Toolbox: Survival of the Healthiest
With cold and flu season upon us, it’s important to keep our immune systems functioning as well as possible. Athletes need a strong immune system; this is key to a consistent season. A few weeks off the bike here and there adds up and can have a lasting impact on your training cycles.
By Anne Guzman
Although I’m convinced some of us enjoy being brought hot soup in bed, watching movies while sick and telling our spouses “I think I’m dying,” (you know who you are….) at the end of the day I think we could admit that we’d rather feel alert, vibrant and healthy. Being sick sucks!
Immune System Primer
Your immune system generally does a remarkable job of defending you against disease causing microorganisms. There are some key cells that make up a large part of the immune system. These include phagocytes and lymphocytes or white blood cells (T-cells and B-cells). Put simply, “phagocytes” are cells responsible for “eating” bacteria, viruses or dead and injured body tissue. Lymphocytes, which originate in bone marrow, are specialized cells that recognize foreign substances and filter out dead cells and invading organisms. If you have heard the term “antibody” before, this refers to specific proteins made from the B-cells that search out and help destroy intruders. Plasma cells make antibodies. These cells have a lot of work to do so we must be super supportive of them.
Sometimes this system falters: germs get in, “invade” and you get sick. Call me crazy but if anything is going to successfully invade this temple I call my body, I don’t want it to be germs.
Can you do anything about it? Can you take measures to make elements of your immune system stronger? What if you improve your diet? Can you make other lifestyle changes to try to create better immunity?
The immune system is precisely that, a system. It requires balance and harmony to work well. There is still much to be learned about the interconnectedness of the immune system and its response.
What we do know is that the human body always works optimally when in homeostasis. The body requires nutrients to attain this balance and diet is where they come from. Logically, if we work to balance all aspects of our bodies such as our blood sugar, stress levels, hormones, how much sleep we get and how many macro and micro nutrients we consume in our diets, we set ourselves up to be the healthiest versions of ourselves. The immune system can in turn become stronger.
Nutrition and Immune Function
An area of active research is how the immune system functions as the body ages. Researchers believe that the aging process somehow leads to a reduction of immune response capability, which in turn contributes to more infections, more inflammatory diseases, and more cancer. As life expectancy in developed countries has increased, so too has the incidence of age-related conditions. Coincidentally the elderly tend to eat less and as a result often lack nutrients in their diets. This is an example of how nutrition may indirectly weaken the immune system via diminished nutrient intake.
Scientists have long recognized that people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Whether the increased rate of disease is caused by malnutrition’s effect on the immune system is not certain. But we can certainly deduce that it is possible.
Malnourishment can happen right here in our own backyards as well, among the more affluent and middle class. Burgers, fries and white flour have the same effect on the body whether you are living in poverty or wealth. They lack the nutrients that make building blocks for a robust and healthy immune system.
Without adequate nutrition, the immune system is clearly deprived of the components needed to generate an effective immune response. Human malnutrition is usually a complex syndrome of multiple nutrient deficiencies.
Vitamins and Minerals
There is certainly evidence that certain vitamins, minerals, nutrients and good bacteria can support and strengthen certain elements of the immune system. Some of include Vitamin A, E, C, D, Selenium, Zinc, B6, Omega 3 oils and Lactobacillus.
These vitamins and minerals are commonly found in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, essential fats, lean meats and some dairy products. Taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement brings health benefits including supporting the immune system, however getting your nourishment from organic whole foods remains the best option.
Below is a list of vitamins & minerals, as well as top sources of foods where you can find them. Be sure to include a variety of these foods in your daily nutrition plan for immune system boosting.
Selenium: Some studies have suggested that people with low selenium levels are at greater risk of bladder, breast, colon, rectum, lung, and prostate cancers. Dietary selenium is essential for an optimum immune response, although the mechanisms of this requirement are not always fully understood. (Found in; Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, bran; oat or rice, pork chops, oysters, liver, lobster, shrimp, caviar).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Helps produce Series 1 and Series 3 prostaglandins, which are anti-inflammatory agents. Excessive inflammation in cells can lead to asthma, arthritis, osteoporosis and headaches as well as autoimmune disease. (Found in; flaxseeds and green leafy vegetables. The omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA are found in high fat, cold water fish such as albacore tuna, sardines, Atlantic halibut and salmon, Coho, pink and King salmon, Pacific and Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, and lake trout).
