Got Gut Issues? Exercise Can Make it Worse

It was a Tuesday afternoon and I should have been at work.  Instead I was on the couch, again, in the fetal position feeling fatigued and crampy. The biggest question on my mind, “Why me? I’m trying so hard to do everything right!” I had started to rid my gut of a bunch of parasites and bad bacteria, and I was eating exceptionally healthy and hitting the gym (hard) 5-6 times a week. But gut healing just wasn’t happening and I’d added a ridiculous 10 kg’s and two stretchy-pants sizes in less than two months on my strict regime.

It was 2014 and I was about to learn the pitfalls of too much exercise when it comes to gut healing.

exercise gut ibs worse

 

So today we’re talking about:

  >  Why too much exercise can wreck your guts and make you fatter

  >  The link between exercise, cortisol dysregulation and leaky gut

  >  The number 1 type of exercise proven to enhance gut healing

 

There is no disputing that physical exercise is a really important part of living a healthy life. The benefits of exercise, especially for prevention of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, depression and osteoporosis are well documented and accepted (1). A variety of studies have also shown that exercise improves psychological well-being and mood (2, 3) as well as resilience to chronic and acute stress (4, 5).

 

There is also evidence that moderate exercise can improve gut barrier function and potentially help prevent inflammatory bowel disease (6, 7). Contracting your muscles during exercise releases anti-inflammatory myokines, which help to block the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines produced by visceral fat (fat around the middle).  These cytokines are thought to contribute to the onset of INFLAMMATORY bowel disease and other gut disorders. Studies on mice have also shown that moderate exercise reduces chronic stress-induced Leaky Gut (6).

 

So, exercise is great and the more the better? Not so fast!

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Gut distress, such as diarrhoea, cramping, vomiting, nausea and gastric pain are common among athletes during training and competition (8). See, when it comes to exercise, there’s a happy medium for optimal gut function and healing. While not exercising enough is detrimental to your health, too much (too long duration, frequency or intensity) can also negatively impact your health and healing. Basically, strenuous exercise is linked to dysregulated cortisol, immune system suppression and intestinal hyperpermeability (Leaky Gut) (9, 10, 8).

 

The SCIENCE of exercise, cortisol dysregulation and leaky gut

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So, let’s geek out on the science (just a heads up that you can skip this if you’re short on time). Intense exercise is a stress on the body and just like any other kind of stress, activates the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis, better known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. This then causes the release of two important hormones that directly affect your gut. The first is cortisol, the master stress hormone, which is known to suppress the immune system, decreases gut motility (i.e. can cause constipation), inhibit pancreatic enzyme secretion and gallbladder function which are essential for digestion, decrease intestinal blood flow and even directly impact the gut microbiome. Basically this means chronically elevated cortisol levels are not good for gut function or gut healing, not to mention it is linked to obesity and weight gain (11).

 

The second hormone released under the stress of intense exercise is corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). When released, CRH increases the permeability (leakiness) of the intestines (Leaky Gut) through the activation of mast cells and the protein claudin-2 (12, 13). And if you read my blog post on Leaky Gut, you’ll know that there will be no gut healing while those guts are leaking…

 

Exercise only works if it’s not stressful

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The key takeaway is that if you are trying to heal a damaged gut, exercise ONLY works if it’s not an added stressor. In a study on mice, researchers found that if they let the mice run in their own time, they had less inflammation and intestinal damage. But, if the mice were forced to run on a treadmill, they experienced increased inflammation and gastrointestinal symptoms (14). In simple terms, if the exercise itself is a stressor, it can actually make gastrointestinal symptoms worse – a bit like endurance athletes and their ‘runner’s trots’.

 

So, I’ve already mentioned that moderate exercise can improve gut barrier function and potentially help prevent inflammatory bowel disease (6). But what is ‘moderate’ exercise? Well, exercises such as walking (15), pilates and yoga practices that focus on stretching, breathing and postural control all have reported positive outcomes when it comes to gut healing (16, 15, 17). If you are currently doing long runs, intense gym classes or even more strenuous forms of yoga (hot vinyasa) and pilates, I’m giving you permission to slow down a bit, and engage in more healing forms of exercise… for the moment.

 

And no, you’re not going to get fat

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And for those worried about your weight, rest assured that reducing the stress on your body from chronic cardio or over-training is likely to actually have a positive impact on your waistline. Not only can the increase in cortisol from over-training lead to insulin resistance, increased fat storage and cause your body to burn muscle before fat, but it has also been shown to directly impact our appetite for high fat and high sugar foods (18) – not a good combination!

