Wednesday 9 October 2013

Week 41 Nutrition Tip: Eating to Boost Your Immune System

Last week it seemed like everyone I knew and worked with was getting sick. It was a great reminder that fall is here and we are now entering the cold and flu season. However, as a hard-training athlete or fitness buff, you cannot afford to let sickness sideline you. Also, I suspect many of you are in the same situation I'm in - we don't have time to get sick! Therefore, in week 41 of our 52 Weeks to Better Nutrition and a New You series, let's adopt a new habit of eating foods (and possibly taking supplements) to take to help you boost your immune system and stay health this cold and flu season.

If you want to stay healthy this cold and flu season, you need to do two things: minimize your infection opportunities and strengthen your immune system. Here is how to do these:

Minimizing Your Infection Opportunities
While this info may be basic stuff you have already heard, remember that the real question is not have you heard this before, but are you actively practicing it. To minimize your chance of infection in the first place, be sure you are doing the following:
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Wash your hands well: warm water, soap, 30 seconds of scrubbing, thorough rinse and turn nob off with clean towel or elbow.
  • Use hand sanitizes when hand washing is not an option
  • Keep hands away from your nose, eyes & mouth when in public
  • Avoid touching infected objects
  • Avoid contact with infected people when possible
  • Never share water bottles or food: that is playing Russian roulette with your health
  • Avoid touching commonly infected objects in public places (e.g. door handles) when possible

Eating to Strengthen Your Immune System: 
  • Limit your intake of junk food - this offers no help and just places extra stress on your body
  • Eat more vegetables and fruit. These foods are loaded with countless health-promoting substances.
  • Get sufficient protein. Protein is not just for building muscle, it is essential for recovery and helps boost the immune system.
  • Get more vitamin C through foods high in vitamin C (e.g. oranges). 
  • Use fresh garlic in your cooking.
  • Ensure proper hydration. See week 2's tip on proper hydration for more information. 
  • Get sufficient quality food. Many athletes and hard-training individuals under-eat both the number of calories and amounts of key nutrients need because of laziness or fear of getting fat. This leads to under-recovery and that suppresses your immune system. 

Supplements That Might Help:
Note: if you are not practicing good nutrition, rest and lifestyle habits, it is not likely that these supplements will keep you from getting sick. 
  • Pre and post-training supplementation. See this post on pre-workout drinks and week 15's tip on post workout nutrition for more details. In addition to helping stimulate protein synthesis and replenishing glycogen stores, nutrition around exercise seems to help protect the body from the immune system suppression that typically accompanies hard training. 
  • Glutamine: 5-10g of glutamine seems to help strengthen the immune system. Note: for those on a tight budget, whey protein naturally has glutamine.
  • Protein powder: this is a helpful way to get more protein which as mentioned above. See week 35's nutrition tip on protein powder for more details.
  • Vitamin C: while I personally prefer to use fruits and veggies, this is a popular supplement for preventing illness.
  • Zinc: this important mineral seems to help with reducing cold symptoms and may help strengthen the immune system.
  • Echinacea: this is another popular herb sometimes called and "immune herb". It seems to help diminish the onset of cold symptoms. However, I have never used it so I cannot speak from personal experience as to its benefits.
  • Vitamin D: I'll expand on the many benefits of vitamin D in a future post. 
Note on supplements for athletes: if you are playing in a league that drug tests, always be sure to check the ingredients to ensure that the supplement does not contain a banned substance. To further reduce your risk, consider supplements that are NSF certified

Other Things to Help Strengthen Your Immune System:

  • Get sufficient sleep. For many people this involves changing their thought paradigm. When you are busy with school, sports, work, training, and life, you have to invest sufficient time in sleep so you do not get sick – you do not have time to get sick! Sleep enough to not get sick.
  • Control your stress and have some down time
  • Exercise appropriately. Proper amount of exercise can help strengthen the immune system, but too much can make you more prone to illness – this is especially true with aerobic exercise. Stay with high-intensity anaerobic work (e.g. weights, short sprints) and low-intensity aerobic work (e.g. brisk walking). Also, be sure to keep training as short and efficient as possible. See my previous posts on Time-Efficient Training Part 1, and Part 2.
  • Do not overuse or misuse antibiotics (follow your doctor’s guidelines exactly!)

This Week's Habit: The Practical Application
I know I just threw a lot of information at you. Here is what you want to do this week: first of all, go back over my list of suggestions and use it as a check list. Look for a nutrition suggestion that you are not implementing or one that you could work on some more (adding more vegetables to your daily menu). Pick one thing and make that your habit for this week. 

Antonio, J, et. al (eds.). Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press; 2008.
How to Boost Your Immune System.

Below are the links to the other weekly habits in this series:

1 comment:

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