Ask any habitual runner and they’ll tell you just how, ahem, regular they really are. So, is running actually good for the gut? Runner Katie Yockey investigates.
Most of us have experienced some running-related tummy issues before (no, it’s not just you!), and it can be super uncomfortable and embarrassing. The fear of getting caught short is something that puts a lot of people off running for good.
But it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to running and digestion. In fact, some research suggests that running regularly may actually improve your gut health and help keep you regular.
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According to runner and registered dietitian Charlie Watson, this mostly stems from the gut microbiome. Running and other cardiovascular exercises can raise the amount of good bacteria in your gut and increase gut biodiversity, both of which are important factors in supporting a healthy and regular digestive system.
They benefit your overall health, too. “70% of our T-cells are located in the gut, so the immune system and microbiome are intrinsically linked,” says Watson. This means a healthy gut is a major part of a healthy immune system. She also says that a diverse microbiome is linked to lower rates of diabetes and obesity, can boost your mental health and may reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.
So, how exactly does running make all this gastrointestinal (GI) magic happen, and how much do you need to run to reap the rewards? Let’s break it down.
Running promotes diverse gut bacteria
It seems like all roads lead back to the gut microbiome, and this is no exception. “Running or other physical activity ‘induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota’,” says Watson.
In particular, the 2018 study Watson cites found that people who ran three to five times a week had higher levels of butyrate. This short-chain fatty acid reduces inflammation and produces more energy in the gut, making it of significant importance.
The one caveat? It found that these benefits were contingent on the participants continuing their running routine, so if you suddenly stop exercising, they may disappear.
Another study found that after a marathon, runners had high levels of the bacteria veillonella. Registered dietitian Brittany Lubeck says that this bacteria feeds off lactic acid, the stuff that builds up after tough workouts and makes your muscles burn. This study only looked at marathoners, so we’re not sure if these benefits apply to people covering more normal distances, but they might.
There’s plenty of research on running increasing levels of different gut bacteria, but the main thing to know is that running regularly can improve your overall gut microbiome profile. According to Lubeck, a 2017 review article “found that regular physical activity in general led to better gut health due to an improvement in both the quantity and quality of beneficial bacteria in the gut”.
So more beneficial bacteria, and more types of it, are all good things when it comes to a healthy digestive system, and it seems like running a few times per week can promote that.
The gut-brain axis
Good gut health isn’t as simple as eating well and exercising enough – your mental wellbeing is a major contributor, too.
Enter: the gut-brain axis. You’ve probably heard of this phenomenon before, but in simple terms, the gut-brain axis is a fancy term for the unique and complex connection between the brain and the digestive system. It’s a bi-directional link, which means the gut influences the brain and the brain influences the gut.
According to Watson, this matters because running can reduce stress and improve mental health, which, in turn, has a positive effect on your gut. And don’t forget about the microbiome, Watson says: “Recent studies have shown that the microbiome plays an important role in the gut-brain axis structure.”
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For many people, going for a run is a great way to unwind, de-stress and carve out some much-needed mental space. If a different activity does the trick for you, that works too – the key here is finding movement that makes you feel good. “Stress, depression and anxiety can contribute to a multitude of gastrointestinal complaints, from reflux to IBS,” says Watson.
Lubeck also emphasises the importance of this. “Stress can negatively impact the bacteria in your gut,” she says. “Reducing stress through running could actually improve your gut health.”
Movement keeps you regular
Much like your morning cup of joe, a run can play a role in keeping things moving. “Running improves overall circulation, which helps move waste along the digestive tract,” says registered nurse Nancy Mitchell. “As your heart rate increases, it stimulates your intestinal muscles to expel any lingering undigested waste. It’s why some runners experience sudden urges to use the bathroom, especially after an intense session.”
It does this by increasing gut motility, which is the expanding and contracting of the muscles in your GI tract. “While this gut motility could be the cause of some GI issues for some runners, it could also lead to more regular bowel movements between runs for others,” says Lubeck.
You may be thinking this seems like dangerous territory – we’re walking a fine line between staying regular and inducing runner’s trots. And you’d be right: navigating that balance comes down to practice and some trial and error. Play around with what you eat before a run, how much, and how long you wait before heading out the door.
The bottom line? Yes, running can cause some tummy problems, but running regularly is likely to improve your overall gut health. Going for three or four runs a week can increase the amount and types of good bacteria in your gut, which is great for your digestive health and mental health. Not to mention that running can reduce your stress levels, and that’s good news for your gut, too.
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