To be a professional cyclist, one must have guts, microbiologist Lauren Peterson says, and she doesn’t just mean that in the metaphorical sense. Peterson, herself a pro endurance mountain biker, has discovered that the most elite athletes in the sport have a certain microbiome living in their intestines that allow them to perform better, and if you don’t have it, well, there may soon be a way to get it.
“Call it poop doping if you must,” Peterson told Bicycling magazine last week about her research.
Peterson, a research scientist at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut, heads up an initiative called the Athlete Microbiome Project, in which she compares stool samples of elite cyclists to amateur bikers. Her findings strikingly shine a light on a handful of microorganisms that apparently separate the guts of elite athletes from average people.
The most important, perhaps, is Prevotella. Not typically found in American and European gut microbiomes, Prevotella is thought to play a role in enhancing muscle recovery.
“In my sampling, only half of cyclists have Prevotella, but top racers always have it,” she told Bicycling. “It’s not even in 10 percent of non-athletes.”
Peterson reports she hosts Prevotella in her own gut – but not naturally. In fact, she might be the first case of “poop doping,” thanks to a fecal transplant she administered herself three years ago. Her donor? Another elite athlete.
Peterson didn’t decide on the fecal transplant solely to enhance her performance during her mountain bike races, but to cure a host of symptoms that have affected her since she was a child and contracted Lyme disease.
“I had no microbes to help me break down food, and I had picked up bugs in the lab where I was working because my system was so weak and susceptible,” she told Bicycling.
But, she continued, “I couldn’t find a doctor who could help me” since in the United States, fecal transplants are only performed to treat serious cases of Clostridium difficile, a disease that causes chronic diarrhea. And so Peterson went rogue.
Peterson detailed her decision to perform the “risky” procedure on herself on the podcast “Nourish Balance Thrive” last year. She admitted to thinking it was a “bad idea” at first because if not done with proper screenings of both parties, it could worsen a person’s problems. But through chance, she came across a donor, an elite long-distance racer, who had his microbiome mapped and screened after a case of food poisoning, which showed he was otherwise healthy. So Peterson took antibiotics to wipe out her own gut bacteria and essentially performed a reverse enema.
“I just did it at home,” she said of the February 2014 procedure. “It’s not fun, but it’s pretty basic.”
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