As we gear up for the winter season, it is an appropriate time to discuss the importance of a strong immune system. With endless advice circulating out there about how we can protect ourselves from the outside-in, I think it is even more pressing to focus on how we can do it from the inside-out.
This year, more than ever before, locking up your immune fortress is the key to long-term health and wellness.
Athletes know firsthand how quickly sickness can derail their training for several days, or even weeks, at a time. If you wait until you are feeling under the weather to start thinking about your immune system, it is likely too late. What can we do to bolster our defense against seasonal invaders? We can address this by exploring several specific options which fall into two broad categories: Nutrition and Lifestyle.
Nutrient deficiency can alter the body’s immune response, putting us at greater risk for infection. Poor diet and/or malnutrition can impair the production and activity of immune cells and antibodies. So, how do we prevent this? For starters, eat a balanced diet which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and plenty of water. This may seem rather basic, but many people struggle with simplicity and neglect the basics. Eliminating processed foods and excessive sugar are also crucial factors.
Micronutrient deficiencies are common worldwide; as a result, resistance to infection is compromised. Some important nutrients for immune system function include iron, folic acid, and B-vitamins. Here are several more of the key players you want on your immune team, including which foods you should eat to get them:
- Zinc – Shellfish (oysters, crab, shrimp, mussels), legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans), seeds (pumpkin, flax, sesame), nuts (cashews, almonds, peanuts, walnuts), red meat (limit consumption and opt for unprocessed/grass-fed), and dark chocolate (saved the best for last!). Be aware that legumes contain phytates, which reduce the absorption of zinc. Heating, sprouting, soaking, or fermenting will help to improve bioavailability.
- Selenium – Brazil nuts, fish, ham, poultry, eggs.
- Vitamin A – Carrots, broccoli, cantaloupe, squash, sweet potatoes, liver, fish, green leafy vegetables.
- Vitamin C – Citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, red & green peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, spinach.
- Vitamin D – Salmon (opt for wild-caught), tuna, herring, sardines, egg yolks, mushrooms, cod liver oil.
- Vitamin E – Nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, salmon, avocado.
For those who do not normally consume most of these foods, it might seem like a daunting task to start. However, the key is varying your sources of each nutrient and being consistent with healthy eating over the long-term. As athletes, an added benefit is that many of these foods will help with performance and recovery as well.
What else can we do to implement an extra layer of nutritional protection? Herbs such as echinacea, garlic, turmeric/curcumin, oregano, and green tea catechins have been used for many years as natural health remedies. They contain potent antioxidants and phenols which can support the body’s natural defenses and restore balance to the gut microbiome. Using these in home cooking and meal preparation is a great way to begin adding them into a nutrition program. Additionally, colostrum has been shown to fortify the body with vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, to not only support the immune system but also promote a healthy gut lining.
The microbiome (gut) plays a key role in immune function and the production of antimicrobial proteins. Therefore, a diet containing prebiotic and probiotic foods is beneficial. Probiotic foods contain live helpful bacteria, while prebiotic foods contain fiber and oligosaccharides that feed and maintain healthy colonies of those bacteria. Examples of probiotic foods include yogurt (with live active cultures), fermented vegetables, kefir, kombucha tea, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, and miso. Some good prebiotic food choices are asparagus, bananas, onion, garlic, leeks, artichokes, and seaweed.
Medicinal mushrooms, which have become increasingly popular recently, are another stellar option for a nutritional immune boost. Used in eastern medicine for thousands of years, their list of health benefits is actually quite lengthy. More specifically, Chaga mushrooms are an antioxidant powerhouse which help ward off free radicals and inflammation. Other friendly fungi include Reishi, Turkey Tail, and Cordyceps. These mushrooms are not of the psychedelic variety and are not meant to be eaten raw or whole, but rather in powder form. Popular methods of consumption include mushroom coffees, teas, and protein/superfood shake mixes.
Now that we have our nutrition in check, our herbal cabinet stocked, and our chaga mushroom coffee poured, it is time to explore other areas which may be having a deleterious effect on our immune squadron. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the single most important step you can take to naturally keep your immune system functioning efficiently. If we think of our immune system as aerodynamic efficiency in cycling, the following will determine how much drag we have:
- Sleep Experts recommend a range of 7-9 hours for ideal restoration of the body. Even a single night without sleep (or poor sleep), can negatively impact the body’s ability to fight off pathogens, bacteria, viruses, etc. Having a consistent sleep schedule helps to maintain a balanced circadian rhythm (or body clock) so that we get more restful sleep. Do not make the mistake of underestimating this factor!
- Exercise My favorite one, obviously. Given my audience, this should be the easiest one to check off the list! Research shows that obesity has been identified as a risk factor for viruses such as the flu, likely due to impaired function of T-cells (a type of white blood cell). Regular exercise helps to maintain a healthy body weight, improve cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, and protect against many diseases. It may even contribute more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows immune cells to move through the body freely and work more efficiently.
- Eliminate environmental toxins This includes air pollution, smoke, and excessive alcohol consumption. If you smoke, make it a priority to quit as soon as possible. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. These substances can suppress and impair the normal activity of immune cells.
- Manage stress I know, this a tough one. But have you actually tried a healthy strategy for stress reduction and given it ample time? Many people will try one thing for a day or two, then decide to bail when it “doesn’t work” well enough. Anything which truly helps you manage stress effectively will take time to implement and practice. Some examples include exercise (there it is again), meditation, yoga, reading or writing, tai chi, breathing techniques, and being outside in sunlight or near water. There are many others, and often the best overall stress management strategy includes several of these used in combination on a regular basis.
Furthermore, managing stress plays an integral role for athletes because our total stress (physical + non-physical) is much higher. If someone has high mental stress, emotional stress, and environmental stress, adding physical stress from training into the equation is a recipe for disaster. We can certainly bob and weave our way through these stress jabs for a few rounds, but eventually it all catches up—delivering a knockout combination.
Ultimately, there is a clear interaction between nutrition and immunity: the immune system is compromised when nutrition is poor, predisposing us to sickness and/or infections. Additionally, a poor nutritional state may be exacerbated by the body’s immune response to an infection. Although we are focusing primarily on athletes, everyone can benefit from the nutrition and lifestyle recommendations outlined above. More importantly, we do not need to rely on anyone except ourselves to take action. Making intelligent food choices and being aware of how certain factors affect our long-term health is essentially making an impact from the inside-out.
By implementing the strategies discussed here, we can help our bodies become a nutritional powerhouse!
If you are unsure where to begin on your journey or need help making adjustments to your current plan, seek qualified assistance.The guidance of a certified coach can be a valuable resource on your path to achieving the Next Level of Performance! Be advised to consult your physician before making any major changes to your nutrition as well.
Adam D’Agostino is a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Certified Personal Trainer (CPT). He is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach, TrainingPeaks Level 2 Certified Multisport Coach, & US Masters Swimming (USMS) Level 3 Coach. Adam has additional certifications from NASM as a Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES), Mixed Martial Arts Conditioning Specialist (MMACS), & Nutrition/Weight Loss Specialist (WLS). In addition, he holds TRX certifications in Suspension Training (STC) & Functional Training (FTC). Adam competes in Triathlons of all distances and qualified for the USAT National Championships in 8 consecutive years (2012-2019). He is a two-time Ironman, as well as a two-time qualified athlete on Team USA for the ITU Multisport World Championships in Long-Distance Triathlon (2017 & 2019). Adam is the owner and head coach of Next Level Training & Performance in NJ, where he specializes in Personal Training, Triathlon Coaching, Nutrition, & Athlete Performance.