Tamsin Lewis: Immune Health & Training

  • By Dr. Tamsin Lewis
  • Published January 22, 2013

Immunocompromise = A state in which a person’s immune system is weakened or absent. 
Travelling to new places increases out risk of developing an illness as our immune system is challenged by exposure to new bugs. Any shared environment also increases illness risk as proximity to infected individuals is higher. Some people may carry pathogens and not be symptomatic. Coming into contact with them at a time of immuno-compromise may cause you to become unwell.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URTI’s) are most common. An acute bout of heavy exercise induces immune system responses, which are similar to those induced by infection. In health you will recover quickly from this, but in times of extra training or other stress these responses persist and your chances of getting unwell are much higher if the appropriate action is not taken.

Every year the cold and flu pathogens change/evolve and avoid our adaptive immune system, which recognises bugs which have previously attempted to attack us. This is why (unlike chicken pox) you can repeatedly become infected and why we can’t vaccinate against common colds.  Endurance exercise and training if not properly managed can weaken our immune system. The recruitment of white bloods cells to fight off pathogens may be reduced and elevated levels of stress hormones (especially cortisol) serve to weaken the inflammatory component of the immune response and can allow pathogen entry. Even if this doesn’t result in full blown illness, once in our system bugs & their toxins cause inflammation and require energy to expunge from our bodies.

This is energy which otherwise would be optimising our muscular and hormonal recovery and adaptation from training.

Factors which increase risk of immune system suppression:

  • Increased intensity of exercise.
  • Increased duration of exercise.
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Psychological stress – work/life/family
  • Nutrient poor diet – inadequate zinc/vitamin C/folate and healthy fats
  • Calorie restricted diets
  • Low body fat percentage
  • Frequent travel (increased exposure to new/unknown pathogens)
  • History of chronic disease – asthma, diabetes, heart disease.. etc
  • Not washing hands regularly and thoroughly– especially after using bathroom/using public transport.
  • Heavy drinking – Christmas Parties!
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