Optimising Health and Athletic Performance


In order to improve sports performance, athletes periodise their training, nutrition and recovery within the context of a training season. For those not in exercise training, these controllable lifestyle factors correspond to exercise, diet and sleep, which require modification during the lifespan. In old money, this was called preventative medicine. Taking this a step further, rather than preventing disease, this proactive, personalised approach optimises health. Health should be a positive combination of physical, mental and social well being, not simply an absence of illness.

Failure to balance these lifestyle factors in an integrated fashion leads to negative outcomes. An athlete may experience maladaptation, rather than the desired adaptations to exercise training. For non-athletes an adverse combination of lifestyle factors can lead to suboptimal health and a predisposition to developing chronic disease.

What are the fundamental pathophysiological mechanisms involved in the aetiology of the clinical spectrum of suboptimal health, suboptimal sports performance and chronic disease?

Inflammation A degree of systemic inflammation and oxidative stress induced by exercise training is required to drive desired adaptations to support improved sport performance. However, prolonged, elevated levels of inflammation have adverse effects on health and underpin many chronic disease states. For example, inflammation is a contributing pathophysiological factor in the development of atherosclerosis and atherothrombosis in cardiovascular disease. What drives this over-response of the inflammatory process? Any combination of adverse lifestyle factors. Adipose tissue has an Endocrine function, releasing a subgroup of cytokines: adipokines which have peripheral and central signalling roles in energy homeostasis and inflammation. In a study of Belgian children, pro-inflammatory energy related biomarkers (high leptin and low adiponectin) were associated with decreased heart rate variability and hence in the long term increased risk of cardiovascular disease. For those with a pre-existing chronic inflammatory condition, response to treatment can be optimised with personalised lifestyle interventions.

Metabolism Non-integrated lifestyle factors can disrupt signalling pathways involved in glucose regulation, which can result in hyperinsulinaeamia and insulin resistance. This is the underlying pathological process in the aetiology of metabolic syndrome and metabolic inflexibility. Non-pharmacological interventions such as exercise and nutrition, synchronised with endogenous circadian rhythms, can improve these signalling pathways associated with insulin sensitivity at the mitochondrial level.

Intriguingly, evidence is emerging of the interaction between osteocalcin and insulin, in other words an Endocrine feedback mechanism linking bone and metabolic health. This is reflected clinically with increased fracture risk found amongst type 2 diabetics (T2DM) with longer duration and higher HbA1C.

Hormone imbalance The hypothalamus is the neuroendocrine gatekeeper of the Endocrine system. Internal feedback and external stimuli are integrated by the hypothalamus to produce an appropriate Endocrine response from the pituitary gland. The pathogenesis of metabolic syndrome involves disruption to the neuroendocrine control of energy homeostasis with resistance to hormones secreted from adipose tissue (leptin) and the stomach (ghrelin). Further evidence for the important network effects between the Endocrine and metabolic systems comes from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Although women with this condition typically present to the Endocrine clinic, the underlying aetiology is metabolic dysfunction with insulin resistance disrupting the hypothamic-pituitary-ovarian axis. The same pathophysiology of disrupted metabolic signalling adversely impacting the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis also applies to males.

In athletes, the exact same signalling pathways and neuroendocrine systems are involved in the development of relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S) where the underlying aetiology is imbalance in the periodisation of training load, nutrition and recovery.

Gastrointestinal tract In addition to malabsorption issues such as coeliac disease and non-gluten wheat sensitivity, there is emerging evidence that the composition and diversity of the gut microbiota plays a significant role in health. The microbiome of professional athletes differs from sedentary people, especially at a functional metabolic level. Conversely, an adverse gut microbiome is implicated in the pathogenesis of metabolic dysfunction such as obesity and T2DM, via modulation of enteroendocrine hormones regulating appetite centrally and insulin secretion peripherally.

