Exercise Endurance and Energy Linked to Gut Health

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

August 12, 2019

Exercise Endurance and Energy Linked to Gut Health
Fascinating findings have been uncovered regarding the powerful relationship between the gut microbiome, mitochondria, and exercise. Your gut health has a direct impact on your physical endurance, stamina, and recovery due to the inter-relationship of gut flora to mitochondria.

Gut health often is thought of in terms of bowel movements, digestion and concerns of constipation, diarrhea, burping, or bowel gas. Mitochondria are often simply classified as energy producing organelles and exercise is something that we must do for our heart. It is more than that. Just like we now know that eye health is impacted by your gut microbiome, research connects the two vast topics of gut microbiome and mitochondria together and how it affects energy production and exercise.

Mitochondria-Gut Microbiome Relationship Impacts Exercise Results

As research delves into the finer workings of the amazing human body, evidence shows a two-way line of communication exists between the gut microbiome and mitochondria. This symbiotic relationship substantially influences exercise results and vice versa as exercise influences the gut microbiome and mitochondria. Whether you are an elite athlete or have a sedentary lifestyle, this information provides insights into your exercise tolerance and simple steps you can take to support this relationship.


Mitochondria are energy producing powerhouses inside cells that provide vast critical activities involved with burning glucose and fat to produce ATP. They are involved with calcium homeostasis, signaling between cells, heme biosynthesis and acute cell death. Mitochondria are involved with adrenaline and cortisol production related to stress and exercise tolerance. They also produce many free radicals and inflammatory compounds in response to their activities. Their work affects immune system and gut microbiome activity. (Heme is an iron containing molecule that enables your blood to carry oxygen).

Gut Microbiome

The gut microbiome is essential for digestion and absorption of foods, detoxification, immune regulation, production of neurotransmitters and several nutrients and much more. Nutrients made by the gut flora include vitamin K2folate and other B vitamins, short chain fatty acids, and secondary bile acids, all of which are needed by the mitochondria.

Mitochondria and Gut Microbiome Relationship

Mitochondria and the gut microbiome interaction occur through regulation of energy production, reduction and oxidation transfer of electrons back and forth, and immune and inflammation management. When the gut flora and mitochondria are well balanced with regular exercise activity, energy production occurs, new mitochondria are made, inflammation is managed well, and the gut barrier maintains its integrity. Several things are used to help with the back and forth communication interaction between the gut flora and mitochondria. Two key components used are short chain fatty acids (SCFA) like butyrate and bile acids.

Short Chain Fatty Acids

Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) are made when gut bacteria (probiotics) ferment on insoluble dietary fiber and oligosaccharides. High plant fiber diets are essential in producing SCFA. The other plant compound is oligosaccharides, which are prebiotics like FOS (fructooligosaccharides) and GOS (galactor-oligosaccharides).

Foods that have higher FOS and GOS include barley, tomato, onion, banana, brown sugar, rye, lentils, legumes, garlic, honey and others. These prebiotic foods feed bacterial fermentation which leads to the production of beneficial short chain fatty acids. These are beneficial foods that may naturally increase small amounts of bowel gas, but for those of you who have SIBO/SIFO or gut dysbiosis, these foods may need to be restricted until the germ overgrowth is under control.

Short chain fatty acids (SCFA) like butyrate aid mitochondria energy production and mitochondrial biogenesis or making of new mitochondria. Butyrate has been shown to quench damaging free radicals and activate AMPK. AMPK is a master enzyme switch found in cells throughout the body that helps cells burn fat and glucose for ATP production. You may learn more about in the article Master Enzyme Switch Deactivated in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia

Secondary Bile Acids

Secondary bile acids are produced by gut bacteria and are involved with the mitochondria. (Bile acids produced by the liver are known as primary bile acids.) Certain gut bacteria work at breaking down the bile acids produced by the liver recycling them into secondary bile acids which then supports mitochondria function and burning of fats and carbohydrates. Evidence suggests that healthy secondary bile acid metabolism is necessary for mitochondrial biogenesis, inflammation regulation and intestinal barrier.

Mitochondrial biogenesis and energy production rely on healthy gut flora, short chain fatty acids and secondary bile acids. When these factors are in place, fitness level improves with better aerobic capacity, oxygen usage, energy reserves, and stamina before fatigue sets in, especially in endurance athletes.

