5 Ways Athletes Can Support Their Immune System for Optimal Performance

by VOLTAGE Collaborator

5 Ways Athletes Can Support Their Immune System for Optimal Performance

Author: S. Quinn Lambert | Read Time: 10 Mins | Date: August 28, 2020

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of a strong immune system has become utterly apparent. Cutting through the obscure promises of non-evidence based ‘immunity boosting’ hoaxes, there remain evidence-based lifestyle practices that can truly protect us by supporting our immune system. Our intricate immune systems are affected by a variety of factors; therefore it is imperative to implement a combination of key healthy habits to create and support a healthy immune system while improving our overall health.

A Balanced Gut is Key for a Healthy Immune System

Balancing the bacteria in our gut is one of the most important and effective ways to improve our overall health. The mucosal lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract houses 70-80% of our immune system, so an imbalance in our gut microbiome often leads to unwellness. This unwellness is manifest in a variety of forms including bloating, diarrhea, increased susceptibility to viruses (e.g., Coronavirus), and increased vulnerability for developing serious chronic conditions. By balancing your gut microbiome you create and support a healthy immune system while improving your overall health.

1. Exercise regularly

Athletes, by nature, regularly engage in vigorous exercise. So let’s dive into the details of how exercise is affecting your gut.

Regular exercise enriches and stabilizes gut microbiome diversity. “In fact, stable and enriched microflora diversity is indispensable to the homeostasis and normal gut physiology … [as well as] the healthy status of the individual.” [1] Specifically, exercise increases the number of butyrate producing microbes. Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) that strengthens the gut lining and prevents gut inflammation.

Less gut inflammation = More effective immune system

VO2​ peak, the gold standard for measuring cardiorespiratory health, accounts for more than 20% of the diversity in gut microbes. Thus, cardiorespiratory fitness is an excellent predictor and modifier of gut diversity. While specific microbe strains are not predicted by cardiorespiratory fitness, the specific functionality of the microbes are predicted.

Furthermore, a ​study​ comparing rugby players to sedentary individuals conclusively showed -- across age, size, and gender -- that the athletes had a significantly more diverse microbiome. The athletes averaged 22 phyla, 68 families and 113 genera in gut samples. In contrast, the sedentary counterparts averaged just 10 phyla, 33 families and 63 genera in their gut samples.

Takeaway: Regular exercise is part of a self-prescription for a healthy, balanced gut and thus a healthy immune system.

2. Get adequate sleep

Sleep and the gut microbiome are closely linked. Sleep affects our gut microbiome and the status of our gut microbiome affects our sleep.

Sleep’s effects on the gut microbiome

During sleep deprivation, certain plasma metabolites are significantly altered. “Environmental enteric dysfunction is characterized by alterations in important metabolites involved in growth and differentiation and gut function and integrity.​” [2]​ Getting proper sleep keeps metabolites in check thereby keeping your gut microbiome in check.

Additionally, our gut microbiota operate in conjunction with our sleep and wake schedule. The rhythmic activity of our microbiota can be disturbed when we do not get adequate sleep. This disruption of our microbiota has implications for disrupting the rhythm of other organs as well.

One ​study​ simply states that reduced sleep time or disruption of the circadian rhythm leads to a physiological stress response and changes the normal intestinal microbiota.

Gut Microbiome’s effects on sleep
In a six week ​study​, participants who took a probiotic (improved gut microbiome) compared to those taking a placebo noted higher sleep quality over the course of the study. A different ​study​ ​suggests that a healthy gut leads to a reduction in circulating proinflammatory cytokines leading to higher quality sleep. The bottom line, a healthy gut means higher quality sleep.

Takeaway: Adequate sleep promotes a healthy gut microbiome, and a healthy gut microbiome promotes quality sleep.

3. Maintain a healthy weight

High diversity in the gut microbiome is inversely correlated with long-term ​weight gain. In other words, a diverse microbial community is associated with maintaining a healthy weight and reduced weight gain over time -- independent of caloric intake and other confounding variables. The disruption of gut microbiota affects metabolism​ and in turn can lead to weight gain or stunted growth.