Circadian disregulation As previously discussed, it is not just a question of what but WHEN you eat, sleep and exercise. If there is conflict in the timing of these lifestyle activities with internal biological clocks, then this can disrupt metabolic and endocrine signally. For example, in children curtailed sleep can impact glucose control and insulin sensitivity, predisposing to risk of developing T2DM. Eating too close to the onset of melatonin release in the evening can cause adverse body composition, irrespective of what you eat and activity levels. In those with pre-existing metabolic dysfunction, such as PCOS, timing of meals has an effect on insulin levels and hence reproductive Endocrine function. The immune system displays circadian rhythmicity which integrated with external cues (for example when we eat/exercise/sleep) optimises our immune response. For athletes competing in high intensity races, this may be more favourable in terms of Endocrine and metabolic status in the evening.

Psychology Psychological stress impacts the key pathophysiological mechanisms outlined above: metabolic signalling, inflammation and neuroendocrine regulation, which contribute to Endocrine and metabolic dysfunction. Fortunately stress is a modifiable lifestyle risk factor. In the case of functional hypothalamic amenorrhoea (where nutrition/exercise/sleep are balanced), psychological intervention can reverse this situation.

Conclusion Putting this all together, if the modifiable lifestyle factors of exercise, nutrition, sleep are optimised in terms of composition and timing, this improves metabolic and Endocrine signalling pathways, including neuroendocrine regulation. Preventative Medicine going beyond preventing disease; it optimises health.

BASEM annual conference 22/3/18: Health, Hormones and Human Performance



Athletic Fatigue: Part 2 Dr N. Keay

From population based norms to personalised medicine: Health, Fitness, Sports Performance Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017

Endocrine system: balance and interplay in response to exercise training Dr N. Keay

Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017

Longitudinal Associations of Leptin and Adiponectin with Heart Rate Variability in Children Frontiers in Physiology 2017

A Proposal for a Study on Treatment Selection and Lifestyle Recommendations in Chronic Inflammatory Diseases: A Danish Multidisciplinary Collaboration on Prognostic Factors and Personalised Medicine Nutrients 2017

Assessment of Metabolic Flexibility by Means of Measuring Blood Lactate, Fat, and Carbohydrate Oxidation Responses to Exercise in Professional Endurance Athletes and Less-Fit Individuals Sports Medicine 2017

Skeletal muscle mitochondria as a target to prevent or treat type 2 diabetes mellitus Nature Reviews Endocrinology

Insulin and osteocalcin: further evidence for a mutual cross-talk Endocrine 2017

HbA1c levels, diabetes duration linked to fracture risk Endocrine Today 2017

The cellular and molecular bases of leptin and ghrelin resistance in obesity Nature Reviews Endocrinology 2017

Metabolic and Endocrine System Networks Dr N. Keay

Adiponectin and resistin: potential metabolic signals affecting hypothalamo-pituitary gonadal axis in females and males of different species Reproduction 2017

Optimal Health: For All Athletes! Part 4 – Mechanisms Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

Ubiquitous Microbiome: impact on health, sport performance and disease Dr N. Keay

The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level Gut. BMJ

Interplay between gut microbiota, its metabolites and human metabolism: Dissecting cause from consequence Trends in Food Science & Technology 2016

Temporal considerations in Endocrine/Metabolic interactions Part 1 Dr N. Keay

Temporal considerations in Endocrine/Metabolic interactions Part 2 Dr N. Keay

Sleep Duration and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Paediatrics 2017

Later circadian timing of food intake is associated with increased body fat Am J Clin Nutr. 2017

Effects of caloric intake timing on insulin resistance and hyperandrogenism in lean women with polycystic ovary syndrome Clin Sci (London)

Immunity around the clock Science

Effect of Time of Day on Performance, Hormonal and Metabolic Response during a 1000-M Cycling Time Trial PLOS

Type 2 diabetes mellitus and psychological stress — a modifiable risk factor Nature Reviews Endocrinology 2017

Recovery of ovarian activity in women with functional hypothalamic amenorrhea who were treated with cognitive behaviour therapy Fertil Steril


What has your gut microbiome ever done for you?


