Gut microbes: the latest experiment in enhancing athletic performance

Every little boost helps.
Every little boost helps.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Many athletes carefully select foods to improve their performance, including runners who “carbo-load” at dinner for a big race in the morning. But ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Japanese scientists are taking it a step further—via microorganisms in the gut.

A team at Okayama University is collecting stool samples from various athletes before and after competitions. “If we can determine what the ideal composition of microorganisms within the intestinal tract is for [the] Japanese based on their diet, it could help improve the performance of athletes,” lead researcher Hidetoshi Morita told the Asahi Shimbun.

How we’re affected by the microbes in our gastrointestinal tracts—though still not completely understood—is getting more attention. Scientists have learned that the same microorganisms that help regulate digestion can also alter brain chemistry, ultimately affecting how we think and feel. Eating yogurt, which contains helpful microorganisms, might make you friendlier, researchers say.

This sort of thing might raise questions, however. Will some of the arguments for and against performance-enhancing drugs carry over to performance-enhancing microbes? Will the art of “microorganism optimization” burden athletes with yet another layer of unwelcome complexity?

Manipulated microorganisms could also affect sports in other ways. MIT researchers have demonstrated a ”bacteria-powered” material that vents when activated by specific levels of heat and moisture, opening flaps to allow moisture to escape. New Balance has expressed interest in incorporating the technology into sportswear.

Of course, microorganisms are nothing new in sports—and they’re not always helpful. The condition known as athlete’s foot, as many an itch-crazed competitor has experienced, also comes courtesy of microorganisms.