Lactobacillus GG: has been associated with positive effects on the immune system such as increased cytokine, phagocytic activity (the ones that eat the dead cells and bacteria!) and antibody production. Supplementation is a good option. (Culturelle is a good brand)
Vitamin A: plays a role in infection and maintaining mucosal surfaces by influencing certain subcategories of T cells and B cells and cytokines. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease. (Found in; dried apricots, cantaloupe, sweet potato, squash, liver, carrots, lettuce)
Vitamin B6: Several studies have suggested that a vitamin B6 deficiency can depress aspects of the immune response, such as lymphocytes’ ability to mature and spin off into various types of T and B cells. Supplementing with moderate doses to address the deficiency restores immune function, but mega doses don’t produce additional benefits. (Found in; pork tenderloin, molasses, sesame seeds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, garlic, liver, bananas)
Vitamin C: Is especially required for the functioning of the phagocytes and T-lymphocytes. The major role of vitamin C is the protection of the immune cells against free radicals formed during the interaction of the immune cells with harmful microorganisms. (Found in; Oranges, cantaloupe, red peppers, kiwi, papaya, strawberries)
Vitamin D: Triggers and arms the body’s T cells, the cells in the body that seek out and destroy any invading bacteria and viruses. Scientists at the University of Copenhagen have discovered that Vitamin D is crucial to activating our immune defences and that without sufficient intake of the vitamin, the killer cells of the immune system – T cells – will not be able to react to and fight off serious infections in the body. (Found in; Shitake mushrooms, salmon, catfish, soymilk, milk, sardines, eggs, “sunshine.”
Vitamin E: Is an antioxidant, meaning it neutralizes harmful free radical molecules in your body that are associated with cell damage. It also bolsters your immune system, allowing you to effectively fight off infections by bacteria or viruses. (Found in; Sunflower, safflower and wheat germ oil, peanuts, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds, kale, spinach and broccoli).
Zinc: A trace element essential for cells of the immune system. Zinc deficiency affects the ability of T cells and other immune cells to function as they should. Deficiency has been shown to impair cellular mediators of innate immunity such as phagocytosis and natural killer cell activity. Caution: while it’s important to have sufficient zinc in your diet (15–25 mg per day), too much zinc can inhibit the function of the immune system. (Found in; wheat germ, oysters, beef, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, watermelon, dark chocolate/cocoa, peanuts, crab).
Here are a couple of powerful smoothies that will help to boost your immune system! (No worries, I left out the oysters!)
1 banana (peel and freeze in Ziploc, acts as your ice and makes it nice and thick!)
1 cup of soymilk (add water for added fluid)
1/4 cantaloupe, chopped
1 cup of strawberries
1 tbsp Tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 tbsp. flax oil
Sprinkle with wheat germ once served in glass
Strong Like Bull Smoothie
2 cups Watermelon
1 cup strawberries
1 cup unsweetened rice milk (add water if required)
Ѕ cup 100% fresh Orange Juice or Pineapple juice
1 scoop of organic whey protein, Ice
Other tips to keep in mind to support a stronger immune system include;
• Reducing stress (try some 10 minute meditation when you feel overwhelmed; no phone, no computer, no distractions and some deep FULL diaphragm breathing)
• Washing your hands often when around others or in public places
• Sleeping 7-9 hours a day. Sleep is KING. Don’t underestimate it. (Yes I just gave you permission to sleep in…your spouse can call me to complain.)
• Reducing toxins and anti-nutrients such as trans fats and artificial sweeteners and replacing them with naturally sweet fresh fruit and essential oils or raw nuts and seeds.
• Add REST to your training schedule. Even your super human body needs to recover.
With the busy holidays period over and a new calendar full of exciting events ahead in 2013, be sure to give yourself the gift of nourishing your body so that you will be healthy and vibrant during your time with family and friends. Even if you secretly want someone to bring you warm soup in bed and tell you that you will live.
Harvard Health Publications – Harvard Medical School; How To Boost Your Immune System
Web MD; Cold Flu and Cough Health Center
JN Journal of Nutrition
Linus Paulus Institute- Micro Nutrient Research for Optimum Healh
Anne Guzman is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Sports Nutrition Consultant with a degree in Kinesiology. Her passion lies in Sports Nutrition for endurance athletes as well as general health and wellness. Anne raced full time on the women’s Professional circuit in North America with some bouts in Europe from 2008 until 2011 and previous to cycling was a Provincial and CIAU Champion and National Bronze medalist as a Varsity Freestyle Wrestler. Currently Anne works with athletes helping them reach their potential by combining their own training plans with her nutrition plans. Anne believes that many athletes undermine their intense detailed training regimes by not backing them with sound nutrition. Her personal experience as a cyclist and athlete is a great asset to her business as she understands the needs and nuances that come with the sport. Currently Anne works with Peaks Coaching Group as well as her own www.nutritionsolutionsanneguzman.com. Anne can be reached at [email protected]. Follow NSAG on Facebook.