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Remedies for Exercise and Digestive Issues

Have you ever experienced stomach cramping or felt an urgency to use the restroom during the middle of a workout? Digestive distress can decrease the quality of your workout, and may deter you from future workouts if occurs regularly.

The severity and reasons for the digestive distress during exercise varies from person to person. But you can work towards understanding the right form and intensity of exercise that your body responds well to. And often times understanding the right nutrient balance and timing of meals to prevent digestive distress is as equally important.

Why different forms of exercise cause more GI distress

Digestive distress can occur during exercise for a number of reasons and present in various ways, such as: abdominal cramping, abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, acid-reflux, nausea, or vomiting.

Some of the reasons that these symptoms include:

  • Jarring during exercise: when the body undergoes a high intensity exercise where there is a lot of jumping or sprinting, that can cause food/fluids to "slosh" around in the stomach or intestines causing acid-reflux, abdominal cramping, or nausea.

  • Decreased blood flow to the intestines: During exercise blood gets redirected to the working muscles, brain and lungs, the decrease of blood flow to the intestines may contribute to diarrhea and cramping.

  • Delayed stomach emptying: This often occurs during a state of dehydration and when the blood flow has decreased to our digestive tract, as well as during high endurance training or interval training.

How exercise can help digestive issues:

Even though several athletes may experience varying forms of GI distress during exercise, there are various exercises that people can participate in to decrease their symptoms.

People with constipation often find relief when participating in moderate intensity exercise due to increased motility of the intestines, such as brisk walking, water aerobics, biking, or hiking,

Yoga can help to focus on mindfulness, and decrease stress through deep breathing, and if you are experiencing painful bloating or trapped gas some yoga poses can help relieve discomfort.

Nutrition Considerations to prevent GI Distress:

Proper nutrition is vital to help us perform at our best. However, the types of foods and timing of foods is important in managing and preventing digestive distress as well as to fuel our bodies for improved performance. Foods that can cause increased GI symptoms include: fat, proteins, fiber, and fructose. Also, dehydration can exacerbate symptoms.

Types of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates enhance exercise performance due to serving as the primary source of fuel for our muscles and brain during exercise.

However, different types of carbohydrates impact our digestion differently.

By understanding the types of carbohydrates, amount you consume, and the timing of the carbohydrates can help reduce symptoms.

There are various types of carbohydrates that have varying absorption rates. For digestive purposes we commonly think of carbohydrates in two sub groups: Simple versus Complex.

  • Simple carbohydrates contain 1-2 sugar molecules that are more readily digested and are often better tolerated closer to the time of exercise.

  • Complex carbohydrates contain multiple sugar molecules that can take longer for your body to break down and digest. These are often more tolerated at least 3-4 hours prior to exercise to allow time to digest.

High FODMAPS Can Impact Digestion:

There are specific types of carbohydrates referred to as FODMAPs that can exacerbate your digestive distress. FODMAPs is an acronoym for a group of small chain carbohydrates that are not fully absorbed in our intestines and can trigger IBS symptoms. The acronym stands for: fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.

FODMAPS are osmotic, meaning they can pull water into the intestines leading to abdominal cramping and diarrhea. The smaller the FODMAP the more osmotic it will be. Fructose is a common

ingredient in foods marketed to athletes and tends to cause more urgency during exercise.

Fructose is the smallest of all FODMAP carbohydrates because it is a single chain carbohydrate. This group of foods is more likely to pull too much water into the intestines causing cramping, and diarrhea. These symptoms can frequently occur in athletes who do not have IBS. Undigested FODMAP carbohydrates are also fermented by our gut microbes creating gas, which can contribute to bloating and cramping.

The monosaccharides, glucose and fructose, are absorbed via different routes. By consuming a combination of both sugars results in less of a "traffic jam" for absorption compared to the same amount of sugar as just only consuming glucose or fructose. The result, is that a combination of both sugars results in a higher rate of carbohydrate absorption. This is why you might see that sports supplements are adding a variety of carbohydrates such as sucrose to have various combinations of sugar molecules for improved absorption rates.

Common Foods with Fructose:

High fructose foods that may need limited consumption:

  • orange juice

  • mangoes

  • ripe banana (with brown spots)

  • watermelon

  • sugar snap peas

  • agave syrup

  • molasses

  • honey

Low FODMAP Sports Fuel Options:

  • Maple Syrup

  • Firm Banana

  • Blueberries

  • Strawberries

  • Raspberries

  • Coconut water, in 3 ounces.

  • Gatorade several of their products are made with sucrose and is often well tolerated. (Just double check the label due to their variety of products offered)

  • Nuun electrolyte tablets for activities lasting >45 minutes to boost electrolytes and vitamins during longer periods of activity.

There are a variety of products on the market, make sure to read the nutrition label to identify trigger foods. Also, be mindful of added caffeine in products too. Caffeine can be a stimulant and can cause urgency and abdominal cramping.

The Right Carbs at the Right Time

Timing of carbohydrates is important to make sure that your muscles are fueled with glycogen before you exercise. In order to do so, consume complex carbohydrates 3 or more hours prior to activity:

  • Oatmeal

  • rice

  • quinoa

  • millet

  • potatoes

  • Pasta (can make grains gluten free if have celiac, or suspect a fructan intolerance)

  • bread

  • wraps

A lean source of protein, and a moderate amount of fat is encouraged several hours prior to exercise. Avoid greasy or fried foods that could cause gastric upset. Some suggested sources of fats include: olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, or fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, or mackerel.

For carbohydrates eaten between 30-60 minutes prior to exercise:

  • Aim for around 25 grams of simple carbohydrates prior to activity:

    • 1 Firm banana

    • Pretzels and strawberries

  • Aim for low fructose and possibly low lactose.

  • Know how your body handles stimulants such as coffee.

Fats and proteins take longer to digest and could contribute to digestive distress if consumed too close to activity.

Everyone's Journey Varies:

Making sure you are consuming adequate nutrients is important to perform at your best. You can experiment with foods on your off season, but I strongly encourage avoiding any new foods the day of an event such as a race or game to fuel confidently.

If you continue to struggle with digestive issues and need help identifying your triggers, schedule a free discovery call today!


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