The life of an athlete can put extra strain on the immune system and ability to stay well.
Physical and mental stress, poor food choices, high levels of repeated training and poor quality sleep may decrease your immune function making you more susceptible to getting sick and feeling run down.
As the seasons and temperature change, training demands change and looming stress of competition, study or life is present we can be more likely to get sick with cold or flu.
Prevention is better than a cure so here are some areas to target to keep your immune system strong and fighting through the changes in season and training.
1. Balanced, nutrient dense, healthy diet
Good nutrition and an adequate carbohydrate intake to support training demands is paramount to support the immune system. Eating a diet which has a wide range of colourful fruit and vegetables will provide the body with valuable micronutrients and antioxidants for your body. In addition to this, include onion, garlic and ginger for their natural antimicrobial ability.
Carbohydrate availability before and after training will provide the primary fuel source for training and recovery, and fuel the immune system and bodily functions. Wholegrain and high fibre carbohydrates, that have minimal processing, like oats, sweet potato, legumes and brown rice, will keep the gut healthy and happy and contribute additional immune supporting nutrients like zinc, magnesium and vitamin B.
2. Gut health
The gut is the gateway between the food you eat and what is eventually absorbed into the blood stream and body to make it function.
80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive tract. A healthy varied diet as outlined above, is essential for optimal functioning of your gut to turn over, and support immune function.
Foods high in sugar, highly processed foods and high saturated fats all have a damaging effect on the environment of the gut, which can directly impair immune function.
High levels of training, and physical and emotional stress may also compromise the optimal functioning of the gut and gut protective lining. This may result in inflammation at the gut, or deficiencies in the nutrients and water the body is able to absorb, presenting itself through symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, loose bowels or discomfort around meals.
Probiotics may be beneficial if experiencing loose or irregular bowel movements, as well as help reduce gastrointestinal symptoms of bloating or discomfort. By keeping the gut functioning as it should, without these disturbances, it will in turn help improve immune function and reduce the duration and severity of respiratory tract infections from cold and flu in the winter months. Like any other supplements, probiotics aren’t an answer to reverse poor gut health but an enhancer to compliment good diet habits through fibre intake and a varied diet.
Having a multi-strand probiotic daily from either a capsule, natural yoghurt or fermented food, can help to increase good bacteria and improve the integrity of the gut by fermenting and breaking down the food you eat.
L-Glutamine. High level training can cause low levels of circulating glutamine, an amino acid produced by the body. L-Glutamine also helps to improve gut health and the lining of the gut so its absorbing nutrients as it should. Regular high level training means there is less time for the body to re synthesize more protective glutamine.
Including L-glutamine as a supplement or part of a protein shake may be important to help improve the gut lining to further enhance immune support.
Anti-oxidants, zinc, and vitamin C. These nutrients can help alleviate symptoms of cold and flu as part of a balanced diet, not just in isolation. ‘Super foods’ such as aloe vera water, acai and goji berries all have nutrients that stimulate the immune system as well as provide powerful anti-oxidants to protect against oxidative damage.
Additional antioxidants and quercetin is found in dark berries, tea and apple skin. Increasing zinc through food sources like wheat germ, pepitas and red meat before going straight to a supplement, is a good option.
Vitamin C is well known for its cold fighting ability so is beneficial to include dietary sources, which are also high in fibre, like kiwi fruit, oranges and capsicum to boost your intake as opposed to having mega doses of these nutrients through tablets.