 

I know, because I’ve been there. I was diagnosed with more than 5 intestinal pathogens, adrenal insufficiency and IBS in 2014. I thought ramping up my gym regime would be a great way to stay healthy and combat the bugs. Going to the gym five to six times a week and doing a mix of weights and HIIT training, I didn’t expect to gain over 10 kgs (more than 20% of my body weight – I’m a small human) in less than two months. If you’re slogging it out at the gym, the last thing you want is to be feeling sicker and gaining body fat. The more body fat I gained, the more I trained and so the cycle continued until I was so exhausted I couldn’t get out of bed. I had damaged my guts further.

 

It wasn’t until I cut back on the strenuous stuff every day and replaced it with walking and yoga that I started to get my energy back and my bugs under control. The weight took a lot longer to shift.  So, take it from me, you CAN exercise too much and it CAN have a negative impact on your health and healing if you overdo it. So if you have gut healing to do, just try and chill-out, focus on your healing, stay active and know that when your digestive health is 100%, achieving any body composition goals is going to be a walk in the park.

 

I really hope this has given you a better understanding about the relationship between exercise, stress and healing. Let me know what your favourite exercise is and whether it’s helped or harmed your healing journey.  I’d really love to hear from you!

 

 


References:

  1. Warburton, D. E. R., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. D. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174(6), 801–809 LINK
  1. Rethorst C.D., Wipfli B.M., Landers D.M. (2009). The antidepressive effects of exercise: a meta-analysis of randomized trials. Sports Med, 39(6), 491-511 LINK
  1. Wipfli B.M., Rethorst C.D., Landers D.M. (2008). The anxiolytic effects of exercise: a meta-analysis of randomized trials and dose-response analysis. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 30(4), 392-410 LINK
  1. Childs, E., & de Wit, H. (2014). Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Physiology, 5, 161 LINK
  1. Feder, A., Nestler, E. J., & Charney, D. S. (2009). Psychobiology and molecular genetics of resilience. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 10(6), 446–457 LINK
  1. Luo B., Xiang D., Nieman D.C., Chen P. (2014). The effects of moderate exercise on chronic stress-induced intestinal barrier dysfunction and antimicrobial defense. Brain Behav Immun, 39, 99-106 LINK
  1. Bilski, J., Brzozowski, B., Mazur-Bialy, A., Sliwowski, Z., & Brzozowski, T. (2014). The Role of Physical Exercise in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. BioMed Research International, 2014, 429031 LINK
  1. Zuhl M., et al. (2014). Exercise regulation of intestinal tight junction proteins. Br J Sports Med. 48(12), 980-6 LINK
  1. Suzuki K., et al. (2002). Systemic inflammatory response to exhaustive exercise. Cytokine kinetics. Exerc Immunol Rev, 8, 6-48 LINK
  1. Brooks, K., & Carter, J. (2013). Overtraining, Exercise, and Adrenal Insufficiency. Journal of Novel Physiotherapies, 3(125), 11717 LINK
  1. Bose, M., Oliván, B., & Laferrère, B. (2009). Stress and obesity: the role of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis in metabolic disease. Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Obesity, 16(5), 340–346 LINK
  1. Wallon C., Söderholm J.D. (2009). Corticotropin-releasing hormone and mast cells in the regulation of mucosal barrier function in the human colon. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1165, 206-10 LINK
  1. Martínez, C., González-Castro, A., Vicario, M., & Santos, J. (2012). Cellular and Molecular Basis of Intestinal Barrier Dysfunction in the Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Gut and Liver, 6(3), 305–315 LINK
  1.  Cook M.D., et al. (2013). Forced treadmill exercise training exacerbates inflammation and causes mortality while voluntary wheel training is protective in a mouse model of colitis. Brain Behav Immun, 33, 46-56 LINK
  1. Ng V., Millard W., Lebrun C., Howard J. (2007). Low-intensity exercise improves quality of life in patients with Crohn’s disease. Clin J Sport Med, 17(5), 384-8 LINK
  1. Shahabi L., Naliboff B.D., Shapiro D. (2016). Self-regulation evaluation of therapeutic yoga and walking for patients with irritable bowel syndrome: a pilot study. Psychol Health Med, 21(2), 176-88 LINK
  1. Evans, S., et al. (2014). Iyengar Yoga for Adolescents and Young Adults With Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 59(2), 244–253 LINK
  2. 18. Epel E., Lapidus R., McEwen B., Brownell K. (2001). Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26(1), 37-49 LINK

 

 

Bella Lindemann

Bella is a Certified Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner who specialises in working with women with gut infections and associated chronic digestive complaints, fatigue and food sensitivities.

