The best way an athlete can achieve their goal is if they can train. Anything that keeps them from training puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to the competition. One of the major reasons why athletes can’t train is because they get sick. In a previous post I talked about whether training itself can lead to illness, so in this article I would like to look at the top reasons outside of training that can lead to a compromised immune system.
If you are not sleeping enough you are four to five times more likely to catch cold. What qualifies as “enough”? Even if you are sleeping 7 hours a night you are still three times more likely to get sick!
One third of American’s get less than 7 hours of sleep per night according to the CDC.
If you fall into that category, and are an athlete looking to fight off colds, then prioritizing your sleep is going to play a huge role in staying healthy. Athletes face even bigger challenges as they will often alter sleep schedules to fit in training. In addition training itself can hinder sleep quality. If you train too close to bedtime your sleep will likely be worse than if you trained earlier in the day. Also if you have a hard workout and are sore that can make getting a good night’s sleep harder as well. In addition, if an athlete is underfueling, which in itself can hinder immunity, their sleep quality can also deteriorate. As you can see sleep can be quite challenging for the hard charging athlete.
Ever notice that after people go through some kind of stressful situation they become ill shortly after? Stress can increase the likelihood of you getting sick. In a 1991 study subjects were injected with a virus and then researchers measured who got sick and who didn’t. The subjects with the higher stress levels ended up getting sick more often than the ones who were not stressed.
Everyone is under stress in today’s world, but recreational athletes with other responsibilities like full time jobs and families, are under a lot more stress than what just comes from training. These athletes often go non-stop from the time they wake up to the time their head hits the pillow at night (oh and stress can affect your sleep as well!). Family obligations, work commitments, training, hobbies, side jobs, and friends all compete for their time leaving the athlete with very little downtime.
Next up is travel. Want to get sick fast? Get in a confined space with lots of other people in close proximity. Even if you are two feet away from a person coughing, your chances of getting sick goes up 80 percent! Imagine how many people that two foot radius covers on an airplane?
To make matters worse traveling often means poor sleep either due to sleeping in an unfamiliar environment or traveling across time zones, or both! On top of that how many times do you find traveling to be a relaxing experience? Missed flights, traffic, delays, traveling can be one of the most stressful events you do.
On its surface travel in itself looks harmless, but as you can see it can be the perfect cascade of events to get you sick. As an athlete, if you are traveling to compete you need to be mindful of the risks you are taking.
Ever wonder why you tend to get sick more often during the winter? One of the main causes for this is because of the lack of sunlight during the winter which is our main source of Vitamin D. Studies show that if your vitamin D levels are below 30 nmol/L your risk of getting sick starts to go up. If you are an athlete, research shows that your vitamin D levels should be at 75 nmol/L to prevent getting sick.
You might think that athletes actually get more vitamin D than the average person. However, depending on the sport, training environment, season, and training location that might not be the case. If your sport is played indoors and you train indoors well then you are probably not going to be getting any more vitamin D than the average person. In fact you may be getting less because your free time is spent training indoors. If however you are a trail runner training in the middle of the summer you’re likely spending an hour or more outside each day getting a good dose.
There is no guarantee when it comes to vitamin D. Location, time of day, skin pigmentation, and genetics all play a critical role in how much vitamin D you can get from the sun. When it comes to vitamin D the best thing to do is to test your levels. Even if you cannot convince your doctor to order it for you, you can order it yourself in most places in the US and it does not cost much to get the test done. Once you know your levels you should discuss with your doctor if you need to supplement and how much to supplement with. Keep in mind levels will fluctuate throughout the year, for example most people need to supplement during the winter months and not during the summer months so it can be useful to test your vitamin D levels multiple times throughout the year.
Another big contributor to our overall immune health is nutrition. Athletes often consider nutrition as a key player in their performance and recovery, but may not realize how big of a role it plays in whether they catch a cold or not. There can be several factors at play when it comes to nutrition that can affect immune function.
Athletes often do not meet the caloric demands of their training. Lacking proper calories can lead to several problems. If an athlete is not eating enough they will not be able to recover. Continuing to push training without adequate recovery leads to sleep issues, and places additional stress on the body, which as we discussed above can lead to a compromised immune system. Chronic lack of calories can lead to RED-S which is characterized by a weakened immune system.
In addition if you are not eating enough, or your diet is restricted in some way where you are not getting the right nutrients in your diet, you could be compromising your immune system. Micronutrients like zinc, iron, B12, folic acid, vitamin C, selenium, and copper are all important for a healthy well functioning immune system. For this reason, if it is possible, it is recommended that athletes eat a well balanced diet of healthy fats, animal protein, and whole food carbohydrates.
Wait won’t being around others increase my chances of getting a cold? Shouldn’t I just lock myself up in my house? While we want to be mindful of unnecessarily exposing ourselves to someone who we know is sick, that does not mean we should be a hermit. Turns out that different parts of our immune system become activated based on whether you are around other people or if you are socially isolated. When you have healthy social connections, the part of your immune system associated with fighting communicable disease becomes elevated since you are around other people. Where as when you are socially isolated the part of the immune system associated with fighting off infections becomes elevated . Dr. Bryan Walsh does a great job explaining this process in this video.
