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



Fatigue, Sport Performance and Hormones…

How do you feel on Monday morning, when the alarm wakes you at 7am with a day of work ahead after the weekend? A bit tired, slightly lethargic, sluggish, maybe a little bit down, perhaps a few regrets about somewhat too much alcohol/food over weekend, frustrated that the exercise training schedule didn’t go according to plan?sleep

There are many causes of fatigue and sport underperformance: Endocrine, immunological, infective, metabolic, haematological, nutritional, digestive, neoplastic….. The adrenal gland in the Endocrine system in particular has come in for some bad press recently.

Adrenal woes

Undoubtedly the adrenal glands have a case to answer. Situated above the kidneys these Endocrine glands produce glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, androgens from the adrenal cortex and from the adrenal medulla adrenaline. Glucocorticoids (e.g. cortisol) have a metabolic function to maintain energy homeostasis and an immune function to suppress inflammation. Mineralocorticoids (e.g. aldosterone) maintain electrolyte and water balance. As mineralocorticoids and glucocorticoids are similar biological steroid molecules, there is some degree of overlap in their actions.

Addison’s disease and Cushing’s disease are serious medical conditions, corresponding respectively to under or over production by the adrenal glands of steroid hormones. Someone presenting in Addisonian crisis is a medical emergency requiring resuscitation with intravenous hydrocortisone and fluids. Conversely those with Cushing’s can present with hypertension and elevated blood glucose. Yet, apart from in the extremes of these disease states, cortisol metrics do not correlate with clinical symptoms. This is one reason why it is unwise and potentially dangerous to stimulate cortisol production based on clinical symptoms. Inappropriate exogenous steroid intake can suppress normal endogenous production and reduce the ability to respond normally to “stress” situations, such as infection. This is why the prescription of steroids, for example to reduce inflammation in autoimmune disease, is always given in a course of reducing dose and a steroid alert card has to be carried. Athletes should also be aware that exogenous steroid intake is a doping offence.

However, what is the “normal” concentration for cortisol? Well, for a start, it depends what time of day a sample is taken, as cortisol is produced in a circadian rhythm, with highest values in the morning on waking and lowest levels about 2/3am. Nor is this temporal periodicity of production the only variable, there are considerations such as tissue responsiveness and metabolism (break down) of the hormone. On top of these variables there are other inputs to the feedback control mechanism, which can in turn influence these variables. In other words, focusing on the steroid hormone production of the adrenal gland in isolation, could overlook underlying hypothamalmic-pituitary-adrenal (H-P-A) axis dysfunction and indeed wider issues.

Much maligned thyroid

That is not end of the possible causes of fatigue and sport underperformance: the H-P-A axis is just one of many interrelated, interacting Endocrine systems. There are many neuroendocrine inputs to the hypothalamus, the gate keeper of the control of the Endocrine system. Furthermore there are network interaction effects between the various Endocrine control feedback loops. For example cortisol towards the top end of “normal” range can impede the conversion at the tissue level of thyroxine (T4) to the more active triiodothyronine (T3) by enzymes which require selenium to function. Rather T4 can be converted to reverse T3 which is biologically inactive, but blocks the receptors for T3 and thus impair its action. This in turn can interfere with the feedback loop controlling thyroid function (hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis). The physiological ratio of T4 to T3 is 14:1, which is why supplementation with desiccated thyroid is not advisable with ratio of 4:1. There are other processes which can crucially interfere with this peripheral conversion of T4 to T3, such as inflammation and gut dysbiosis, which can occur as result of strenuous exercise training. So what might appear to be a primary thyroid dysfunction can have an apparently unrelated underlying cause. Indeed amongst highly trained athletes thyroid function can show an unusual pattern, with both thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and T4 at low end of the “normal “range, thought to be due to resetting of the hypothalamic-pituitary control signalling system. This highlights that the “normal” range for many hormones comprises subsets of the population and in the case of TSH, the “normal” range is not age adjusted, despite TSH increasing with age. As described by Dr Boelaert at recent conferences, there is certainly no medical justification for reports of some athletes in the USA being given thyroxine with TSH>2 (when the normal range is 0.5-5mU/l). Although thyroxine is not on the banned list for athletes, it could have potentially serious implications for health due to its impact on the Endocrine system as a whole.

Endocrine system interactions


Symptoms of fatigue are common to many clinical conditions, not just dysfunction in an Endocrine control axis in isolation, nor even the network interactive effects of the Endocrine system in isolation. For example, the impact of nutrition relative to training load produces a spectrum of clinical pictures and Endocrine disturbances seen in Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) in terms of health and sport performance.

Underlying mechanisms of Endocrine dysfunction

There may be predisposing factors in developing any clinical syndrome, the usual suspects being inflammation: whether infective, dysbioses, autoimmune; nutritional status linked with endocrine status;  training load with inadequate periodised recovery to name a few….

