Elite athletes who work out regularly and aim for higher goals as they go along are more susceptible to common illnesses, as found in research undertaken at Griffith University in Australia.
Research over the past 35 years has shown that athletes have an increase in upper respiratory infection symptoms during periods of heavy training and competition.
A 2018 study published in the journal Physiology and Nutrition, meanwhile, shows that after a heavy workout, immunity can drop by between 15% and 70% and prolonged training sessions, in particular, can reduce immune function and provide an open door for opportunistic infections.
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Whether you are a competitive athlete or you bodybuild at a semi-professional level, what natural steps can you take to strengthen your immunity?
Adapting Your Routine
In the above study, experts recommend that athletes increment the volume and intensity of their workouts at the gym (or home gym) by no more than 5%-10% per week, particularly during the cold months of the year - when cold and flu viruses abound.
They also recommend increasing the frequency of shorter ‘spike’ training sessions and reducing longer endurance ones. Finally, variation is key.
Thus, enjoying an easier session after a high-intensity one, and planning an easier workout week every second or third week of your routine can help, as can taking the required time to fully recover after taking part in a competition.
The Use of Dietary Supplements
Natural supplements can help counteract the effect intense exercise can have on the immunity, as found in a study published in the British Medical Journal.
In this study, probiotics were used, though other natural supplements boosting brain function and immunity alike have also been found to be beneficial.
The list of compounds that work both to keep illness at bay and improve memory and other brain functions is vast. It includes curcumin, which is effective against everything from some viruses to drug-resistant tuberculosis and even plaques in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Even simple Omega-3 essential fatty acids (found in extra-virgin olive oil and fatty fish) can help boost resistance by enhancing the functioning of immune cells.
Reducing Psychological Stress
Whether you are a serious athlete or you simply give it your all at the gym, it is important to keep stress at bay. As found in a study published by the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, stress can change the balance of gut microbiota that regulate immune function.
The importance of maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria cannot be overstated. Other studies have shown that having low levels of specific bacteria (coprococcus and dialister) is linked to depression and other mental conditions.
The healthy gut microbiome can be achieved by consuming a fiber-rich Mediterranean diet and by working actively to keep stress at bay.
Meditation and Yoga are Powerful Allies
If you are a serious bodybuilder or you have cardio and strength goals you work hard to meet every week, you may feel like you don’t have any spare time to dedicate to additional activities.
However, there is strong evidence indicating that making some time for mindfulness-based practices such as meditation and yoga will enable you to reap big benefits in terms of immunity.
One study by researchers at Coventry University found that meditation and yoga can reverse DNA reactions that cause stress.
The researchers stated that these millenary activities “are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed … they cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing.”
Since yoga and meditation reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, they can help keep your gut health in check.
Carbs and Intense Gym Workouts
If you want to avoid detrimental changes to your immune system owing to exercise, consume carbs during or immediately after exercise - as recommended by researchers at the Queensland University of Technology.
“Among various nutritional strategies to counteract immune depression during exercise recovery, carbohydrates have proven the most effective,” stated researchers, since carbs can help reduce the body’s stress response.
Researchers believe that during workouts, white blood cells move to other parts of the body, leaving us vulnerable to infections. The harder the workout, they say, the longer it can take the immune system to recover.
Nevertheless, as a whole, regular moderate exercise helps protect human beings from respiratory illnesses and other infections; it is an intense exercise that can temporarily weaken the body.
Continuing to reach for tougher goals is key to motivation as an athlete and bodybuilder. However, it is important to know that intense exercise can temporarily weaken your immune system.
The good news is that there are many scientifically proven ways to counteract this effect — including battling stress via mindfulness practice and consuming specific foods or immune-boosting supplements.
Finally, keeping your glucose levels stable via the consumption of carbohydrates during or immediately after training can help the body recover faster, so you can give it your all in a more sustained fashion.
Article written by Issy Lovett.