All of the risk factors above that could compromise an athlete’s immune system can be mitigated by an ancestral approach to health, wellness, and sport, something I call the ancestral athlete. I wrote a post describing what it means to be an ancestral athlete which I suggest you go back and read but in summary here are the key features that make up my approach.
- Eat whole natural foods
- Go to bed when the sun sets and wake up when the sun rises
- Move frequently and sometimes intensely
- Take plenty of time to relax
- Spend time outside in nature
- Have good social connections and interact with others
- Avoid doing stupid things
How do these ancestral principles add up to avoid the immune compromising practices that athletes fall into?
If you eat plenty of meat, fish, foul, eggs, and a wide variety of vegetables and fruits you are likely to avoid any kind of nutrient deficiencies. From there, as an athlete you might need to fill in the gaps when it comes to carbohydrate intake and total calories. This is where some choice carbohydrate rich foods and calorically dense foods might come in. Things like white rice, oatmeal, and buckwheat are all great natural sources of carbohydrates. If you need more calories in general nuts, coconut, and fattier cuts of meat can provide a nice dose of calories.
Speaking of carbohydrates, if you take them around and/or during long and intense exercise bouts, research shows you can limit the spike in pro-inflammatory cytokines and also give your immune system a boost .
Unsurprisingly, protein intake can also have a positive effect on your immune system. In one study participants eating 3g/kg or 1.3g/lb of protein per day restored immune cell function faster and reduced the incidence of upper respiratory tract infection after high intensity exercise.
One final tip when it comes to nutrition and immunity. I found this interesting because it is a food most people wouldn’t even consider having an impact on their immune function and many people don’t usually eat. Actually it is not a food at all, it is a fungi, can you guess what it is?
Yup, in one study in healthy adults eating shiitake mushrooms for 4 weeks improved overall immune cell proliferation! So consider throwing in some shiitake mushrooms into your diet to help give your immune system a boost!
If you follow the rule of going to bed when the sun sets and getting up when it rises you are going to be pretty much guaranteed to get 8 hours of sleep and avoid compromising your immune system by short changing yourself. Obviously you can have some flexibility here given different parts of the world have different day lengths at different times of the year, but use your best judgement. Establishing a healthy wind down routine as you approach your bedtime can really be helpful. If you limit your technology exposure, try to participate in relaxing activities, dim the lights a bit, and you are more likely to have a solid night’s rest and get more “bang for your buck” with the time you spend in bed. The topic of sleep is a very complex one, especially when we are talking about athletes. There are a good series of blog posts on the Nourish Balance Thrive website specifically geared towards athletes and sleep that would be helpful to read if you struggle in this area.
Stress is unavoidable. It has been around since the dawn of time and is not going anywhere. However, today we have more stress than we used to and athletes have even more added stress in their lives due to training. As much as we want to push harder, do more, and accomplish everything in our lives we need to also make time to chill out, put our feet up, AND DO NOTHING! Our ancestors spent plenty of time sitting in their ancestral Laz-Y-Boy, we need to remember to do that same. Obviously what each person finds relaxing is going to vary, so you will have to experiment. Find something that brings you joy, something that you find interesting, if you have a family or significant other, find something everyone can do together. Anything that takes your mind off the monotony of everyday life, especially training!
If your vitamin D status is subpart, get outside! Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D. Want to know the best time to go outside to get your vitamin D? Check out the D Miner app which will tell you the best time to get outside and how much time to spend outside to avoid getting burnt.
Spending hours on the trail by yourself might be unavoidable if you are training for an ultra-endurance trail race, but there are still plenty of other hours in your week where you can interact with other people. If you participate in a solo sport then making sure you find a meaningful social connection is going to be important for you in order to fight off those communicable diseases. There are lots of options whether they are related to your sport or not.
- Find a training partner and schedule some time to train together
- Find a group of people that share a similar hobby (good opportunity for some relaxation as well!)
- Schedule a night out with your spouse, significant other, or close friends
- Volunteer in your community
- Tutor or mentor young athletes or find a mentor for yourself
Spend some time thinking of who you would like to be around and make time to be around them. It will pay off not only from an immune function but also from an overall health perspective.
Last on the list is avoiding stupid things. I think this is particularly relevant when we talk about travel. Be smart! Avoid putting yourself around people that might be sick if at all possible. Clean surfaces that other people are coming in contact with. Wash your hands. If you apply some common sense when it comes to traveling you will avoid putting yourself at any unnecessary risk of becoming ill.
As you can see, living our lives more aligned with our ancestors we will avoid a lot of the risk factors associated with a compromised immune system and therefore avoid getting sick. This means we can spend an appropriate amount of time training which can help translate into better performance as an athlete. If you would like to learn more about how an ancestral approach to life can help improve your performance as an athlete, parent, colleague, and human in general be sure to sign up for my newsletter. Have questions, or need help applying any of the things I talked about in this post? Be sure to reach out in the comments below or on Facebook or Instagram, I am happy to help!
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