Our body acts as a host to vast array of micro-organisms. Often, we are only aware of these micro-organisms causing unwanted infection: for example when a cut on the skin becomes infected, or we suffer with a bout of infective gastro-intestinal upset. Actually, this perception of the micro-organisms, living both on and inside, only causing unwanted infections is very biased. The microbiome (all the micro-organisms, their genetic material and metabolites produced) plays a vital role in keeping us healthy.

Recent research demonstrates that elite level cyclists host distinct clusters of microbiome communities when compared to controls which contribute to more effective metabolic pathways.

The gut microbiota consist of the range of micro-organisms living in our gut, mainly the colon. Recent research reveals that the diversity and functions of the gut microbiota have far reaching impact on health. For example, there is an important interaction between these micro-organisms and mitochondria, which are the organelles in cells responsible for producing energy. This cross talk is of particular consideration for athletes who seek to optimise energy production for training and competition. The gut microbiota also interact with the immune system and central nervous system function, including behaviour. There is evidence that the gut microbiota even influences brain development.

Microbiome Mitochondria Feedback

On the other side of the coin, any disruption in the beneficial types of gut microbiota have been linked to chronic disease states including obesity, metabolic syndrome and mental health issues. What causes imbalances in gut microbiota to produce such problems? A possible aetiology is a poorly balanced diet, or the side effect of medication which does not support the growth and function of beneficial bacteria. Rather an overgrowth of potentially harmful bacteria is favoured: dysbiosis. In athletes there is a condition know as “leaky gut” which can result from endurance training. In this scenario, blood is diverted away from the gut during exercise to the exercising muscles. After stopping exercise, blood flow is restored to the gut resulting in a mild reperfusion injury. This results in a slightly “leaky gut” so that unwanted bacteria in the gut are able to pass into the body and provoke an inflammatory response. Equally this situation can also mean desirable nutrients in the gut as less well absorbed. Although a degree of inflammatory response supports desirable adaptations to exercise, clearly an over-response will be counter productive to improving sports performance.

The gut microbiota have been reported to regulate immune function. Athletes in heavy training can experience suppressed functional immunity so any strategies to support the gut microbiota will potentially be beneficial in preventing infection.

What can you do to support a beneficial gut microbiota to support health and sport performance?

  • Try to include at least one fermented food source in your diet every day to boost your probiotic bacteria. Try sourdough bread, yogurt, kefir (similar to yogurt), sauerkraut, kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables), tempeh and miso (fermented soya products) and kombucha (fermented teas). These products can be found in health food shops and are becoming more widely available in some supermarkets and lunch places.
  • Regularly eat pre-biotic foods like garlic, onion, leeks, chickpeas, beans and lentils. These provide fuel for your probiotic bacteria, enabling them to proliferate.
  • Have adequate fibre in your diet from a wide variety of plant foods: eg wholegrains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds. Dietary fibre is fermented by your probiotic bacteria to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which play a key role in keeping your gut healthy.
  • Consume foods and drinks rich in polyphenols: eg berries, green tea, coffee, black tea, red wine, dark chocolate, apples. Polyphenols, found in many plant foods, have been shown to help increase probiotic bacteria in the gut.
  • Take a good quality, multi-species probiotic supplement during winter, heavy training blocks and when travelling abroad, especially for races. To find out more about the potential benefits of probiotic supplementation for athletes, see this blog by nutritional therapist Jo Scott-Dalgleish: http://www.endurancesportsnutritionist.co.uk/blog/probiotics-guide-endurance-athlete/

To find out more about the interaction between Health, Hormones and Human Performance come to the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine annual conference


Community characteristics of the gut microbiomes of competitive cyclists Microbiome August 2017

Ubiquitous Microbiome: impact on health, sport performance and disease

Endocrine system: balance and interplay in response to exercise training

Inflammation: Why and How Much? Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

Ubiquitous Microbiome: impact on health, sport performance and disease

Microbiome Mitochondria Feedback

The gut microbiome plays a key role in regulating the optimal degree of response to exercise required to stimulate desired adaptive changes.

