Is Your Training Making You Sick?


Finding that you are frequently sick, despite being extremely active and following a healthy lifestyle? It is well-known that taking the step from “couch potato” to frequent exerciser has a positive effect on the immune system, thus decreasing incidence of infection. However, excessive exercise or overtraining has been shown to increase risk of upper respiratory infections forming a J-like curve (see below). Your body considers this excessive training to be an added stress, resulting in the same effect as on your body and hormones as work/ family or school stress for example. An accumulation of various stressors may also be causing your immune suppression.

Fortunately there are various lifestyle and nutritional strategies which one can put in place to improve immunity.

Lifestyle strategies

  • Firstly and probably most obviously, preventing over-training. Just as rest is essential for muscle repair, a balance of exercise and rest will help to prevent a decrease in immunity, improving performance in the long run. One should also avoid training for more than two hours at a time.
  • To decrease exposure to germs which will take advantage of a weak immune system, stay away from people with infections and make use of good personal hygiene practices
    • Avoid sharing towels, water bottles and cutlery
    • It is very difficult to prevent exposing our hands to germs, but be sure to wash hands often and prevent touching your eye or mouth area.
  • Saliva forms part of our first line of defence against infection. Therefore avoid getting a dry mouth. Common causes of dry mouth are caffeine, dehydration and anxiety.
  • Sleep deprivation is another cause of immune suppression. Make sure that you get adequate sleep, at least 7-8 hours per night is recommended.
  • Although it is close to impossible to minimise all other stress, any social or life stressors that can be avoided should be. Also be sure to partake in activities that help to lower your stress levels.
  • Avoid rapid weight loss, which has a negative effect on the immune system. Weight loss should not exceed 1kg per week.

Nutritional strategies to maintain immunity in athletes.

There are many supplements/drinks/pills produced making claims about improving immunity. However, none of these (researched or not) can make up for a bad diet.

A healthy balanced diet is the ultimate goal. This may sound simple, but in reality is often not achieved. The diet should be high enough in total energy to maintain bodily functions and prevent weight loss. It should also contain sufficient of the 3 macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein and fats. Often what we perceive to be sufficient differs quite largely from our actual requirements. It may be advisable to visit a dietician who can explain your requirements to you and provide you with practical advice in how to achieve this.

Micronutrients have a macro effect. To maintain a healthy immune system we require sufficient vitamins and minerals. Vitamins of particular importance are A,C and E as well as certain B vitamins and Folic acid. Influential minerals include iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium and copper. Deficiencies of these nutrients can be detrimental, however an excess of the same nutrients, particularly iron zinc and vitamin E can also impair immune function. Again, a healthy, balanced diet should fulfil your requirements.

Although reaching your requirements though diet should be first priority, if you feel that your diet may be lacking in some micronutrients, ie. Iron in vegetarians. It is usually advisable to take a multivitamin and mineral supplement at 100-200% of the NRV rather than a megadose of a single micronutrient.

The use of antioxidants in exercise (due to increased free radical production) is still controversial and may block exercise adaptations. We do know, however that low to moderate doses of vitamin C may decrease the duration of a cold and the possibility of upper respiratory infections.

Carbohydrates during exercise. 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour is recommended for more reasons than just maintaining glucose levels. There is substantial evidence to show that this intake also lowers circulating stress hormones and anti-inflammatory cytokines, thus having a beneficial effect on immunity.

For @futurelifeZA by Angie Bentley

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