods such as sauerkraut, cucumbers, or beets. Also, fermented foods, such as miso, tempeh or tofu, and kombucha tea, can provide your daily dose of probiotics. Probiotic foods help increase the good bacteria culture in your gut … and remember, a healthy gut leads to healthy muscles, and that can mean better tennis!
Additionally, if you are a tennis player who has “gut issues,” such as constipation or bloating, or even the occasional digestion problem, consuming probiotics in their natural form may be inadequate. Because a high percentage of our overall immune system health lies in the gastrointestinal tract, maintaining this gut health occurs through the synergistic interactions of all the bacteria in the gut. Taking a probiotic supplement can help to improve the strength of the gut flora, which also means improving your immune system and ultimately your overall health!
When choosing a probiotic supplement, there are many great choices out there, but look for those that contain both live and active bacterial cultures with a high number of colony units. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “choose a probiotic with at least 1 billion colony forming units and containing the genus Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Saccharomyces boulardii.”
Overall, focusing on a diet that is high in prebiotics, probiotics, and anti-inflammatory foods can assist in improving your energy and strength, which means your best tennis. Sport dietitians recommend a “foods first” approach for enhancing performance. Here is an example that is high in all these great gut health nutrients:
Yogurt parfait (yogurt, granola, fresh fruit, nuts)
Overnight oats (oatmeal, chia/flax seeds, milk/water, fruit)
Bowl meal (brown rice/quinoa, veggies/kimchi, beef/chicken/pork/tempeh, beans)
Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, fruit, veggies, edamame, yogurt, whole grain crackers
Keifer and milk
Stir fry (brown rice/noodles, edamame, garlic, veggies, beef/chicken/pork/tofu)
Page Love is an avid ALTA participant and sport dietitian/nutrition advisor for the WTA and ATP professional tours. She has served on the USTA sport science committee for 25 years and has a private practice in Sandy Springs. You can reach her at nutrifitga.com. Ansley Smith is an undergraduate student at Purdue University pursuing her bachelor’s in Nutrition and Dietetics. She also enjoys recreational tennis and has a special interest in gut health and nutrition. She looks forward to becoming a dietitian in the future working with this specialty area.