We have at least as many bacterial cells as human cells in our bodies. We are all familiar with the effects of disturbing the balance of beneficial microbes in our gut. Beyond this, the gut microbiome (the range of microbes, their genetic material and metabolites) is essential for health. An interactive feedback exists between gut microbiota and functional immunity, inflammation, metabolism and neurological function

Sports performance: endurance exercise increases metabolic, oxidative and inflammatory stress, signalled by the release of exerkines from exercising tissue. This signalling network induces adaptive responses mediated via the Endocrine system. Maladaptation to exercise can be due either to an undesirable over-response or an insufficient response.

Intricate interactive feedback links exist between mitochondria and the gut microbiota. In addition to being the power generators of all metabolically active cells, mitochondria produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species during high intensity exercise. These oxidative stress signals not only mediate adaptive responses to exercise during recovery, but influence gut microbiota by regulating intestinal barrier function and mucosal immune response. Mitochondrial genetic variation could influence mitochondrial function and thus gut microbiota composition and function. Equally, the gut microbiota and its metabolites, such as short chain fatty acids, impact mitochondrial biogenesis, energy production and regulate immune and inflammatory responses in the gut to mitochondrial derived oxidative species. So nutritional strategies to support favourable gut microbiota would potentially support the beneficial effects of the interactions described above to optimise sport performance in athletes.

Conversely, disruption to favourable diversity of the gut microbiota, dysbiosis, is associated with increase in both inflammation and oxidative stress. Not a good situation for either health or sport performance. Alteration to the integrity of the intestinal wall increasing permeability can also be a factor in disrupting the composition of the gut microbiota. The resultant increased antigen load due to bacterial translocation across the gut wall is linked to increased inflammation, oxidative stress and metabolic dysfunction. “Leaky gut” can occur in high level endurance exercise where splanchnic blood flow is diverted away from the gut to exercising tissues for long periods of time, resulting in relative hypo-perfusion and an effective re-perfusion injury on stopping exercise. In the longer term the increased levels of inflammation, oxidative stress and antigen load impair adaptation to exercise and are associated with endocrine dysfunction in chronic disease states, for example autoimmune conditions, metabolic syndrome (type 2 diabetes mellitus, obesity) and depression.

Evidence links the composition of the gut microbiota to changes in circulating metabolites and obesity. For example, low abundance of certain species of gut microbiota reduces levels of circulating amino acid glutamine, which acts as a neurotransmitter precursor. Bariatric surgery is associated with changes in the release of gut hormones regulating food intake behaviour and energy homeostasis. In addition, beneficial changes are seen in the gut microbiota which could directly or indirectly support weight loss, via action on gut hormones.

Metformin is frequency used to improve insulin sensitivity in both type 2 diabetes mellitus and polycystic ovary syndrome. However, the mechanism is poorly understood. There is now evidence that the effect of metformin is mediated via changes in gut microbiota diversity. Transfer of stool from those treated with metformin improves insulin sensitivity in mice. In addition metformin regulates genes in some gut microbiota species that encode metalloproteins or metal transporters, which are know to be effective ligands. The pathophysiology of metabolic syndrome and obesity involves an inflammatory component which is triggered by gut dysbiosis and bacterial translocation, with increased generation of oxidative species. Probiotics have a potential role in regulating the redox status of the host via their metal ion chelating ability and metabolite production, which has an impact on the production of ROS and associated signalling pathways. Prebiotics found in dietary polyphenols promote these actions of favourable gut microbiota, which is of benefit in metabolic syndrome.

Recently it has been postulated that the gut microbiome, apart from playing a crucial role in health and pathogenesis of disease states, also impacts brain development, maturation, function and cognitive processes.

Understanding the role of the gut microbiome on metabolism, inflammation and redox status is very relevant to athletes where an optimal response to exercise training supports adaptations to improve performance, whereas an over or under response in these pathways results in maladaptive responses.

