Digestive Issues that Affect Performance

The article is aimed at martial artists, but they also suffer from the same digestive issue as all normal human beings, so anyone suffering from digestive problems of any kind will find this article quite informative.

Despite following a healthy diet plan and regular training sessions, martial artists may find themselves suffering from frequent sore throats, mouth ulcers, allergies and even asthma. They may feel fatigued easily after just short bouts of training. They may also find that their injuries are taking longer to heal and its much tougher to shake off a cold or flu when they get them.

If there are no other evident problems, the root of their ailments maybe a weakened immune system triggered by a host of digestive issues. From embarrassing gas issues to uncomfortable heartburns, everyone experiences digestive problems from time to time. So there is a tendency to overlook such symptoms as being common and not a cause for worry. There’s something about digestive difficulties that’s quite embarrassing, making it a difficult topic for discussion in polite company. So many people suffer such problems in silence.

If any martial artist ends up having to schedule their training programs around their bathroom breaks, then it’s high time to take a deeper look into these concerns. They may need to change their diet as certain foods may be causing bloating and allergic reactions. Late night parties, alcohol, smoking, processed food, and reduced sleep are bound to create gastric disturbances and take a toll on health.

The Gut -Brain Connections

One of the keys to having a healthy mind and body and a smooth digestive functioning is to have your hormones in balance. Stress is one of the key elements that trigger an increase in cortisol level. Stress maybe as simple as the nervousness before a test or something that creates much more of a mental strain, e.g.-a major deadline at work.

The symptoms of rising cortisol levels include the flutter and flushes felt before a first date to more severe symptoms such as lack of sleep, throbbing heartbeat and excessive sweating of palms gut react to stress. An increase in cortisol has its effect on the digestive system as well.

The Gut-Brain Axis

It is common to hear people complain of heartburns, feelings of incomplete bowel movements or diarrhea before a stage performance, the anxiety felt by brain is expressed by reactions in the gut. The gut and the brain have a strong connection. Whatever troubles ones causes a reaction in the other.

The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication pathway between the central and the enteric nervous system. This links the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions.

The microbial changes in the intestine or conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut syndrome has been found to cause anxiety, irritability and depression.  The gut-brain axis has to be in harmony for a feeling of health and well-being. For the total holistic well-being of a person both the mental and physical health have to be in harmony.

The Vagus nerve

The central nervous system governs nearly every system in the body. It consists of the spinal cord and the brain both of which receives and sends signals to the peripheral nervous system using neurons. The Vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body runs from the medulla oblongata in the brain all the way to the gastrointestinal tract. The Vagus nerve, also called the pneumogastric nerve, controls digestion. Even minor gastrointestinal distress can put pressure on the nerve and irritate it. Excess alcohol or spicy foods are some of the common culprits here.

Martial artists should pay extra attention to their posture, especially during their training sessions as poor posture along with muscular imbalances can also cause the vagus nerve to misfire. Stress, fatigue and anxiety can also inflame the nerve.

ENS – A Second Brain Found in the Gut

Everyone knows the brain is located within the skull bones of the head. Science has discovered that the human body actually has a second brain. Technically called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) it consists of sheaths of neurons in the walls of the long tube of our gut. It measures approximately 9 meters from the esophagus to the anus.

Other than the vagus nerve, the functions of the gastrointestinal system are also governed this second brain whose network of over a 100 million neurons ensures swift communication between the brain and the gut. These connections are the reason why emotions such as feeling good, stressed or tensed can be connected to the digestive system. Ever had a ‘gut’ feeling about something? Yes, emotions can literally be felt in the gut. The feel-good chemical, serotonin is mostly found in the digestive system.

The Leaky Gut Syndrome

Leaky gut syndrome is a growing concern amongst athletes and martial artists. It is a major factor in gastrointestinal inflammatory diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

The intestinal wall is made up of a single layer of cells and the joints are held tight by (TJ) tight-junction proteins. The intestinal wall is permeable and it allows certain substances such nutrients to pass through them. Selective permeability of nutrients, water, and electrolyte happens through trans-epithelial and para-epithelial permeability of the intestinal walls. This is how nutrients are transported from food to the distant parts of the body.

The gastrointestinal wall also keeps out undesirable elements like undigested food particles, inflammatory agents, toxins and harmful bacteria. When foreign antigens and microbes get through, they trigger the immune system and the production of inflammatory mediators. Rheumatic arthritis, migraines, chronic fatigue, lupus, autism, multiple sclerosis are just a few of the conditions that worsen due to increased gut permeability.

Genetics plays a role in making people predisposed to immune reactions to certain foreign matter which activates pathways that lead to intestinal permeability. But more than genetics, its lifestyle factors such as diet, stress, excessive alcohol consumption and strenuous exercise that cause damage to the intestinal walls that results in a leaking gut.

