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Does Gut Microbiome Influence Mindset and Mental Toughness?

Harvard researchers link specific gut microbiota with peak athletic performance.

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Over the past two years, researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS) have pinpointed specific gut microbiome that differs between elite athletes and non-athletes. The researchers have also identified how bacteria in the intestines changes before, during, and after specific types of athletic competitions. In addition to observing changes in microbiome linked to physical performance and recovery, the researchers from the Church Lab at Harvard University speculate that gut microbiome might play a role in reducing performance anxiety and boosting mental toughness.

Jonathan Scheiman, postdoctoral candidate in the Department of Genetics at HMS, and professor George Church of Harvard and MIT presented their latest findings in a lecture, “FitBiomics: Understanding Elite Microbiomes for Performance and Recovery Applications,” today at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (Aug. 20-24, 2017) in Washington, DC.

In recent years, there has been a groundswell of animal studies linking gut-brain-microbiota interactions with a variety of mood disorders and social behaviors. However, until recently, there was a scarcity of human studies on the correlation between various gut microbiome profiles and specific behavioral traits. This is beginning to change.

For example, in June 2017, a pioneering study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) identified that specific gut microbiota may influence various brain regions and be correlated with stress responses to negative emotional stimuli in healthy humans. These findings were published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

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The human gut microbiota (also referred to as microbiome) is a diverse ecological community of microorganisms that reside within the GI tract. The terms microbiota and microbiome are often used interchangeably. Technically, the genes inside microbial cells are classified as microbiome. The human gut typically harbors over 100 trillion microorganisms. This is approximately ten times the number of cells in the entire human body. Microbes begin residing within human intestines shortly after birth and can be influenced by diet, lifestyle, and environment.

For their latest research, Scheiman et al. sequenced the microbiome of elite athletes using computational metagenomic methods to identify and isolate novel probiotic bacteria among Boston marathon runners, Olympic rowers, and ultra-endurance athletes who run 100+ miles at a stretch. Their ultimate goal is to develop probiotic supplements that could help improve physical and psychological athletic performance while aiding speedier recovery for both weekend warriors and elite competitors.

In a statement, Jonathan Scheiman described the basis of his team’s research, “We are more bacteria than we are human. The bugs in our gut affect our energy metabolism, making it easier to break down carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. They are also involved in inflammation and neurological function. So perhaps the microbiome could be relevant for applications in endurance, recovery and maybe even mental toughness.”

Yogi Berra once quipped, "Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical." All kidding aside, as an ultra-endurance athlete—who made myself a human lab rat and broke a Guinness World Record by running 153.76 miles on a treadmill in 24 hours—I've long contended that optimizing mental capacity to achieve peak physical performance in sports is inherently rooted in neurobiology.

More specifically, my paradigm surrounding the neuroscience of athletic mindset and physicality has focused on the cerebrocerebellar interplay between both hemispheres of the cerebellum and both hemispheres of the cerebrum. That said, until earlier this year, I was unaware of the potential link between stress responses, mental toughness, gut microbiome, and the role someone's vagus nerve plays in the bidirectional gut-brain axis feedback loop. Lately, the psychophysiology of gut microbiome strains and the vagus nerve has really piqued my curiosity.

As another recent example, in March 2017, Terrence McNally interviewed George Church and Jonathan Scheiman for the “Disruptive” podcast, which is produced by Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. During this interview, Scheiman spoke extensively about the role that microbiome might play in the convergence of athletic mindset and mental toughness through the lens of sports genomics:

"For instance, if you recruit an ultramarathon runner, someone who runs 100 miles at a time, I'm going to venture to say that their microbiome in terms of processing carbohydrates to convert to energy, they're going to have some bugs in their system that aid them in that process for applications and endurance. In fact, some of our studies have identified bugs that are elevated in these athletes that actually help in energy metabolism.

Certainly, if you look at gut-brain axis and the notion of mental toughness applications among professional athletes and elite athletes...if you look at the pressure that they face on a daily basis with competition, I would reason that perhaps they have some bugs in their gut that could help them stay calm during these times of high anxiety. Certainly, they could benefit from bugs that may be able to calm them and help them with mental toughness.

There have been studies which spoke about gut-brain axis and mental toughness, and how they influence calmness and anxiety levels in people. There's a lot of study out there, but again, there's not a lot of diversity, and I think there's a dearth of innovation and implementation of technology in the field."

In the next few months, Scheiman and his team are planning to launch a company that will bring state-of-the-art probiotics to market. The researchers in the Church Lab are also planning to expand their diverse consortium of athletes and will continue to collect microbial data to create a massive "strain bank" of novel probiotic candidates. The ultimate goal is to mine extensive microbiome data from world-class athletes with the hope of pinpointing gut microbiota information that can be used to help athletes and people from all walks of life.


"Brain structure and response to emotional stimuli as related to gut microbial profiles in healthy women." Tillisch, Kirsten; Mayer, Emeran; Gupta, Arpana; Gill, Zafar; Brazeilles, Rémi; Le Nevé, Boris; van Hylckama Vlieg, Johan E.T.; Guyonnet, Denis; Derrien, Muriel; Labus, Jennifer S. Psychosomatic Medicine. Published online ahead of print June 29, 2017. DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000493

Clark, Allison, and Núria Mach. "Exercise-induced stress behavior, gut-microbiota-brain axis and diet: a systematic review for athletes." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 13, no. 1 (2016): 43. DOI: 10.1186/s12970-016-0155-6

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