A new study shows that antibiotics, by destroying gut bacteria, reduce athletic motivation and performance.

The new mouse study suggests that a healthy microbiome – the collection of bacteria and micro-organisms that inhabit out guts – may be a key factor determining athletic performance.

This new research comes at the same time as other research which suggests that 7 in 10 doctors may be prescribing antibiotics for unnecessary, asymptomatic infections.

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Antibiotics and athletic performance

“We believed an animal’s collection of gut bacteria, its microbiome, would affect digestive processes and muscle function, as well as motivation for various behaviors, including exercise,” said Theodore Garland, UCR evolutionary physiologist in whose lab the research was conducted.

“Our study reinforces this belief.”

The researchers administered antibiotics to two groups of mice for ten days, one bred for high levels of running and another that was not. Fecal samples confirmed that gut bacteria were reduced in both groups.

Neither group showed any signs of sickness from the antibiotic treatment. However, wheel running in the athletic mice was reduced by 21 percent. The athletic mice did not recover their running behavior even 12 days after the antibiotic treatment stopped. The researchers were certain the microbiome damage was responsible.

By comparison, the behavior of the normal mice was not significantly affected either during the treatment, or afterward.

“A casual exerciser with a minor injury wouldn’t be affected much. But on a world-class athlete, a small setback can be much more magnified,” said Monica McNamara, UCR evolutionary biology doctoral student and the paper’s first author.

“That’s why we wanted to compare the two types of mice.” Knocking out the normal gut microbiome might be compared with an injury.

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One way the microbiome might affect exercise in mice or in humans is through its ability to produce chemicals that affect muscle performance.

“Metabolic end products from bacteria in the gut can be reabsorbed and used as fuel,” Garland said. “Fewer good bacteria means less available fuel.”

Moving forward, the researchers would like to identify the specific bacteria responsible for increased athletic performance.

“If we can pinpoint the right microbes, there exists the possibility of using them as a therapeutic to help average people exercise more,” Garland said.

A lack of exercise is known to be a major risk factor for aspects of mental health, including depression, as well as physical health, including metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis.

Certain foods may also increase desirable gut bacteria. While research into “probiotics” is developing, Garland recommends that those interested in promoting overall health maintain a balanced diet in addition to regular exercise.

“We do know from previous studies that the western diet, high in fat and sugar, can have a negative effect on biodiversity in your gut and likely, by extension, on athletic ability and possibly even on motivation to exercise,” Garland said.

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