While exercise (covered in part 1) is a very important factor in immune function, nutrition is equally-if-not-more important for an optimally-functioning immune system.
I like to always cover the basics, so consider this your reminder to eat plenty of: lean protein, an assortment of colourful fruits and veggies, high-quality and minimally-processed carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
The most important thing in the world
I can’t stress this enough: nutrition accounts for up to 90% of your physical and mental health state. So, to be eating properly, you need to ensure that you are not deficient in any nutrients or minerals and are consuming enough carbs, fats and protein to recover effectively. With that in place, you will have a much easier time managing your health…I promise you.
Something I do with a lot of my high-performance clients is to instruct them to bring a protein shake with about 30 to 50g of carbohydrates and 50g of amino acids to the session (to be consumed at the beginning and slowly throughout the workout).
This has proven to effectively increase their recovery rate post-workout, and has improved their energy levels during the workout.
Other factors in recovery
Aside from nutrition and exercise, there are a lot of other factors that affect our ability to recover properly. Some of them are obvious:
- Age– The older we get, the more likely it is for our immune function to break down and get weaker
- Sex/Gender – Menstrual phase and oral contraceptive use (the pill) can affect how exercise impacts the immune system
- Sleep– This one should be really obvious: the worse you sleep the worse your recovery!
- Mood– immune function is affected by mental health; chronic stress, depression, anxiety or other mental health-related issues have been proven to raise inflammation 2 to 3 times their normal levels
- Over-eating– Over-consumption can lead to immune issues, due to the high content of fats that are consumed and stored; certain fats cause more issues than others.
- Nutritional stress: Out of balance Macro/Micro nutrients – inadequate intake of the following will decrease the ability to fend off pathogens and disease: Protein, Zinc, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Selenium, Copper, Folic acid and vitamins A, C, D, E, B6, and B12
Some of the not-so-obvious factors that affect immune function and recovery are:
- Training Age – The more time you spend in a gym, the more acclimated your body is to handling stress. For people just beginning their fitness journey: you will encounter periods of illness a little more frequently until you athletic ability improves.
- Pre/Probiotics – these special helpers are extremely important for strengthening the immune system; both are essential to gut health and gut health is the number one defender of our immune system
- Prebiotics help us digest and break down food. This is usually a digestible fibre that helps push food through our GI tract
- Probiotics are the bacteria that help us recover quickly from illnesses and diseases.
Factors to focus on
The best advice I can provide without actually offering coaching is to tell you to increase your Probiotic, Prebiotic, Vitamin & Mineral intake.
As a side note, with pre/probiotics you will feel a bit worse before you begin to feel better; as with any vaccination, your body has to get used to the bacteria so that it can learn how to fight it.
You should be consume 2-3x daily through whole-foods first and supplementation second (if you cannot get enough probiotic-rich foods). If you are going to be supplementing, you should aim for doses of 3-5 billion. (Doses are usually expressed in billions of live organisms.) It’s best to find a broad spectrum probiotic with multiple strains of bacteria. The best whole food sources include:
- RAW Dairy: yogurt, cheese, kefir
- Fermented vegetables: pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi
- Fermented soy: miso, tempeh
- Soy sauce, wine, Kombucha
I would try to stay away from too much fermented soy, soy sauce and wine, however.
Prebiotics should be consumed at around 2-4g daily. They are best consumed as fermentable fibre:
- Vegetables: asparagus, garlic, artichokes, leeks, onions
- Starches: barley, beans, oats, quinoa, rye, wheat, potatoes, yams
- Fruits: apples, bananas, berries, citrus, kiwi
- Fats: flax & chia seeds
Vitamins & Minerals
While you can find these as supplements, they’re best when you consume them through eating a whole-food, minimally-processed diet full of healthy fats, high-quality carbohydrates and lean protein.
If you do supplement, focus on vitamin D, magnesium, zinc and calcium, as they are the most important for immune function.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
I just threw a lot of information at you! It can be a little daunting to embark on a fitness and nutrition journey alone.
In fact, it’s a very good idea to get a nutritionist on your case to get you set up properly and guide you through common pitfalls. Having a specialist at hand gives you your best chance at success and is someone you can rely on to answer questions will undoubtedly crop up.
If you are looking for coaching or training, contact me for a free assessment and consultation.
Wes Van Hart is a personal trainer, nutritionist (and far more), located in Toronto. Wes is an advocate for constantly improving both physical and mental health, and as such, he is dedicated to advancing his knowledge base, certifications and ability to help his clients, no matter how that looks.
Wes was the very first FitIn affiliate, and is a regular contributor to the FitIn blog.