Fighting Belly Cramps

triathletes running next to lake

Belly cramps are caused by a variety of gastrointestinal tract issues. However, they can be prevented by staying hydrated, eating a diet high in fiber, avoiding potential allergens and clearing the colon before intense physical activity.









Every athlete has suffered through belly cramps.  Often they appear out of the blue. However, they can be fought with the right diet, hydration and empty colon. The intense abdominal pain is caused by disturbances in the gastrointestinal tract. The symptoms can range from a minor disturbance during or following exercise to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and severe abdominal pain.  

A recent study looked at 12 endurance athletes, ranging from recreational to elite, for causes of gastrointestinal symptoms. All 12 athletes were found to suffer from gastrointestinal ischaemia during periods of maximal exercise (Abdominal symptoms during physical exercise and the role of gastrointestinal ischaemia: a study in 12 symptomatic athletes; 2011; Steege, et al.). Gastrointestinal ischaemia is the depletion of blood flowing to the colon. When not enough blood reaches the colon it hurts due to the lack of oxygen. In hot or humid environments, gastrointestinal ischaemia is especially acute because more blood is diverted to the skin for thermoregulation. Two other causes of gastrointestinal complaints during exercise are gastric emptying delay and food-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis (FDEIA). Gastric emptying delay is when food remains in the stomach for an extended amount of pain.  FDEIA is any allergen reaction in the gut. Exercise facilitates allergen absorption in the gastrointestinal tract.

How are these gastrointestinal complaints prevented? A Brazilian review on the subject provides some answers (Food-dependent, exercise-induced gastrointestinal distress; 2011, EP Oliveiera and RC Burini). FDEIA is caused by consuming allergen-specific foods within a few hours preceding exercise. Foods found to be associated with FDEIA include cereals, seafood, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk and vegetables. Gastric emptying delay can be fought by staying hydrated and avoiding replacement fluid with high levels of glucose and hypertonic solutions in general. A fructose-glucose mix has been shown to replenish muscle energy with increased gastrointestinal carbohydrate oxidation. Staying hydrated, but not overly so, is the best way to fight gastrointestinal complaints with the added benefit that it assists with thermoregulation.

Diets high in fiber, like these apples, prevent stomach cramps.

The best way to fight gastrointestinal ischemia is by clearing the colon. Exercise induces powerful contractions in the intestines that drive food forward along the gastrointestinal tract. This increases the amount of blood desired by the colon. Fiber holds moisture in the colon. Foods high in fiber keep stool soft allowing it to clear out easier. To ensure your diet is high in fiber, eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Avoid white-flour foods which are low in fiber and bulky. Passing stool at the same time time on a daily basis can condition the processes driving stool out of the colon.   

In summary, in order to prevent abdominal cramping: stay hydrated, eat fiber, avoid potential allergens and clear your colon before an intense workout or race.

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