Eat a variety of fresh and natural foods

High fiber intake is also associated with maintaining a healthy weight and reduced weight gain over time. Data from a 2017 study suggest that high fiber intake increases microbiome diversity. The findings imply that this increase in microbiome diversity may be the reason why high fiber intake is associated with reduced weight gain.

As you can see, what we eat affects our gut microbiome and our gut microbiome affects how we metabolize what we eat. Consequently, it is important to eat foods that are healthy for our gut. Eating a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices promotes microbiome diversity. Different fresh and natural foods contain different phytonutrients. Phytonutrients can be thought of as the nutrients within fresh and natural foods that feed the microbes in our gut. A diversity of phytonutrients, i.e. a variety of fresh and natural foods, supports diversity in the gut microbiome.

Takeaway: Eating patterns that support maintaining a healthy weight promote a healthy gut. In turn, a healthy gut helps us maintain a healthy weight

4. Manage stress

Our gut and our brain are intimately connected to one another. This connection is commonly referred to as the “gut-brain axis.” Constant communication takes place between these two parts of your body. You may have experienced this connection in the form of “butterflies in the stomach” or a “gut-wrenching situation.” Our gut is sensitive to the emotions and feelings that we experience. Our psychology has a direct impact on our gut physiology.

Managing stress, anxiety, depression, and our general emotions leads to a healthier gut. In the treatment of GI conditions, “multiple studies have found that psychologically based approaches lead to greater improvement in digestive symptoms compared with only conventional medical treatment.”[3]

The gut also sends out messages and has an effect on the brain. One study states that doing things to “promote a healthy [gut] microbiota, and avoiding factors that do the opposite, appears to be the most direct way of promoting brain health.”[4] 

Takeaway: Taking care of our brain and taking care of our gut helps them take care of each other.

5. Take a clinically-researched probiotic

Probiotics are beneficial, live bacteria that help strengthen the gut flora and improve the digestive system. Because the gut and immune system are connected, probiotics can streamline communication between the immune system and bacteria in the gut.

Athletes are especially susceptible to increased gut permeability due to intense and prolonged exercise, especially when done in the heat. Taking an effective probiotic can eliminate the potential damage to the gut by improving the integrity of the gut barrier. Probiotics can protect you from gut troubles without you having to sacrifice your performance or training. 

lyvecap athletes running

Naturally, athletes can suffer from immune depression due to high training load, stress, disrupted sleep, and environmental extremes. This immune depression combined with being in high exposure situations -- crowd exposure, travel, training or competition locations, etc. -- is a recipe for potential sickness. Nevertheless, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted among 20 healthy elite male distance runners illuminated the beneficial impact that an effective probiotic has on immune function. 

The study found that runners taking a probiotic, compared to runners taking placebo, reported less than half the number of days with respiratory symptoms along with reduced illness severity.

However, it’s important to incorporate into your diet a probiotic that has been clinically researched and is truly effective; your probiotic needs to include the right combination of bacterial strains that have been proven to work together effectively. The foundation of LYVECAP’s STRONG is a clinically-researched probiotic that, through testing, has proven to be effective. STRONG is designed for athletes -- it contains leucine and taurine in addition to a powerful probiotic. STRONG can help decrease lactic acid and fight soreness, effectively shortening recovery times after a hard workout. Adding STRONG to your daily health routine is a great way to contribute to the strengthening of your gut and immune system.

Takeaway: Taking an effective probiotic combats the potential gut and immune system dangers posed to athletes.

Overview

Because the immune response is intricate and complex, there is no single action that will completely overhaul your immune system. Use this time during the pandemic to integrate health-promoting habits into your daily routine. As you support the health of your gut and immune system, you will become increasingly resilient to disease and improve your overall health.


Additional Sources
Davies, Sarah K et al. “Effect of sleep deprivation on the human metabolome.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 111,29 (2014): 10761-6. doi:10.1073/pnas.1402663111

Deanna M. Minich, "A Review of the Science of Colorful, Plant-Based Food and Practical Strategies for “Eating the Rainbow”", Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 2019, Article ID 2125070, 19 pages, 2019.