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Immune System: Support Your Body's First Line of Defense

Author:Britt Maughan R.D.
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Immune System

Immune System defined
Your immune system is a powerful thing. It is your body’s ability to resist infection or toxins. It’s your first line of defense in protecting yourself from sickness and disease. Your immune system consists of different organs, cells, and proteins – it is one of the most complex systems your body has. 

To keep it simple, the immune system is made up of antibodies, white blood cells, and other chemicals and proteins. It also includes the following area of the body: tonsils and thymus (which make antibodies), lymph nodes and vessels (they filter out bacteria, viruses, and substances), bone marrow (produces red and white blood cells), spleen (filters out old/damaged blood cells and helps destroy bacteria), and white blood cells (protects body against infection by attacking and destroying bacteria/viruses) (9).
Sickness occurs when the immune system is compromised, or if the pathogen affecting the body is new or simply too tough to fight. The main function of the immune system is to neutralize pathogens (like bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi) and harmful environmental substances (like air pollutants, pesticides, chemicals, and cigarette smoke) and remove them from the body. It also detects and destroys cancerous cells within the body.

There are several factors that can affect the strength of your immune system such as your genetic makeup, stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, age, and lack of exercise or overtraining. 

Athletes and the Immune System
As athletes, we push our bodies hard. We need our body to be functioning at 100% to withstand the daily stress we put it through, and we need to recover and do it all over again the next day. In addition to solid foundational nutrition (check out FTM’s Nutrition Principles), we need to balance our training with rest and recovery (check out our Recovery article).

When it comes to getting sick, athletes can often suffer from upper respiratory infections (URTI), this includes the common cold, sinusitis and tonsillitis. Moderate levels of exercise can help reduce susceptibility to illness (compared to inactivity) but long hard bouts of exercise and intensified training can put athletes at an increased risk of colds and the flu (5.). 

An example of this is an athlete that participates in a marathon or ultra-marathon race. In the weeks following the event the athlete’s risk of a URTI is higher due to increased levels of stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) that can suppress white blood cell functions. Depressed immune function is at its highest when the exercise is more than 90 minutes, is of moderate to high intensity (55-75% of aerobic capacity), and is performed without food intake (5). Not to mention that athletes that compete typically travel and are exposed to bigger crowds (and therefore are exposed to more germs). 

Overtraining and the immune system

While there is still much to learn about the overtraining syndrome – it generally happens with high performance athletes that undergo excessive training that may, if left unchecked and unbalanced with proper sleep and recovery, cause persistent fatigue, poor performance, changes in mood/mental state, and frequent illness.  With endurance athletes and triathletes, this is most common due to long hours and consecutive days of training with little time off.  

While we won’t get into a big discussion about overtraining and its exact diagnosis, it’s important to note that any athlete that adheres to an intense training schedule, without the balance of sleep and recovery, is at risk of compromising their immune system and overall performance. “Just a single bout of acute intense exercise may suppress immune parameters for several hours afterwards. Moreover, there is evidence that high-performance athletes demonstrate mild suppression of a host of immunological parameter (4).”  Immunological variables that can be affected during overtraining include neutrophil count (our body’s first white blood cell responders to injury and inflammation), lower plasma glutamine (an amino acid required by lymphocytes and monocytes, aka white blood cells), and lower immunoglobulins (these guys help function as antibodies). 

In regards to sleep,  there are many complex processes that take place during sleep - many of which involve our nervous system and our immune system. Without going into great detail, lack of sleep can cause T-cells (cells that fight infection) to go down, and inflammatory cytokines to go up. Over time, this can cause chronic low-grade inflammation and cause immunodeficiency (11).  Therefore, it's not only important to get solid sleep to allow for proper rest and recovery, but it's important to properly support your immune system's function and ability to fight disease, as well as lower overall inflammation. 

Bottom line, no matter what your sport or intensity, it’s important to always balance training with quality rest and recovery.

Supplements are a great way to help support the body in building and maintaining a strong immune system. There are a variety of supplements that help to do this including vitamins, minerals, probiotics, omega-3s, amino acids and antioxidants. See the list below for a brief description of each one and how they can help support the immune system.  

