New research shows that by killing essential gut bacteria, antibiotics affect athletes’ motivation and stamina. The UC Riverside-led mouse study suggests that the microbiome is a big factor separating athletes from couch potatoes.
Other studies have examined the way exercise affects the microbiome, but this study is one of the few to examine the reverse: how gut bacteria also affect voluntary exercise behavior. Voluntary exercise involves motivation as well as athletic ability.
The researchers’ methods and results are now detailed in the journal Behavioral Processes.
“We believed that an animal’s collection of gut bacteria, its microbiome, would influence digestive processes and muscle function, as well as motivation for various behaviors, including exercise,” said Theodore Garland, UCR evolutionary physiologist in whose lab the research was conducted. “Our study reinforces this belief.”
Researchers confirmed through fecal samples that after 10 days of antibiotics, gut bacteria had been reduced in two groups of mice: some bred for high levels of running, and others not.
Neither group of mice showed signs of disease behavior from the antibiotic treatment. So when cycling was reduced by 21 percent in the athletic mice, researchers were sure that the microbiome damage was responsible. In addition, the highrunner mice did not recover their walking behavior even 12 days after the antibiotic treatment was stopped.
The behavior of the normal mice was not significantly affected either during treatment or after.
“It wouldn’t bother a casual athlete with a minor injury. But for a world-class athlete, a small setback can be magnified much more,” said Monica McNamara, UCR doctoral student in evolutionary biology and the paper’s lead author. “That’s why we wanted to compare the two types of mice.” Disabling the normal gut microbiome can be compared to an injury.
One way the microbiome may influence exercise in mice or humans is through its ability to convert carbohydrates into chemicals that travel through the body and affect muscle performance.
“Metabolic end products of bacteria in the gut can be reabsorbed and used as fuel,” Garland said. “Fewer good bacteria means less available fuel.”
In the future, the researchers want to identify the specific bacteria responsible for increased athletic performance. “If we can pinpoint the right microbes, there’s an opportunity to use them as therapeutics to help average people get more exercise,” Garland said.
Lack of exercise is known to be a major risk factor for aspects of mental health, including depression, as well as physical health, including metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoporosis. Many in the public health community would like to promote physical activity, but few have found ways to do so successfully.
“Although we study mice, their physiology is very similar to that of humans. The more we learn from them, the better our chances of improving our own health,” says Garland.
Certain foods can also increase desirable gut bacteria. As research on “probiotics” develops, Garland recommends that those interested in promoting overall health eat a balanced diet in addition to regular exercise.
“We know from previous studies that the Western diet, which is high in fat and sugar, can have a negative effect on the biodiversity in your gut and probably, by extension, athletic ability and possibly even motivation to exercise.” Garland said.
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