Many clients struggle with compliance, especially as it relates to their eating habits. To help clients shift their mindset and get back on track, trainers often turn to coaching techniques, accountability models, or positive self-talk. While these can certainly help, client non-compliance and mindset may be, in part, due to physiological reasons. In this article, we will consider the role of gut bacteria and nutrition in helping clients improve their mindset.
- Understand why client non-compliance may be partly due to physiological reasons related to gut health.
- Identify factors that influence the population of gut bacteria.
- Recognize the effects of both beneficial and pathogenic bacteria on the mind.
- Identify interventions that personal trainers can use with clients to help them improve gut health.
Many clients struggle with healthy eating, even those that are very disciplined and motivated. They sign up for training and are ready to change their eating habits. They stock the kitchen with healthy foods and buy recipe books. The first couple of days are a breeze. They have energy and feel great. By the third or fourth day, progress drastically changes. Cravings go through the roof and energy levels plummet. Comfort foods are, well, just too tempting, and the ability to control portions seems impossible. They claim, “This happens every time I try to change my diet. I have no willpower.” Blaming themselves continues to adversely affect confidence, motivation, and mood.
At this point, clients may want to give up, fearing they will never be able to change their bad habits. Those that persevere may want to understand their cycle of self-sabotage and how to develop better self-control. Creating and adhering to new habits is definitely something that requires consistency and practice, but the root cause of the problem may not lie in the brain, the subconscious, or even in negative self-talk. It may lie in the health of the gut and the bacteria that inhabit it.
Gut Bacteria and the Gut-Brain Axis
The gut and the brain are in constant communication. The gut communicates to the brain in several ways, but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on the communication that takes place between the gut bacteria and the brain.
Populations of bacteria (collectively known as microbiota) start inhabiting the gut during the birthing process and continue to develop and change through interactions with the environment throughout the individual’s lifespan. These populations are influenced by (Marques et al., 2010):
- Mode of delivery (vaginal birth* vs. caesarean section)
- Being breast fed*
- Diet (healthy*)
- Status of the immune system
- Pharmacological treatments (especially antibiotics)
- Physical activity*
Factors that are starred (*) have been shown to improve the diversity and populations of beneficial bacteria.
Communication Gone Awry
Some strains of bacteria do not work in harmony with their host. Others cause harm to the host. Through chemical messaging to the brain, they have the ability to manipulate both the eating behavior and mood of the person they inhabit. It is proposed that this happens through the following mechanisms (Alcock, Maley, & Akipis, 2014):
- Bacteria cause cravings for foods that they have an affinity for or foods that suppress other forms of bacteria in the gut that may be competing for the same resources.
- Bacteria make the host feel dysphoric (unwell) until the person consumes food that the bacteria prefer.
In other words, microbes drive clients to consume foods that best feed them, even if those foods are unhealthy. When these foods are eliminated from the diet, microbes release toxins, causing that dysphoric feeling. If clients give in to the cravings and consume the food, microbes get the fuel they need. As a reward for feeding them, they release chemicals that act on the pleasure centers of the brain and make clients feel good.
This feedback loop actually encourages clients to continue making unhealthy food choices. If they feel ill while following a healthy eating plan but feel better once they have indulged in their favorite treat, who can blame them for continuing to deviate from their plan?
One example of this is the presence of Helicobacter pylori. People inhabited by this bacteria are more likely to experience mood disorders, which may be a result of inflammation in the gut (Holtmann, 2014). H. pylori may also influence eating behavior and drive people to consume more food, which hinders their efforts to lose weight.
Stress Compounds the Issue
If the chemical messages from the bad bacteria aren’t enough for clients to have to overcome, stress adds fuel to the fire. Many studies have demonstrated that psychological stress negatively affects beneficial gut bacteria. A study testing the stool samples of college students found the samples contained fewer lactobacilli during exam week than earlier in the semester (Knowles, 2008). Lutgendorff, Akkermans, & Soderholm (2008) reported that psychological stress decreases lactobacilli populations and allows pathogenic forms of E. coli to flourish.
Other studies have demonstrated the same results: stress reduces the diversity and populations of beneficial gut bacteria and allows harmful bacteria to proliferate.
Consider the busy lives of most people today. They are juggling their job, family, and social needs. Add the stress of changing their daily habits and lifestyle, and the recipe for an altered gut microbiome and a challenged mindset is complete.
