Feb 27

Guide to Staying Healthy During Cold and Flu Season – Part 1

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This part of the Newsletter corresponds to the February TOW Section “Tip of the Week” but provides more details. This information was forwarded from SIRC (Sport Research Intelligence Sportive, Canada). The article is by Sheila Kealey: (http://www.sheilakealey.com) and is modified. I have divided this information into two Parts.


The Norwegian Team fought off more than their competitors at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, following Guidelines developed by their medical team after disappointing results at the Turin Olympics. They managed to fight off viruses at an impressive rate: only 5% of athletes got sick (compared to 17% in Turin) and just 4 missed an event because of illness (compared to 8 in Turin).

Illness can have far-reaching effects among athletes if it strikes during an important competition or compromises training. A mild infection like a cold that wouldn’t cause absenteeism in the general public can influence an athlete’s training and performance. Also, circumstances like travel to races and close contact with teammates can predispose athletes to illness. Upper respiratory tract infections (colds, coughs, flu, sinusitis, throat and ear infections) are some of the most common illnesses reported.

Although generally, physical activity strengthens the immune system, high-performance athletes may be more susceptible to infection at certain times, especially after intense or prolonged training sessions or during a heavy training load. After hard training, researchers have observed a decreased immune function in athletes, meaning that conditions are ripe for viral illnesses to take hold: these changes include increased cortisol levels and increases in substances that could negatively impact white blood cell function (white blood cells help protect the body from infectious diseases).

Strengthen the Immune System

But all sickness isn’t inevitable. The first and best defense should be to maintain a strong immune system that is primed to fight off the germs, viruses, and other invaders that most of us are constantly exposed to. The immune system is not one entity, but an amazing interconnected network that includes cells, organs, and molecules that work together to protect you from colds, flu, and other ailments. The system is so complex that many factors can influence how it performs, including things that you can control, like your training, lifestyle habits, and nutrition.


Some Tips for the Immune System to perform at its best

  1. Get Enough Sleep

Sleep gives the body a chance to restore and repair itself. Sleep is also critical to many aspects of your mental, physical, and emotional health. Unfortunately, many athletes sacrifice the sleep they desperately need to squeeze more into each day.

Lack of sleep makes it harder for the immune system to do its job: during sleep, your body produces infection-fighting antibodies and protective “cytokines,” proteins that orchestrate the body’s response to infection and inflammation. Studies suggest that lack of sleep affects the ability to process carbohydrates, manage stress, fight infection, and regulate hormones (and importantly for athletes – it also hinders coordination, reflexes, and the ability to learn a new skill). Sleep deprivation can also reduce the effectiveness of flu vaccines. People who don’t get enough sleep are more susceptible to getting sick after exposure to a virus. In fact, a recent study found that too little sleep can quadruple the risk for colds.

Researchers exposed individuals to a cold virus and found that those who slept less than 6 hours a night were 4.5 times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept more than 7 hours a night. The influence of sleep on colds was far greater than all other factors measured (which included age, stress, race, education, income). Don’t assume that 7 hours is an optimal amount of sleep based on this study (which looked at non-athletes); athletes generally need more sleep than the general population. In order to keep colds, flu, and bacterial infections at bay, prioritize sleep!

  1. Practice Good Sports Nutrition

Many athletes neglect the importance of sports nutrition. This takes planning and a bit of time but is definitely worth the effort. What you eat before workouts, during workouts, and after workouts not only supports your athletic endeavors but can keep your immune system strong. One area that many athletes neglect is consuming carbohydrates during long or intense training sessions or coming to training sessions under-fuelled.

Athletes who don’t consume sufficient carbohydrates during intense or long training sessions might be decreasing their ability to fight off infections. Carbohydrates help maintain blood glucose concentration and limit metabolic stress: this study found that carbohydrate consumption during exercise was associated with lower stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) and reduced symptoms of overreaching, and another study found that exercising in a glycogen (stored carbohydrate) depleted state negatively influenced stress hormone

  1. Eat a Healthy Diet

Athletes should consume a nutrient-rich diet with adequate calories to support their activities and the vitamins and minerals necessary for good health. A dietary pattern that has been found to prevent chronic disease is also your best bet to fight off infectious diseases. Focus on vegetables and fruits, legumes, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats while limiting processed foods, refined grains, and sugars. Sugar intake can be confusing for athletes because sugar is often the body’s fuel of choice for optimal performance during workouts. The trick is to save these sweet foods when needed during intense or long bouts of activity, when the body processes them to help movement, and limit them at other times.

  1. Maintain a Healthy Weight

Fat cells influence the immune system. While most people consider fat inert, scientists now view it as an endocrine or immune organ that secretes hormones and other substances that influence many of the body’s processes. Excess body fat promotes the production of inflammatory immune cells that predispose to illness and disease and weakens the immune system’s response to infections. If overweight is the issue, losing weight can improve immune function. However, inadequate body fat stores are problematic as well, and t could be a problem for athletes focused on becoming too lean. Some fat is essential for a healthy body and immune system, and too little body fat can promote illness, increase susceptibility to colds and other viruses, and lead to immune system abnormalities. Also, athletes should avoid rapid weight loss or severe calorie restriction as it compromises performance, health, and increases susceptibility to infections.

Intense training is necessary to improve, but without adequate recovery built into a training program intense or excessive training can lead to a compromised immune system and decreased performance. Athletes react differently to training loads, so adjust the training or talk the coach if feeling unusually tired. It’s a good idea to keep a detailed training log, in addition to noting workout specifics, to keep track of sleep and fatigue levels. While some fatigue is expected after hard weeks or hard workouts, prolonged or unusual periods of fatigue are a sign that some time off is needed.

  1. Avoid Overtraining in Physical Activities, Fitness Classes, and Sports

Quite a few people still believe that attending fitness classes for workouts to ‘sweat off’ flu-like symptoms is ‘a good’ thing!’ In reality, medical experts tell us to rest, drink lots of fluid, and have that ‘wonder miracle hot chicken soup!’ Being around other people when sick, whether as a fitness attendee, athlete, and/or teammates is discouraged due ‘spreading the influenza bug’, as well as hygienic and personal health reasons such as: reduced energy level, lack of stamina, fever or feeling feverish/chills (not everyone actually gets a fever), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body and and headaches. Due to the weaker condition of the body, people may try to overcompensate, and thereby could be overreaching and/or overtraining. Furthermore, due to potential lack of focus and concentration, overextending oneself (‘hang in there’ attitude; can’t show weakness; be mentally tough!) may lead to injuries. So, stay home, rest, and recover!

For general health and wellness information, also visit the Positive Health Wellness website.

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