Today’s post is inspired by the unit I am working through at the moment in my nutrition studies. I have been doing a lot of research on athletes, competition and impaired immune function. I thought it would be a good time to do a blog post on it, seeing as we are right in the middle of the CrossFit Open and I know this is a time where a lot of people tend to come down with colds and flus from excessive stress.
It seems there is a very fine line that those who undertake regular strenuous exercise walk, between extreme physical wellbeing and impaired immune function. The problem is that when recovery starts to become less of a priority and things get out of balance, their state can quickly turn from extremely healthy to sickness prone.
Did you ever wonder why you get sick more often during times of increased stress in your life? Well there is plenty of research that indicates that athletes are at increased risk of cold & sickness during periods of heavy training and 1–2 weeks following competitive events.
The increased risk is most likely due to the immunosuppressive actions of stress hormones such as adrenaline & cortisol when they remain at higher levels for a period of time.
During times of competition or high physical & mental stress a lot of athletes tend to turn to “extras” like supplements, to boost their immune system. There is a lot of research though that indicates that a lowered immune system is related to so many different factors, and no one supplement will address the problem. Instead you should try a range of useful strategies, including:
--Manage training loads and daily physical activity associated with work and other routine activities. *During this time you may need to cut back on other highly taxing physical activity.
--Manage psychological stress including stress associated with work, family, training and competition. Everyone has their own stress relief techniques that work for them, but it goes without saying that allowing yourself to stress about other issues in your life unnecessarily on top of the higher competition stress levels can lower your immune system.
--Ensure adequate (quality) sleep. This is pretty self-explanatory. Getting enough good quality sleep is almost more important than any other recovery strategy. When it comes to sleep, the most important thing is getting quality hours over quantity. Don’t stress too much about getting 9-10 hours of sleep a night and instead make the hours you get good quality sleep. I perform best on 7 ½-8 hours of sleep a night but when I only get 6 hours some nights of the week I try to make those hours as good as possible. Some tips for making your sleep better is to turn off all electronics so there are no lights in your room at all and sleep in a cool room (not cold though). Try to go to sleep when it gets dark and wake up when the sun comes up. If you really struggle with sleep, try to keep your training and exercise earlier in the day. Then use some relaxation tactics: a hot bath, a book in bed, a bit of yoga or stretching, meditation etc. Taking supplements like melatonin, valerian & magnesium can help.
--Minimise exposure to germs and bugs by practicing good hygiene. Hand sanitisers work a charm when busy at work or training.
-Maintain a diet providing adequate fuel for training and recovery, with a good mix of essential nutrients. Which brings me to my next point!
Despite the trend in athletes relying heavy on nutritional supplements, there is currently a lack of evidence to support benefits from high doses of vitamins, glutamine supplementation or echinacea extracts in preventing exercise-induced immune suppression and providing protection from infection.
The current consensus is that athletes should invest in eating nutrient-rich foods and drinking fluids that provide energy, a wide range of vitamins, minerals and other important substances, such as antioxidants and phyto-chemicals, found naturally in foods.
As an athlete, you place a tremendous amount of intentional stress on your body in order to meet your fitness goals. Because of this it is so important to have an appropriately planned diet to support your athletic development. This goes without saying, eating enough calories to support your activity levels is of huge importance as well.
Any diet that is restrictive (e.g. paleo, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free) or lacking in variety (e.g. you rely on fast food, you don’t like to cook, etc.) has potential for nutritional deficiencies. Athletes should try as best as possible to maintain as much of a balanced diet as possible, & if they want to make dietary modifications/swaps they should consult a dietician first.
Critical factors for the maintenance of optimum immune function during times of high physical stress include an adequate dietary intake of carbohydrates (very important, more on this below), protein and specific micronutrients including vitamins A, C, E, B6 and B12, and iron, zinc, copper and selenium.
A low carbohydrate intake is thought to contribute to immunosuppression via increased production of stress hormones and depletion of glucose, which is a key substrate for immune cells.
Research indicates that consuming adequate carbohydrate in the days preceding strenuous exercise acts as an effective counter-measure to the suppression in immune function that occurs post-exercise. Matching carbohydrate intake with daily fuel requirements is a good strategy to protect immune function following prolonged strenuous exercise.
It’s a good idea to time your carbhydrates around your workouts as this is the time when your body is under the most intentional physiological stress. You are burning plenty of carbs (energy) in your training sessions each day (and also through extra nerves during competition etc) so the least you can do to respect your body is nourish it before, during and after the workout to ensure that you adapt to the training stress.
Post workout is where the magic happens. There's great benefit to consuming protein soon after you finish a workout to enhance recover of damaged muscles and to stimulate protein synthesis. What else is happening when you properly refuel post workout?
You are also experiencing muscle fibre regeneration, increasing mitochondria, capillarization and metabolic changes. The idea recovery nutrition is around 25-30g protein in the post-workout period where the key amino acid to boost recovery appears to be leucine (an essential amino acid).
You'd be happy to know that your recovery window is open more than 30-60 min post workout and instead 24-48 hours you are still recovering! This is why it is really important to keep refueling post workout and to not have one big meal post workout but instead to have repeated small doses of protein (25-30g) all throughout the day post workout.
If you can stay on top of your health and recovery during times of competetion and high stress you will be well on your way to optimizing your performances.
-Gleeson M, Nieman DC and Pedersen BK. Exercise, nutrition and immune function.
-Journal of Sports Sciences, 2004; 22: 115–25.
-Lancaster GI, Khan Q, Drysdale P, Jeukendrup AE, Drayson MT and Gleeson M: Effect of feeding different amounts of carbohydrate during prolonged exercise on human T-lymphocyte intracellular cytokine production.
-Training strategies to maintain immunocompetence in athletes: International Journal of Sports
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