For further discussion on Health, Hormones and Human Performance, come to the BASEM annual conference


Endocrine system: balance and interplay in response to exercise training Dr N. Keay

Inflammation: Why and How Much? Dr N.Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

The Crosstalk between the Gut Microbiota and Mitochondria during Exercise Front Physiol. 2017

Gut Microbiota, Bacterial Translocation, and Interactions with Diet: Pathophysiological Links between Major Depressive Disorder and Non-Communicable Medical Comorbidities Psychother Psychosom 2017

Gut microbiome and serum metabolome alterations in obesity and after weight-loss intervention Nature Medicine 2017

Metformin alters the gut microbiome of individuals with treatment-naive type 2 diabetes, contributing to the therapeutic effects of the drug Nature Medicine 2017

L’altération de la perméabilité intestinale : chaînon manquant entre dysbiose et inflammation au cours de l’obésité ? Med Sci (Paris)

Antioxidant Properties of Probiotic Bacteria  Nutrients 2017

The Impact of Gut Microbiota on Gender-Specific Differences in Immunity Front. Immunol 2017

Commentary: Dietary Polyphenols Promote Growth of the Gut Bacterium Akkermansia muciniphila and Attenuate High-Fat Diet-Induced Metabolic Syndrome Front. Immunol., 27 July 2017

Gut microbial communities modulating brain development and function Gut Microbes



Inflammation: why and how much?

Inflammation: optimal or overreaction

Systemic autoimmune disease is a chronic overreaction of the inflammatory system. Exercise training is structured to provoke the optimal level of inflammation for adaptation to facilitate sport performance. This blog describes some of the recent significant advances in the understanding of the underlying mechanisms of inflammation and its interactions with the endocrine system, immunity and the microbiome, in relation to autoimmune disease. Applying this knowledge to the adaptive inflammatory effects of training in sport represents a potentially hugely beneficial area of future research.

The ubiquitous microbiomea-muciniphila-233x300

There has been much discussion on the key role of the microbiome, eloquently described by Professor Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, King’s College, London at recent conferences at the Royal Society of Medicine and The Royal College of Physicians. The microbiome is the DNA of all the microbes in our body. The diversity of the microbiota community in the gut wall of the colon appears to have the most profound effects in terms of disease prediction and indeed a better indicator of developing autoimmune conditions (such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis) and metabolic conditions (such as obesity and diabetes mellitus) than our own DNA. So how does the diversity of the gut microbiome have such a profound impact?

It appears that in order to promote diversity of the gut micobiota, prebiotics such as inulin found in fibrous foods should be ingested and then “fertilised” with probiotics found in fermented foods. Enhancing the diversity of the gut microbiome supports the production of short-chain fatty acids which have far reaching influences on epigenetic and immune regulation, the brain, gut hormones and the liver. Furthermore, the diurnal rhythmic movement of the gut microbiota have been shown to regulate host circadian epigenetic, transcriptional and metabolite oscillations which impacts host physiology and disease susceptibility.

In inflammatory conditions such as autoimmune disease, a decrease in the diversity of “good” microbiota has been described. Furthermore, if a decrease in beneficial microbiota is the primary event, then this can lead to an increase in the likelihood of developing autoimmune disease. What is the mechanism of this dynamic interaction between the microbiome and immunity?

Immunity and inflammation

In recent research, the protein receptor marker of microbiota in the gut has been shown to modulate intestinal serotonin transporter activity. Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine 5-HT) has shown to be an essential intestinal physiological neuromodulator that is also involved in inflammatory bowel disease. In addition, an increase in inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin 6 and tumour necrosis factor alpha, is know to be associated with low levels of cerebral serotonin and dopamine. The causal link between disrupted immune function and increased inflammation, as in autoimmune disease, is an unfavourable microbiome. Development of autoimmune disease is often multifactorial, for example,  a change in the microbiome might trigger gene expression with adverse effects. Indeed gene expression (independent of sex steroids) has been shown to account for increased prevalence of autoimmune disease in women.

