It really does take guts to run a marathon.
In fact, endurance athletes who carry a specific type of gut bacteria may perform better than those without this microorganism running around in their digestive tracts, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.
Harvard researchers analyzed stool samples from 10 Boston Marathon runners who completed the 26.2-mile race in 2015, as well as the feces of 10 non-athletes who served as the controls in the experiment. And the scientists found the marathoners’ excrement contained higher quantities of Veillonella bacteria than in sedentary people.
Fun fact: Veillonella bacteria metabolizes the lactic acid produced by exercise and converts it into a propionate, a fatty acid that is believed to have beneficial effects on mammals such as boosting metabolism and regulating blood pressure. So it makes sense that this microorganism could benefit athletic performance — and overall human health.
“One of the things that immediately caught our attention was this single organism, Veillonella, that was clearly enriched in abundance immediately after the marathon in the runners,” wrote Dr. Aleksandar D. Kostic, a co-author on the paper. “As we dug into the details of Veillonella, what we found was that it is relatively unique in the human microbiome in that it uses lactate or lactic acid as its sole carbon source.”
So the researchers gave an isolated sample of this bacteria — Veillonella atypica — from one of the marathoners to 16 mice, while giving 16 other mice another bacterium that doesn’t break down lactate. And the mice with the runners’ lactate-eating gut bacteria ran 13% longer on a treadmill before collapsing from exhaustion than the mice in the control group given the other microbe.
A growing body of research has suggested that the human gut biome could be tied to overall health and disease risk, such as reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity, treating intestinal disorders like inflammatory bowel disease, stimulating the immune system, reducing autism symptoms and possibly helping prevent Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer.
Dr. Kostic wrote that Veillonella could possibly be developed as a supplement to aid in overall health and performance, although more research is needed. “Having increased exercise capacity is a strong predictor of overall health and protection against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and overall longevity,” he stated. “What we envision is a probiotic supplement that people can take that will increase their ability to do meaningful exercise and therefore protect them against chronic diseases including diabetes.”
But the FDA recently announced that it is halting clinical trials on fecal transplants in humans after two patients got very sick, and one died, after receiving donated stool that hadn’t been screened for drug-resistant germs.
The impact on future research and development of fecal microbiota for transplantation studies remains to be seen. While the director of the agency’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research did not specify how many trials would be suspended in an interview with the New York Times, he noted it was “not just a few.”
This news comes as many runners who are registered to run fall marathons in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have kicked off their training. Almost 18.3 million Americans were registered for marathons in 2017, the most recent year that data is available from Running USA. Marathon entry fees can run $60 to $200, and runners raise millions of dollars for charity participating in big city races such as the TCS New York City Marathon and the Bank of America BAC, -0.79% Chicago Marathon.
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