Does exercising give you a stomach ache? Popular cocoa remedy won’t help, study says

WASHINGTON — Many people complain of stomach and digestive distress after working out. Recently, some fitness enthusiasts and athletes have begun consuming more cocoa on a regular basis to combat this exercise-induced indigestion. Unfortunately, new research from the American Chemical Society reports long-term habitual consumption of cocoa will do little to alleviate exercise-related digestive distress.

It’s important to note that this research focused only on male athletes, so further work should be conducted on women as well. Study authors observed minimal changes to the male athletes’ gut microbiomes.

Common symptoms associated with exercise-induced stomach problems include diarrhea, nausea, heartburn, and abdominal cramps. In extreme cases, some athletes have to stop mid-competition due to intestinal discomfort. But, why do so many people believe cocoa is the answer to this issue? Prior research does suggest cocoa is beneficial for the stomach, as it contains lots of flavonoids.

Flavonoids boost both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities in the gut, and have even shown prebiotic effects on beneficial gut microbes across multiple animal studies. Up until now, however, the effect of cocoa on human stomach activity hadn’t really been assessed in a standardized, scientific manner. With all this in mind the research team set out to conduct a a highly controlled yet also realistic experiment involving humans to study this topic.

A collection of 54 fit male athletes took part in a randomized placebo-controlled experiment. All participants adhered to a strict and intense 10-week exercise program. During that two and a half month period subjects were asked to supplement their usual diets with either flavonoid-rich cocoa or a placebo starch powder mixed into semi-skim milk. Both groups consumed their “cocoa” with breakfast each morning.

At the start and finish of the 10-week period all athletes also underwent a high-endurance running test. Across both groups the athletes’ gastrointestinal symptoms did not fluctuate by the end of the 10 weeks, suggesting cocoa consumption did little if anything to improve exercise-induced digestive issues. Regarding gut microbiome, plasma, and fecal metabolites, only slight changes or effects were observed as well.

Study authors caution that the athletes’ usual diets, consisting of lots of fruits and veggies, may have “masked” some of the cocoa’s benefits. Still, they ultimately conclude cocoa does not appear to be en effective means of avoiding exercise-related stomach problems.

The study is published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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