Depression of serotonin levels

Low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are know to be linked to depression. Hence prescription of selective serotonin uptake inhibitors to those suffering with depression. However recent research has now revealed a dynamic interaction between peripheral and cerebral effects of the microbiome on immunity and mood, mediated via the circadian release of key hormones such as serotonin. Serotonin is synthesised from precursor tryptophan in the gastrointestinal tract and central nervous system. Low mood in autoimmune disease could be due to psychological factors: knowing that this is a chronic condition with reduced life expectancy. Reduced serotonin, may be a further biochemical reason. Potentially lack of sleep due to pain in autoimmune disease would also suppress serotonin levels.

Applications for microbiome/immunity/inflammation interactions

How will these findings from recent research help in optimising inflammatory mediated adaptations to exercise training and support the understanding and treatment of autoimmune disease? It has been suggested that serotonin could be a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, as 5HT appears to have a peripheral immuno-regulatoty role in the pathophysiology of this autoimmune disease. Optimising the microbiome, with prebiotics and probiotics, may improve disease activity and improve response to treatment with biologics.

Is the nature of an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) changing? Deformed hands with swollen joints were a perennial favourite for medical examinations. However as described recently at a conference at Royal College of Physicians, although joint destruction is still a feature of RA, this seems to be accompanied by less joint swelling and involvement of greater range of joints. Are the triggers changing rather than a change in the nature of disease? How do nutrition and medication impact the microbiome?

For athletes, apart from periodising energy requirements and micronutrients to support training, encouraging a diverse microbiome will potentially support adaptive changes to training.

For further discussion on Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of SEM come to the BASEM annual conference 22/3/18: Health, Hormones and Human Performance


Balance of recovery and adaptation for sports performance. Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sports and Exercise Medicine

Sleep for health and sports performance. Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sport and Exercise Medicine

Conference Royal Society of Medicine. “Food: the good, the bad and the ugly” 1/2/17

“Food, microbes and health” Professor Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, King’s College, London

“Nutrition and the gut: food as trigger for disease; food as medicine” Dr Charlie Lees, Chair Scottish Society of Gastroenterology IBD Interest Group. European Crohn’s and Colitis Organisation Committe

“Nutrition and its effect on the immune system” Dr Liam O’Mahony, Head of Molecular Immunology, swiss Institute of Allergy and Asthma Research

Advanced Medicine Conference. Royal College of Physicians 13-16 February 2017

” The gut microbiome clinical and physiological tolerance” Professor Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, King’s College, London

“Rheumatoid arthritis-ensuring everyone gets the best treatment” Dr Neil Snowden

Microbiota Diurnal Rhythmicity Programs Host Transcriptome Oscillations Cell Volume 167, Issue 6, p1495–1510.e12, 1 December 2016

Intestinal Serotonin Transporter Inhibition by Toll-Like Receptor 2 Activation. A Feedback Modulation. Eva Latorre , Elena Layunta, Laura Grasa, Marta Castro, Julián Pardo, Fernando Gomollón, Ana I. Alcalde †, José E. Mesonero. Published: December 29, 2016

A gene network regulated by the transcription factor VGLL3 as a promoter of sex-biased autoimmune diseases. Yun Liang, Lam C Tsoi, Xianying Xing, Maria A Beamer, William R Swindell, Mrinal K Sarkar, Celine C Berthier, Philip E Stuart, Paul W Harms, Rajan P Nair, James T Elder, John J Voorhees, J Michelle Kahlenberg & Johann E Gudjonsson
Nature Immunology 18, 152–160 (2017)

Serotonin Is Involved in Autoimmune Arthritis through Th17 Immunity and Bone Resorption. Yasmine Chabbi-Achengli, Tereza Coman, Corinne Collet, Jacques Callebert, Michelangelo Corcelli, Hilène Lin, Rachel Rignault, Michel Dy, Marie-Christine de Vernejoul, Francine Côté. The American Journal of Pathology. April 2016 Volume 186, Issue 4, Pages 927–937