How To Boost Your Immune System (All Year Long!)

We’ve all had those days where you can just feel a cold coming on. Eyes watering, nose running, coughing, sneezing, and feeling headache, you head over to the nearest grocery store to pick up some orange juice, soup and medicine. If you’re an athlete, you might even think, “I wonder if I can still go to practice…?” or “I’ll just wait for this cold medicine to kick in before I go running…”

Being sick can not only force you to take days off from school or work, but can also put a kink in your training schedule if your cold or flu lingers for days…or even weeks. If you push too hard while you’re sick, you can risk even worse illness or injury.

Sometimes, you can’t control getting sick, and popping vitamin C capsules probably won’t help you kick a cold once you have it, but you can promote a healthier immune system throughout the year by consistently fueling your body with the foods it needs – use these 5 guidelines for more info:

1. Avoid under-eating or over-exercising

It is easy for athletes to get caught up in a training schedule, neglecting those rest days and proper nutrition. If you’re not meeting your calorie needs and every single one of your workouts get your heart working at its max, your stress hormones will increase and you’re going to be at risk for over-training, injury, and a weakened immune system.

Any good training program will have rest days built in – they’re there for a reason. Make your hard days hard, your easy days easy, and make sure your weight is consistent. If you start to lose more than 1 lb. per week or you’re feeling weak or easily fatigued, you may not be eating enough calories to support your training. Weight loss goals are met during the off-season, so if you’re trying to meet your weight loss goals during training, you may not be getting enough calories in to push your body on those hard training days.

Not sure how many calories you need to eat to support your training or weight loss/gain goals? Call the Sanford Sports Science Institute at 605-312-7870 to schedule an appointment to get your Resting Energy Expenditure tested. 

2. Get enough sleep

A recent study showed that people with shorter sleep duration (under 6 hours per night) had an increased susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep should be an integral part of any athlete’s training schedule. While you sleep, you give your muscles a chance to rest and rebuild.

If your sleeping pattern is erratic or you’re not getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, you’re not giving your body the rest it needs to recover. Your stress hormone cortisol increases, which can delay recovery after exercise. There is also an increase in ghrelin and decrease in leptin, two hormones that affect your hunger – in this case, by making you feel hungrier than normal. In addition, when you’re sleep deprived, your immune system doesn’t work as hard to fight off illness.

The combination of delayed recovery, increased hunger (which can lead to overeating and weight gain) and decreased immune system functioning can be bad news for athletes during training. Make sure you’re making sleep a priority – your sleep schedule should be considered just as important as your training schedule and your nutrition.

3. Eat 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruits per day

…and we’re not talking about potatoes, corn, or peas. You should be eating a serving of vegetables and/or fruits at each meal and snack, and the more color you have on your plate, the more immune-boosting vitamins and minerals you’re getting in your diet.

Some colorful foods you should be eating include: carrots, green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, berries like strawberries and blueberries, citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, winter squash and apples. Eating more fruits and vegetables increases your supply of inflammation-fighting, immune-boosting vitamins and minerals, so the more you eat, the better your body can recover after exercise or hard training.

4. Jump-start recovery after exercise

After high intensity or long duration (>90 minute) workouts, athletes should eat a post-workout snack with 2:1 to 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein to refuel muscle glycogen (energy) and help promote muscle healing and growth. By doing this, your body can start to recover right away so you can start your next workout refueled and feeling energized.

Good examples of this snack are chocolate milk, Greek yogurt with berries and granola, a banana with peanut butter, a peanut butter and jelly, rice with chicken and vegetables, a smoothie, etc. Make sure to eat periodically throughout the day (don’t skip meals) to make sure your body has the building blocks it needs to build muscle and store carbohydrates away as glycogen to use in your next workout.

5. Give your gut some attention

You may have heard that 50-70% of your immunity comes from your stomach, so making sure your gut is healthy is vital to boosting your immune function. Check out a previous blog post on promoting good gut health for some more ideas, and include more of these foods in your diet:

Probiotics (good gut bacteria)

Yogurt or kefir with live and active cultures, probiotic supplements, kimchi, sauerkraut

Prebiotics (promote the health of good gut bacteria)

Asparagus, garlic, leeks, onions, beans, whole grains, potatoes

 If you want to know more about boosting your immune system through food, call the Sanford Sports Science Institute to make a one-on-one appointment with the sports nutritionist: 605-312-7878.

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