Antioxidants - these help prevent cell damage caused by oxidants (free radicals that are found in the body and in the environment). Excess free radicals can weaken your immune system and contributes to serious health problems such as cardiovascular and inflammatory disease and cancer (8). Antioxidants include vitamins (such as vitamin A, C, and E), minerals (such as selenium), lutein, lycopene, and beta-carotene. Products that focus on antioxidants include Hammer Nutrition's Super Antioxidant, AstaFactor, Premium Insurance Caps, MDrive (featuring selenium), Performance Tea, Tenzo Tea, & Spring Dragon Longevity Tea. Many of our teas offer the benefit of antioxidants - see our tea category for more info. 

Glutamine - this is an amino acid that provides fuel for white blood cells. While it’s considered non-essential (because it can be made from other substances in the body), it is considered conditionally essential during illness, intense training, or injury. Studies have shown that supplementing with glutamine can help increase the level of white blood cells in your body. Supplements that feature glutamine include L-glutamine Powder, CORE, EFS PRO, and RECOVERY Amino Power. Many protein powders also include glutamine, learn more here

Omega-3s - It’s not news that omega-3s are healthy fats that play a major role in overall health and well-being. When it comes to the immune system, omega-3s help to improve the communication between immune cells and helps to improve their ability to destroy pathogens. Read the ''Power of Omega Fats'' to learn more. Some great examples of omega-3 products include SFH SO3-D3 Omega -3 Oil, Klean Omega, SFH SO3 Omega-3 Softgels, and EdurOmega. 

Phytonutrients - these are chemicals found in certain plants which can help with overall health and disease prevention. Many foods contain phytonutrients including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and tea. Phytonutrients include carotenoids (like beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein), flavonoids (like quercetin and catechins), resveratrol, glucosinolates, phytoestrogens, and ellagic acid. Many of these have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. All of these phytonutrients play a positive role in maintaining and modulating immune function to prevent specific diseases (10). Products that focus on phytonutrients include Phytomax, Tenzo Tea, Spring Dragon Longevity Tea, Tonic Alchemy, and Performance Tea (many other teas offer the benefits of phytonutrients - see our tea category here). 

Probiotics - About 80% of your immune system resides in your GI tract in the form of receptor cells. Because of this location, what happens in your gut can influence your immune function in a powerful way.  Healthy gut bacteria are necessary to properly digest food, support and regulate the immune system, and fight off bad bacteria. Probiotics help regulate the immune response by increasing healthy bacteria and reinforcing the barrier function of the intestinal lining, lowering the chance of bacteria in the intestines entering the blood stream and decreasing infection. We carry some great probiotic products including Klean probiotic, Hammer Digest Caps, MultiV-PRO, Primo Smoothie Meal, and Tonic Alchemy. Read ‘’Why the Gut is King’’ to learn more. 

Vitamins & Minerals -These are a no-brainer. Everyone can benefit from a quality vitamin and mineral supplement. These are essential to supporting a healthy body and deficiencies will weaken your immune system.  Vitamins such as vitamin A and D play a crucial role in supporting healthy immune function. We carry some killer multivitamin supplements that are derived from quality sources and offer amounts that are effective such as SportMulti, MultiV, MultiVPro, and Klean Athlete Multivitamin. To learn more, read our vitamin and minerals article. 

Vitamin D - One of the main functions of vitamin D is to support immune function. It influences nearly 3,000 of your 25,000 genes and plays a critical role in your immune response. It enables your body to produce antimicrobial peptides which help fight off a wide range of infections. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to over 200 diseases – and many people are deficient. Read our Vitamin D article for more info. Examples of great products that feature vitamin D include SFH SO3-D3 Omega-3 Oil and Klean-D.  

Vitamin C - Several cells in the immune system need vitamin C to perform their task, especially phagocytes (cells that engulf and absorb bacteria) and t-cells (a lymphocyte that plays a central role in cell-mediated immunity). A vitamin C deficiency can lead to reduced resistance to pathogens (7). Supplements that feature vitamin C include SportMulti, Fluid Performance, Fluid Recovery, MultiV, Klean Antioxidant, and Klean Multivitamin.

Bottom line
Your immune system is EVERYTHING. It is the key to your body performing, recovering, and training at its best. No matter what your sport or intensity, you have to start with good nutrition and quality sleep, and you must balance training with rest and recovery. In addition to the basics, it’s definitely worth including quality supplements to help you support a healthy immune system. All of these actions will help you do all you can to support a healthy immune system so you can continue to train and perform at your best.


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