Diets that Disrupt Mitochondria-Gut Microbiome

When the balance of these components is disrupted, it can affect exercise ability, tolerance, and recovery. Factors that may interfere include overgrowth of non-beneficial gut flora, dietary extremes with lack of fiber intake and imbalanced diets with excess protein relative to fiber and carbohydrates intake, high fat, excess calorie diets and ketogenic diets. Impaired bile acid metabolism and gallbladder distress will also impact gut flora - mitochondria function interchange and energy production.

High protein diets in endurance athletes coupled with decreased dietary fiber and carbohydrate intake may backfire on performance as it can lead to a build-up hydrogen sulfide that alters gut flora. This can impact the mitochondrial electron transport chain which may reduce aerobic activity, increase lactic acid production, and decrease energy in part due to SCFA and butyrate production decline. Ketogenic type diets have additional risks if not managed well.

Overtraining Adversely Impacts Gut Flora, Lining, and Mitochondria

Exercising in hot temperatures or extreme exercise also causes distress to the gut lining and microbiome. These concerns increase oxidative stress which adversely impacts the gut lining and causes increased gut permeability or leaky gut syndrome. Overtraining in athletes as well as individuals who are out of shape and overdoing it are the most affected with high amounts of free radicals to the mitochondria, gut microbiome, and the intestinal tract lining.

During physical exercise, blood flow moves away from the digestive tract to fuel the muscles. This effect is noticed most during significant endurance output. When athletes train at 70% maximum oxygen consumption, it can shunt as much as 50% percent of blood flow away from the digestive tract.

Significant distress occurs to the gut lining and results in increased gut permeability or Leaky Gut Syndrome especially in endurance athletes. Add in the high stress hormones produced from the exercise and competition pressures which takes an additional toll. This leads to increased free radicals and stress to gut bacteria, the gut lining, and mitochondria, which may ultimately worsen physical output, performance, electrolytes, hydration, and recovery. Marathon runners, long-distance cyclists, triathlon and other endurance athletes or those who over-train may be more susceptible to this effect.

Moderate, Regular Physical Activity Helps Gut Flora and Mitochondria

Regular, light or moderate physical activity does not produce this same adverse reaction to the gut flora or mitochondria. Rather, regular moderate aerobic activity helps activate and support the gut-mitochondrial relationship with improved mitochondrial function and number, increases beneficial microbiome levels, supports and modulates a stressed immune system, and increases energy production.

It increases endogenous antioxidant levels, reduces some types of inflammation, and even helps the gut mucosal barrier and intestinal lining. These things are also essential for other aspects of health including weight management, blood sugar, coordination, thyroid, detoxification, mental health, brain plasticity, cholesterol management, joints and more. It is the extremes of inactivity in a sedentary population and overtraining in athletes that turn the tables on the gut microbiome-mitochondria relationship. As research continues, more will be learned about this complicated relationship.

Additional Support for the Gut Microbiome-Mitochondria Relationship

Fiber rich foods, insoluble fiber intake, prebiotics like FOS, and beneficial bacteria that help with SCFA production are critical components of helping your gut bacteria talk with your mitochondria. Foods that are good sources of insoluble fiber include wheat bran, nuts, beans, cauliflower, green beans and potatoes.

Support your gut mucosal lining to reduce the risk of oxidative stress damage and leaky gut syndrome. Nutritional support includes glutamine, N-acetyl-d-glucosamine, curcumin, vitamin A, vitamin D, boswellia, omega-3 and omega-6 oils, and probiotic supplementation and dietary sources.

Mitochondrial function may be supported with magnesium, coenzyme Q10, r-alpha lipoic acid, acetyl-l-carnitine, PQQ, resveratrol, astaxanthin, B vitamins, zinc, iron, and copper. Many things in the environment, medications, and stress injure mitochondria

Whether you are an elite athlete, a weekend warrior, or a student ready to start “two-a-day” practices” for Fall sports, the gut-mitochondria connection is vital to your output, stamina, performance, and recovery. It is just as important if you are starting a new workout regime after having had a sedentary lifestyle.

If you “crash” or “hit the wall” with your endurance athletics, have trouble with your immune system being run down, have new onset of allergies, struggle with hydration/electrolyte management, and/or have poor recovery from training, you may need to support your gut microbiome-mitochondria. A healthy gut and mitochondria go a long way to healthy aging. This area of research takes gut health and mitochondria to a new level of importance. I hope it takes you and your athletic fitness to a higher level too!

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