Exercising at high intensities causes blood to be pulled towards the muscles and away from the gut. Exercising at 70% of maximum capacity causes 60–70% decreased blood flow to the gut while training at 100% maximum capacity reduces this blood flow by 80%. Martial artists need to be considerate of this paradigm as they train. They should consider training at moderate intensities rather than give it their all – all the time. Compromising their gut barrier integrity will increase their risk of gut inflammation and related issues. Consistency in executing their planned training schedules is more important than training occasionally at high intensity.

Read More : How Leaky Gut can Affect Martial arts Performance and the Ways to Overcome It

Unbalanced Intestinal Flora

Combat and self-defense training improves both mind and physical fitness. The ability of a martial artist to focus and optimize their skill requires balance and harmony with their external environment as well as within the internal environment of their body. Even the slightest imbalance in the gastrointestinal tract makes a person feel sick and low. Constant burps or flatulence is both disturbing and embarrassing.

A bloated feeling in the stomach, flatulence, feeling full despite eating very little, lethargy, nausea, headache and incomplete or dissatisfactory bowel motion are some of the symptoms a person may experience when they have indigestion. They may not really know what is wrong, but there is sense of total havoc within the system. Productivity takes a plunge along with all sense of positivity.

The intestinal flora consists of friendly bacteria, protozoa fungi and yeast that support digestion and absorption. The probiotic intestinal flora is a natural part of the internal ecosystem, which is present in both the small intestine as well as the large intestine. It helps the breakdown of food, work against infection, and raise the immunity level of the body.

For example, lactobacilli produces the enzyme lactase which is essential for the complete digestion of whole milk. It can help prevents diarrhea and reduce the unwarranted growth of pathogens. The intestinal flora also helps in the synthesis of certain vitamins and mineral absorption.  

When the normal good bacteria are overpowered by harmful bacteria, the gut flora balance is lost. An unhealthy gut displays symptoms like bad breath, bloating of stomach, diarrhea, and flatulence. Food allergies, anxiety, irritability, skin rashes and eczema can also result from the lack of probiotic organisms in the gut.

Martial artists must have a disciplined lifestyle and food habits, if they intend to achieve high levels of performance. Acidic beverages damage the gut flora. Avoid overuse of coffee and alcohol. Antibiotics, increased use of antacids, pain killers, over the counter medications like laxatives, mouthwashes and so on can easily damage the gut flora and increase gut permeability.  

High Cortisol Levels

The precision of a martial artist’s technique depends on their overall well-being. Health is a balance between mind and body. A healthy gut is often a sign of a healthy mind. Martial artists and athletes who pay attention to their diet and physical exercise have a better immune system than the ones who don’t. However, stress has its own way of shattering this hard-earned harmony.

Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands when the body is faced with stress. Though cortisol is released to fight the stress, it becomes damaging when stress is constant and the cortisol levels remain high.

High levels of cortisol is characterized by disproportionate weight gain, increase in blood pressure, voracious appetite for fatty food and sugars, raised blood sugar and indigestion. Though cortisol is an immunosuppressant it also acts as an anti inflammatory agent. Prolonged stress and infection makes the body less sensitive to the inflammation. This causes the cortisol levels to fall which aggravates inflammation. The inflammation increases intestinal permeability and leads to a whole host of digestive issues.

Cortisol levels can be maintained with regular physical activity. Martial arts training is a great way to keep your stress and cortisol levels under control. However intense training in any martial arts can trigger stress reaction. Balance continuous physical exertion by taking small breaks in between “rolling” or “randori” to calm stress levels. The anticipation or anxiety before a tournament or fight raises cortisol levels. so keep calm by focusing on breathing and meditating.

Cortisol level can be managed by keeping your diet healthy. Your diet must be fiber rich, anti-inflammatory and low-glycemic. Caffeine is known to trigger inflammatory reactions. Excessive alcohol changes the gut flora, and disturbs sleep pattern. Trans-fatty acid food, fried food, processed food must be avoided. Include whole food grain, and green leafy vegetables. Above all, good sound sleep can calm your body and mind and ward off stress to a great extent. Lack of sleep can raise your blood pressure, increase stress, and thus trigger cortisol release.  A minimum of 8 hours of sleep helps reduce stress.

Read More: High cortisol and its Impact on the Digestive System

Adrenal Fatigue

Martial art training includes practicing techniques, physical exercises, and methods of mental discipline. Feeling tired after a training session may be nothing new, but fatigue, or lethargy along with anxiety, brain fog, insomnia, or difficulty in concentrating can mean something more serious like Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

Natural health practitioners have coined the term adrenal fatigue, which refers to aches and fatigue of the body, which comes with digestive issues and sleep disturbances. It is a stress-related condition where the adrenal glands and HPA axis become depleted and dysregulated after a long periods of emotional stress. Exhaustion, weakened immunity, sleep disturbances, and food cravings are some of the more common symptoms.

