As a nutrition expert I feel pressure to look the picture of health at all times. Glossy hair, long nails, glowing skin and a skip in my step are all evidence of the nutritious healthy lifestyle I live. However sometimes the odds are stacked against me and over-training, stress, a change in seasons and lack of sleep lead to a depressed immune system… and a snuffly nose to match. So I have spent the past week counselling junior athletes on how to boost their immunity through diet, whilst trying to disguise my own coughs and sneezes.
Exercise boosts the immune system, but too much then weakens it, increasing the frequency of coughs and colds in those who undertake intense exercise. Research has also shown that athletes are more susceptible to cough and colds for 1-2 weeks following race events. This is most likely due to adrenaline and cortisol suppressing the immune system. It’s important to avoid over-training – think quality over quantity and make sure you are on a sensible training schedule which includes adequate time for recovery.
“So what supplement should I take?” is what I then hear. Vitamin C? Echinacea? Glutamine? There’s big bucks to be made in this area and so many research studies have been funded to see if these nutrients help reduce the immune-supressing effect on exercise. None of these studies have shown any significant benefit. However there are adjustments you can make to your diet that have a proven benefit towards ensuring your coughs and colds are less frequent and shorter in duration:
- Eat sufficient carbohydrates and protein: If you are well-fuelled with carbohydrates your body produces less stress hormones during exercise. Taking carbohydrates during exercise (such as sports drinks during exercise lasting longer than 60minutes) also reduces these stress hormones further, which protects your immune system.
- Avoid excessive fat intake
- Ensure adequate intake of Iron and Zinc from food in your diet. Think seafood and lean meat.
- Eat plenty of vitamins A, C and E. ‘Eat a rainbow’ to get these anti-oxidant ACE vitamins in.
- Eat loads of vitamins B6 and B12. Choose wholegrain bread, pasta and rice to maximise B vitamin intake.
So back to ‘healthy eating’ and timing your intake around exercise – try not to run on empty and always take your recovery snack immediately after exercise. For more practical tips and links to the primary evidence on this subject check out this Australian Sports Commission article.
Here’s another recipe to try to help you get all the immune boosting nutrients from real food – the only proven way to boost your immunity via nutrition. Have a look at the nutrient breakdown, there are plenty of anti-oxidant vitamins here. For even more zinc choose seafood such as oysters or mussels. For an iron boost how about mackerel – with more iron per 100g than steak plus it’s omega-3 content it makes a perfect dinner choice for athletes.
- 2 tuna steaks
- 1 large sweet potato
- 1 red pepper
- 1 orange pepper
- 1 red onion
- 1 portabella mushroom
- peel the potato and cut into thick wedges
- chop the vegetables
- coat the veg and potatoes with 2 tbsp olive oil in a bowl and toss
- spread in a thin layer atop greaseproof paper on 1 or 2 large baking sheets
- roast in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius for 40minutes
- meanwhile griddle the tuna for 4 minutes each side
|Nutrient||per 100g||%RI||per 602g serving||%RI|