16 Comments
  • Cath

    May 9, 2016 at 6:20 am Reply

    You know, I slogged it out at the gym with a friend of mine for over 12 months with absolutely no results! Very miserable experience and because we looked the same at the end as we did at the start we were both so demoralised we gave it away. Going harder definately doesn’t mean more success. Cath

    • Bella Lindemann

      May 17, 2016 at 8:02 am Reply

      Thanks Cath. It can be so disheartening to put in so much effort to improve our health, only to see minimal (or negative) results. But if a good diet and exercise routine don’t work, it’s also a strong signal that there is some other limiting factor – such as a gut infection and/or hormone imbalance – that’s making like difficult. Trying some less stressful exercise is definitely a great place to start.

  • Kerry

    May 9, 2016 at 6:21 am Reply

    Bel, my favourite exercise is golf, and an enjoyable walk.

    • Bella Lindemann

      May 17, 2016 at 7:51 am Reply

      The perfect gut-healing exercise combo for you Kerry 🙂

  • Jill

    May 10, 2016 at 8:32 am Reply

    Really great post, thanks. I was doing lots of running but noticed it made my IBS worse – now it makes sense… I stopped exercising all together but might try yoga and see if it helps 🙂

    • Bella Lindemann

      May 17, 2016 at 7:50 am Reply

      Thanks Jill. Sorry to hear your experience with running and IBS but hope the less stressful stuff like yoga works for you too.

  • Annie

    August 25, 2016 at 5:21 am Reply

    what speed can u go on treadmill for walking and for how long during healing

    2.5 – 3 mph and for 25-30 minutes good

    • Bella Lindemann

      August 30, 2016 at 1:20 pm Reply

      Hi Annie, It really comes back to your body and what it tolerates. Gentle walking in nature is very different to walking on a treadmill so maybe limit it to 30 minutes at a pace that feels comfortable. You should feel energised once you are finished, not exhausted so try to use that as your guide.

  • cynthia

    October 14, 2016 at 4:26 am Reply

    does it mean less strenuous exercise helped healed ur gut? waaw! pls I need more insight on that. plss

    • Bella Lindemann

      October 14, 2016 at 1:49 pm Reply

      Hi Cynthia, great questions. I guess it is more about decreasing stress on the body and giving it space to heal. For me, that meant I had to stop heavy lifting and cardio daily because the stress of that exercise meant that my body was always recovering from exercise and had no space for gut healing. I hope that makes sense.

  • EMMA

    November 16, 2016 at 1:24 am Reply

    Thanks for the article, was really reassuring I have an underactive thyroid and a chronic bout of gastritis at the moment mixed in with IBS but that has not stopped me from trying to exercise everyday normally HIIT which would possibly explain the bloatedness and stomach distension. It is such a viscous cycle as I try to train as much as possible to help my metabolism for fear of weight increase from my UA Thyroid. I think I will try and increase my yoga practice as clearly too much cardio does not work and accept that I will never get the athletic toned body I strive for.

    • Bella Lindemann

      November 22, 2016 at 10:52 am Reply

      Hi Emma, I’m so glad it was helpful. I’m sorry you aren’t feeling great, but there are plenty of opportunities for healing an underactive thyroid and gut issues! You can definitely get the athletic body you strive for, once you have healed. Keep going, add in yoga, and focus on healing the gut. You’ve got this!

  • Maggie Dinsmore

    April 16, 2017 at 9:40 am Reply

    Do you think hiking is too strenous?

    • Bella Lindemann

      April 18, 2017 at 3:36 pm Reply

      Hi Maggie, it really depends on your level of fitness and the intensity of your hiking. If it makes you feel energised then that’s great. If it makes you feel exhausted and you struggle in the days following your hike then it’s probably a sign to back-off the intensity, difficulty and/or duration while you’re healing your gut.

  • Chelsea McMillan

    August 26, 2017 at 3:53 pm Reply

    Great article. I have been trying to work this out. I am currently doing a gut health program and every time I exercis I tend to crash 24hr later. I miss my sessions of strength and HITT but I know it is best for me at the moment to rest. Probably my biggest question is will I ever be able to go back to doing more exercise??

    • Bella Lindemann

      September 6, 2017 at 1:07 pm Reply

      Great question Chelsea. I know how frustrating it can be to not be able to exercise as much as you’d like. The good news is that once you’ve healed your gut properly, you should be able to get back to exercising as much as you’d like – without the crash. Healing your gut is pretty full-on so you’ll definitely need all the energy you can get at the moment. Restorative exercise like stretching, walking and yoga is my preferred options during this phase.

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