You are what you eat – Part 1

This saying of “You are what you eat” has been around for a long time. Sometimes we take it seriously, sometimes we don’t, but I bet most of you don’t REALLY know what that means.

As many of you know, I’m a physical therapist. But I’m also a nutrition coach (click here if you want a FREE nutrition consult!). I also approach all of my clients from a HOLISTIC perspective – what does that mean? It means that I integrate and combine many different approaches to tailor a treatment plan for YOU! I don’t go with what works for everyone else – I utilize all the tools at my disposal to find what works for YOUR BODY!

Ok, what does this have to do with what you eat? Did you know that your gut has it’s own nervous system? Different from the one that controls your movements. I bet you didn’t. It’s called the enteric nervous system (ENS). This means that your gut TALKS to your brain! This communication is bi-directional, two-way; meaning that the gut talks to the brain, but your brain also can influence and talk to your gut. We’ll be discussing how your gut talks to your brain and how that can influence your movement.

Fancy graphic showing that the brain and gut are actually connected

Your digestive system starts in your mouth, then travels to your stomach via the esophagus. The stomach then empties in your small intestine, which then dumps into your large intestine. During all of this, your body is breaking down (metabolizing/digesting) the food you’ve put into your body and absorbing different nutrients at different stages of digestion, before you … poop it out.

There are trillions of bacteria in your digestive system that play a role in your body’s ability to digest food as well as support your immune system and overall health. Your appendix (remember how most health practitioners think it’s useless? IT’S NOT!) is like a reservoir of good bacteria and what you eat can also support this microbiome environment. As with anything in life, it’s all about balance – you can’t have too much of any one thing. When the balance of good/bad bacteria is off kilter, we pay the price.

Things like processed sugar (we’ll get more into what you should eat to support a healthy gut in the second part) are not only low in overall nutritional value, they don’t help your gut bacteria maintain a functioning/efficient environment. This can lead to gut irritation or inflammation – things that don’t show up on scans or lab tests (at least not until it’s too late)! Many of us have taken antibiotics at some point in our life, and while they are great for stopping bacterial infection and can save lives, it can also negatively affect your gut bacteria by depleting the good bacteria that supports your digestive system – so it’s important to support your gut following any course of antibiotics (**start with some probiotics)!

When your body has an influx of bad bacteria growing from what you eat (highly processed foods, boxed or prepackaged meals etc…) or external stressors (environmental temperatures, psychological stress, too much physical stress), it can negatively affect your enteric nervous system (the part of the nervous system that connects your gut to your brain). The ENS is a target for short chain fatty acids, a product of metabolizing dietary fiber. These short chain fatty acids can positively affect the the sympathetic nervous system as well as influence memory and the learning process. Certain diets (such as high fat diets), can change the microbiota environment and alter the production of (I.e. decrease) short chain fatty acids to negatively affect the sympathetic nervous system (e.g. create high levels of tension throughout your muscles) or decrease your ability to remember things. Certainly you’ve experienced many instances where you’ve eaten something and had some sort of reaction whether that be bloating, indigestion, increased bowel movements, feelings of sluggishness etc… These reactions are signals from your body that your gut is not adapting to what you put in it.

HOW DOES THIS ALL AFFECT MOVEMENT?

Your brain controls EVERYTHING in your body. It controls your thoughts, your digestion, your movement etc… When your gut is unable to adapt to the things you eat (e.g. modern world processed foods), it can lead to the production of – or inhibit! – many different hormones and neurotransmitters that influence your brain’s ability to function efficiently. If your brain is being affected by what you eat, it’ll certainly affect how you move. Studies have shown that when the digestive environment is out of balance (good bacteria:bad bacteria), it can alter the production of neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline, and in turn affect the speed of movement. It would be difficult to say that eating “X” will do “Y” to your squat or “Z” to your lifting mechanics, but it would be enough to say that your overall movement quality will be impacted by what you eat.

While more research needs to be performed in this area, we all know that when you drink alcohol, it can negatively impact your body’s ability to control any gross movements such as walking and fine motor patterns such as threading a needle. While unhealthy foods don’t necessarily impact your body in as dramatic a fashion as alcohol does, if it alters the bacterial make-up of your intestines and digestive tract, it can create a cascade of events (overproduction or under production of chemicals in your body) that results in chemical imbalance that negatively impacts your movement ability and quality.

The output signals from your brain that influence movement will surely be impacted by how your gut is performing. While the enteric nervous system doesn’t control movement, it influences the organ that does.

So there you have it, what you put into your body for sure will influence your movement quality and ability, but not just because of weight gain or weight loss. There are many types of foods that can create inflammation in your gut (thereby negatively impacting your movement quality and performance – athletes! eating “healthy” isn’t just about not gaining weight, it’s also about how your body moves!) as well as many foods that support a strong gut microbiome – we’ll discuss those in part 2. If you want to move better, you have to eat better!

Information adapted from research published by Lobinonda, S. et al in Aug 2019 and Mazmanian, S. et al Oct 2018 (NIH).

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