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Objective: It is evident that the gut microbiota and factors that influence its composition and activity effect human metabolic, immunological and developmental processes. We previously reported that extreme physical activity with associated dietary adaptations, such as that pursued by professional athletes, is associated with changes in faecal microbial diversity and composition relative to that of individuals with a more sedentary lifestyle. Here we address the impact of these factors on the functionality/metabolic activity of the microbiota which reveals even greater separation between exercise and a more sedentary state.

Design: Metabolic phenotyping and functional metagenomic analysis of the gut microbiome of professional international rugby union players (n=40) and controls (n=46) was carried out and results were correlated with lifestyle parameters and clinical measurements (eg, dietary habit and serum creatine kinase, respectively).

Results: Athletes had relative increases in pathways (eg, amino acid and antibiotic biosynthesis and carbohydrate metabolism) and faecal metabolites (eg, microbial produced short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) acetate, propionate and butyrate) associated with enhanced muscle turnover (fitness) and overall health when compared with control groups.

Conclusions: Differences in faecal microbiota between athletes and sedentary controls show even greater separation at the metagenomic and metabolomic than at compositional levels and provide added insight into the diet-exercise-gut microbiota paradigm.

(C) 2018 BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and the British Society of Gastroenterology