The adrenal glands many important hormones such as glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids and sex hormones. Adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease refers to inadequate production of one or more of these hormones as a result of an underlying disease. Adrenal insufficiencies can be determined by having your doctor order a blood test and checking the adrenal hormone levels.

The Effect of Toxins on the Digestive system

Despite their disciplined diet and regime, martial artists are often victim of toxins. The toxins are slow poisons that people are constantly exposed to in their environment via food and air. These toxins are responsible for a myriad of issues such as digestive problems, allergies, respiratory issues, skin problems, headaches and depression.

Toxins can be endotoxins or exotoxins. An exotoxin is a toxin secreted by bacteria and released by it. Such harmful bacteria are highly potent and their toxins can cause major damage to its human host by destroying cells or disrupting normal cellular metabolism. Endotoxin on the other hand are much weaker toxins that are part of a bacterial cell, but gets released into the human body if the bacterial cell disintegrates inside the human body .

Some of the most common sources of exotoxins are toxins in tap water, polluted air, processed food, pesticide laden vegetables/fruits, food packaging, cosmetic products, and synthetic cleaning products. Digestive toxic overload is expressed by the body by symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, colicky pains, gas etc. For detoxifying and flushing the body:

  • Switch to purified or distilled water and drink a minimum of plenty of water as it is the best detoxifier. The World Health Organization recommends between 2.0 to 2.7 liters of water a day for women, and 2.5 to 3.7 liters a day for men
  • Choose organic food and clean well before consuming them.
  • Avoid processed food and trans fats.
  • Avoid colored foods and food preservatives
  • Avoid products that are identified containing toxins.
  • Use safe cosmetics and body care products that are not loaded with chemicals
  • Consume more fibrous foods as the fibers act as sweepers and helps in digestion, clearing of unwanted wastes and toxins.
  • Regular exercise for at least 30 to 45 minutes is useful. Some toxins get excreted through the sweat.

Food Sensitivities

Martial artists may have to travel to different places in relation to their training or tournaments or maybe on family or business trips. They may often find themselves unable to carry out their plans when digestive issues due to food sensitivities crop up.

Consuming food from restaurants or experimenting with new cuisines can leave the tummy quite upset as the food served may contain ingredients that stimulate allergic reactions. For example people with lactose intolerance are allergic to milk protein. Insufficient lactase makes digestion of dairy products difficult. Such reactions maybe trivial as mild itching or loose stools, but it can get deadly if the person experiences an anaphylactic shock as is common among those with serious nut allergies or shellfish allergies.

Food sensitivities such as caffeine, gluten or dairy intolerances can cause lasting damage to the gut. Digestive issues also crop up in reaction to food colors and other artificial additives. The symptoms of digestive issues due to food sensitivities range from burping and bloating to migraines, vomiting and nausea. An allergist can help you rule out potential food sensitivities by conducting an allergy test.

Decreased Sexual Drive

Can digestive system problems affect sexual desires and drive?  How can anyone even think of sex when they are feeling nauseous along with bloating and colicky pain? But the connection between the gut and sexual drive is much more complex than just these kinds of issues.

The gut flora plays a vital role in stimulating sexual senses. The millions of neurons of in the gut communicate with the nervous system. The happiness neurotransmitter, serotonin controls the increase in blood flow to genitals. Almost 90 % serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract by the gut bacteria while only 10% of serotonin is produced by the brain. The healthier the gut, the higher is the serotonin produced. Thus, the more the serotonin produced, the better the sex drive.

The libido is known to increase when serotonin is released as slowly in response to emotions. But when stress triggers the release of cortisol, the brain responds by producing serotonin, However, the sudden influx of serotonin causes more harm resulting in diarrhea, nausea, and sometimes abdominal pain.


A healthy gastrointestinal system is extremely important to the overall well-being of an individual. A person’s’ mood is influenced not just by their brain, but by their gut too. The gastrointestinal tract influences the brain and vice versa. The beneficial bacteria in the digestive system influence the body’s vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, immune response, and so much more. Symptoms of poor gut health can be as obvious as abdominal pain, bloating after meals, reflux, or flatulence, but also less obvious like headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and a weaker immune system.

If a martial artist or a sports person finds that their performance is being affected by their nagging digestive problems such as bloating and heartburn, they should not brush it off as minor concerns. Popping an antacid is not the answer for indigestion and gut related problems. Whether it is due a leaking gut, unbalanced gut flora, high cortisol levels or toxicity, a deeper understanding of the matter to identify what exactly is causing their gastrointestinal problems and formulating the right treatment protocol is most important to get back into full training mode again.

About Tilottama Bose 48 Articles
With a Masters in Food Science and Nutrition, Tilottama has carved a niche for herself in the Health Writing Industry. She is passionate about helping her readers make informed decisions about the food they eat. She believes in the healing power of food and in food as medicine. Tilottama is an editor and writer at Fitnesshacks.org.