Our Little Helpers
Not all bacterial strains wreak havoc on the mind and body. In fact, some are essential for human health. They help digest food and absorb nutrients, maintain a healthy body weight, and balance mood, among others. The strains that have a positive effect on mood are known as psychobiotics, and include Lactobacillus helveticus, Bifidobacterium longum, and Bifidobacterium infantis.
Healthy subjects administered a probiotic formulation of Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum for 30 days reported less psychological distress (Messaoudi et al., 2011). Rats given the same formulation for two weeks exhibited less anxiety-like behavior. In another study, Bifidobacterium infantis helped alleviate depressive symptoms (Dinan, Stanton, & Cryan, 2013).
Breaking the Vicious Cycle
While there is more to mindset than the health of the gut, it is clear that the gut plays a role in mood, mindset, and behavior. Researchers are still investigating the best ways to restore the microbiome of the gut. However, several helpful interventions have been identified that are within the scope of a personal trainer.
- Prebiotics: Basically, these are fuel for the bacteria in the gut. They can be found in raw fruits and vegetables (like bananas, asparagus, garlic, onion, and leeks) or taken as a supplement. Note that clients who are sensitive to FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides, and Polyols) may experience intestinal distress from even small quantities of prebiotics and should get these from food only, as tolerated. Prebiotics can also be contraindicated for clients with severe gut issues, as they are fuel for bad bacteria as well as good bacteria.
- Probiotics: These are preparations of beneficial bacteria. They can be taken as a supplement or found in fermented foods. Probiotics are generally safe for most people to take, although, like prebiotics, people with severe gut issues should use caution and may want to consult with a doctor before starting any probiotic supplementation. More information about probiotics and gut health is presented in this article: “The Importance of Bacteria in Gut Health.”
- Dietary changes: The gut microbiome is continuously changing, and by altering food intake, bacterial populations will be altered as well. Bad bacteria increase cravings for the foods that feed them. By resisting cravings and consuming a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and fats, the microbiome can shift to one that is more favorable and cravings may decrease. While this is an effective strategy in changing the gut microbiome, clients may need support and encouragement, especially if gut bacteria are making their cravings more intense.
- Limit exposure to chemicals that alter the microbiota: chemicals in foods, cleaning products, beauty products, and even chlorine in water can negatively impact the bacterial colonies in the gut. Encourage your clients to:
- buy fresh, organic produce
- buy free-range meat
- avoid processed foods
- drink and bathe in filtered water
- buy environmentally friendly beauty and cleaning products (they are good for the environment and for the health of the gut)
- avoid unnecessarily using antibiotics (which kill both good and bad bacteria)
- Stress Management: Given that stress adversely impacts gut health, it is important to include stress management techniques into clients’ programs. This can include: journaling, yoga, meditation, massage, deep breathing, and any other techniques that help clients buffer the effects of stress. Find out what helps each client, as everyone prefers and responds to different methods of relaxing.
Improving client compliance does require accountability models and coaching techniques. However, given that the bacteria in the gut communicate with and affect the brain, the impact of gut health cannot be discounted. It affects clients’ mood, mindset, and eating behavior. By improving the health of the gut and decreasing stress, clients may experience fewer mood fluctuations. They may be more compliant in eating healthy foods as their cravings decrease. Most of all, clients may feel more empowered, knowing they can take concrete steps to improve their gut health and finally let go of their long-term struggle with eating healthy.
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Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2013). Melancholic microbes: a link between gut microbiota and depression?. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 25(9), 713-719.
Dinan, T. G., Stanton, C., & Cryan, J. F. (2013). Psychobiotics: a novel class of psychotropic. Biological psychiatry, 74(10), 720-726.
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Marques, T. M., Wall, R., Ross, R. P., Fitzgerald, G. F., Ryan, C. A., & Stanton, C. (2010). Programming infant gut microbiota: influence of dietary and environmental factors. Current opinion in biotechnology, 21(2), 149-156.
Messaoudi, M., Lalonde, R., Violle, N., Javelot, H., Desor, D., Nejdi, A., ... & Cazaubiel, J. M. (2011). Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 105(05), 755-764.
Petra, A. I., Panagiotidou, S., Hatziagelaki, E., Stewart, J. M., Conti, P., & Theoharides, T. C. (2015). Gut-microbiota-brain axis and its effect on neuropsychiatric disorders with suspected immune dysregulation. Clinical Therapeutics, 37(5), 984-995. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.clinthera.2015.04.002
University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). (2014, August 15). Do gut bacteria rule our minds? In an ecosystem within us, microbes evolved to sway food choices. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140815192240.htm