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


From population based norms to personalised medicine: Health, Fitness, Sports Performance British Journal of Sport Medicine 2017

Sports Endocrinology – what does it have to do with performance? British Journal of Sport Medicine 2017

Advanced Medicine Conference, Royal College of Physicians, London 13-16 February 2017, Endocrine session: Dr Kristien Boelaert, Dr Helen Simpson, Professor Rebecca Reynolds

Subclinical hypothydroidism in athletes. Lecture by Dr Kristeien Boelaert, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine Spring Conference 2014. The Fatigued Athlete

Sport Performance and RED-S, insights from recent Annual Sport and Exercise Medicine and Innovations in Sport and Exercise Nutrition Conferences British Journal of Sport Medicine 2017

Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport CPD module British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

Sleep for health and sports performance British Journal of Sport Medicine 2017

Inflammation: why and how much? British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

Clusters of athletes British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

Enhancing Sport Performance: Part 1 British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

Balance of recovery and adaptation for sports performance British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

Annual Sport and Exercise Medicine Conference, London 8/3/17 Gut Dysbiosis, Dr Ese Stacey

Adrenal fatigue does not exist: a systematic review BMC Endocrine Disorders. 2016; 16(1): 48.

A Controversy Continues: Combination Treatment for Hypothyroidism Endocrine News, Endocrine Society April 2017

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

Sleep for Health and Sports Performance

“Sleep.. chief nourisher in life’s feast,” Macbeth.

In my blog for British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine, I described improving sport performance by balancing the adaptive changes induced by training together with the recovery strategies to facilitate this, both in the short and long term.  alec0120-12x17

A recovery strategy which is vital in supporting both health and sport performance, during all stages of the training cycle is sleep.

Sufficient sleep is especially important in young athletes for growth and development and in order to support adaptive changes stimulated by training and to prevent injury. Amongst teenage athletes, studies have shown that a lack of sleep is associated with higher incidence of injury. This may be partly due to impaired proprioception associated with reduced sleep. Sleep is vital for consolidating neurological function and protein synthesis, for example in skeletal muscle. Sleep and exercise are both stimuli for growth hormone release from the anterior pituitary, which mediates some of these adaptive effects.

Lack of sleep can also interfere with functioning of the immune system due to disruption of the circadian rhythm of secretion in key areas of the Endocrine system. Athletes in heavy training, with high “stress” loads and associated elevated cortisol can also experience functional immunosuppression. So a combination of high training load and insufficient sleep can compound to disrupt efficient functioning of the immune system and render athletes more susceptible to illness and so inability to train, adapt and recover effectively.  Lack of sleep disrupts carbohydrate metabolism and recently found to suppress expression of genes regulating cholesterol transport. In overreaching training, lack of sleep could be either a cause or a symptom of insufficient recovery. Certainly sleep deprivation impairs exercise performance capacity (especially aerobic exercise) although whether this is due to a psychological, physical or combination effect is not certain.

Sufficient sleep quality and quantity is required for cognitive function, motor learning, and memory consolidation. All skills that are important for sports performance, especially in young people where there is greater degree of neuroplasticity with potential to develop neuromuscular skills. In a fascinating recorded lecture delivered by Professor Jim Horne at the Royal Society of Medicine, the effects of prolonged wakefulness were described. Apart from slowing reaction time, the executive function of the prefrontal cortex involved in critical decision making is impaired. Important consequences not only for athletes, but for doctors, especially for those of us familiar with the on call system in hospitals back in the bad old days. Sleep pattern pre and post concussive events in teenage athletes is found to be related to degree and duration of concussive symptoms post injury. The explanation of how sleep deprivation can cause these functional effects on the brain has been suggested in a study where subtle changes in cerebral neuronal structural properties were recorded. It is not known whether these changes have long term effects.

So given that sleep is essential not only for health and fitness, but to support sports performance, what strategies to maximise this vital recovery process? Use of electronic devices shortly before bedtime suppresses secretion of melatonin (neurotransmitter and hormone), which is a situation not conducive for sleep. Tryptophan is an amino acid precursor in the synthesis of melatonin and serotonin (neurotransmitter) both of which promote sleep. Recent research demonstrates that protein intake before bed can support skeletal and muscle adaptation from exercise and also recovery from tendon injury. Conversely there is recent report that low levels of serotonin synthesis may contribute to the pathogenesis of autoimmune inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. This highlights the subtle balance between degree of change required for positive adaptation and a negative over-response, as in inflammatory conditions. This balance is different for each individual, depending on the clinical setting. So maybe time to revisit the warm milky drink before bed? Like any recovery strategy, sleep can also be periodised to support exercise training, with well structured napping during the day as described by Dr Hannah Macleod, member of gold winning Olympic Hockey team.

In conclusion, when you are planning your training cycle, don’t forget that periodised recovery to compliment your schedule should be factored in, with sleep a priority recovery and adaptation strategy.

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 Sport and Exercise Medicine

Sleep, Injury and Performance

Keay N. The effects of growth hormone misuse/abuse. Use and abuse of hormonal agents: Sport 1999. Vol 7, no 3, 11-12.

Wallace J, Cuneo R, Keay N, Sonksen P. Responses of markers of bone and collagen turover to exercise, growth hormone (GH) administration and GH withdrawal in trained adult males. Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 2000. 85 (1): 124-33.

Sleep and sporting performance

Young people: neuromuscular skills for sports performance

Prolonged sleep restriction induces changes in pathways involved in cholesterol metabolism and inflammatory responses

“Sleepiness and critical decision making”. Recorded lecture Professor Jim Horne, Royal Society of Medicine 16/11/16

What Does Sleep Deprivation Actually Do To The Brain?

Pre-Sleep Protein Ingestion to Improve the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise Training

Exercise and fitness in young people – what factors contribute to long term health? Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sports Medicine

Serotonin Synthesis Enzyme Lack Linked With Rheumatoid Arthritis

“Science in Elite Sport” Dr Hannah Macleod, University of Roehampton, 6/12/16