Episode 44 - Eating for Immunity: Ideas to help you stay healthy this winter
Eating for Immunity
Now that the colder months are upon us, it’s time to be proactive with our nutrition for the best immune system defence.
For active people, immune function plays a role not only in fighting off infections but also in promoting tissue repair to recover from exercise and injury. To function properly, the immune system requires lots of nutrients – both macro and micronutrients.
For a triathlete under a heavy training load, requirements are even higher, putting you at risk of a suppressed immune system if you’re not meeting your needs.
To help you stay well over the colder months, I’ve put together a few key points - to keep you firing on all cylinders this winter!
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Episode 44 - Eating for Immunity: Ideas to help you stay well this winter
Taryn Richardson 00:00
Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast, the show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian, and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy to digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.
Taryn Richardson 00:36
For everyone down in the southern hemisphere, our colder months are upon us. So it's time to start to be really proactive with our nutrition for the best immune system defence. When we're quite active, our immune function plays not only a role in fighting off infections, but also in promoting tissue repair, to recover from exercise and injury.
Taryn Richardson 01:04
So we need to function properly and, to function properly, the immune system requires a lot of nutrients - both macro and micro-nutrients. For a triathlete under heavy training loads, your requirements for those nutrients are probably higher, putting you, I guess, at more risk of having a low immune system if you're not meeting your needs. Couple that with high levels of training, it's a pretty heavy onslaught to the body. So to help you stay well over our winter, I've put together a few key points to keep you firing on all cylinders.
Taryn Richardson 01:40
Number one is that rest and recovery are key - recovery trumps anything and sleep is our ultimate form of recovery. But we also want to make sure we're not burning the candle at both ends. Regardless of the type or intensity of exercise, it places a stress on the body, meaning that your immune system has to work harder to build and repair that damaged tissue. We know that moderate training loads can be quite protective, because every time you exercise, you send out all of your immune cells into the system.
Taryn Richardson 02:16
But heavy training loads, so for anyone that's about to do Cairns, and has just peaked, you've probably compromised your immune system, which is often why you get sick after a big race like that. We know that our immune system is down for up to 72 hours following high-intensity training or racing, making that a really key time for susceptibility - particularly if you train outside because when you train outside, you're more likely to pick up bacteria from the road. That is why rest and recovery is so important.
Taryn Richardson 02:49
I know that triathletes don't like to rest, but you need rest days to adapt from your training sessions. And hey, if you get sick, then that's forced rest that you don't want to do. So a little bit of listening to the body, putting the right things in it, will help you have more of a consistent training block without getting sick and injured.
Taryn Richardson 03:11
Chances are, if you've got a coach or somebody writing your training program, it does have that ebb and flow. You do have high-intensity days, but you also should have lighter and rest days. It's unlikely, or hopefully, you're not doing continual, intense exercise day after day smashing yourself with minimal rest, because that is definitely not good for our immune system. And it's really interesting to look back at people's training peaks - if they're getting injured or getting sick. Often, you can see a few weeks before a big spike in training stress load.
Taryn Richardson 03:48
It's one of the first things I go through with somebody if they're telling me that they're feeling really tired and rundown and they keep getting sick all the time. We have a look at their training load and see if it's got these big spikes, and big troughs - we want to have a nice slow, steady increase in training stress balance, and then back it off and then slow, steady increase and back it off. You can't smash yourself all the time. And you also need to not have a huge spike or a huge jump in a short period of time.
Taryn Richardson 04:18
So one of my clients recently got sick - and it's because she backed up two long runs in a week - just because she was away and time-poor and she had to kind of fit it in. But she would have been better off just missing one. Because there was a huge spike in her training stress balance and then she got sick. If you track that, and you watch it, just have a look. And make sure you're not seeing huge big spikes out of nowhere. If you've got a coach, it's their job to make sure that that happens.
Taryn Richardson 04:49
The second thing I want to talk about for your immune system is to make sure you're not in low energy availability. Now I will do a whole session on energy availability and RED-S. But energy availability refers to the amount of energy left available to support your regular body functions, like your immune system, once your energy has been expended on exercise. When we don't have enough energy available to meet our daily demands, we're basically fighting an uphill battle already - even before injury or illness occurs. If you then pick up a bug, your body is just not equipped to fight it off and chances are you'll get sick.
Taryn Richardson 05:34
Triathletes who train for three sports, in particular, you need to understand how to match your energy intake to your energy expenditure better. It is definitely a skill to periodise your nutrition to your training load - where training volumes fluctuate across the weeks, across the month, across the year. But you shouldn't eat the same thing each day unless your training is exactly the same each day. You can protect your immune function by scaling your nutrition up on heavy training days and having some strategies in place to eat more appropriately for a rest day.
Taryn Richardson 06:14
That is something that a Sports Dietitian is your best point of call - for how to do that based on your training program. That is our area of expertise. That is what we do as a job. So don't go and see your massage therapist or your naturopath or your personal trainer if you want to understand how to eat to support triathlon training! Go and see the experts. You wouldn't go to your podiatrist for a sore arm. And you wouldn't go to your optometrist for a tummy ache. Go to the professional that is an expert in that space, to fast track all the noise and give you a clear plan and an answer for exactly what you need to do. Alright, rant over!
Taryn Richardson 06:59
My third point, when it comes to immunity, is that carbohydrate is protective. And I'm not saying the message is go and smash loads of carbs. But carbohydrate contributes to meeting our overall daily energy needs. And it's usually the first thing that gets thrown out the window when we're trying to lose weight. We're constantly trying to scale back carbs to drop body fat. But training in a carb depleted state or not refuelling properly, can be a huge contributing factor to impaired immunity.
Taryn Richardson 07:31
After sustained exercise, which is generally what we do as a triathlete, there's an automatic release of stress hormones. And those hormones in excess - so think cortisol, one of our stress hormones, that actually suppresses the body's immune response immediately following a training session - that's a window, leaving us susceptible to infection. If we're constantly training in a glycogen depleted state, so low carbohydrate availability or low carbohydrate stores, that stress hormone release is markedly increased. But making sure we have enough carbohydrate in our diet to support the demands of your daily training program, we can blunt that release of stress hormone and reduce the stress placed on the immune system as a whole.
Taryn Richardson 08:19
So if you're constantly getting sick, have a think about your carbohydrate availability, because that might help reduce inflammation, support your immune system and decrease your recovery time. Among other things. If you really have no idea if your carbohydrate intake is matching your needs, then I definitely suggest coming and joining us inside the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program.
Taryn Richardson 08:45
In the first four weeks of Phase 1, I'm going to teach you exactly what you need to do, to match your nutrition to your training load, and figure out exactly what you need to do and the timing for your schedule. It's not something to muck around with. You'll feel so much better if you get this right. And it only takes one day of feeling like that, to feel like that supercharged triathlete! For it to click and sink in that carbs are not the devil. We just need to learn how to eat them strategically.
Taryn Richardson 09:22
My fourth tip for you, and this is a big one, is to look after your gut. Gut health research has just been exploding in the last few years. There's some really cool stuff coming out. But it's really important for your immune system because 70% of your immune cells reside in the gut. Our body has two main lines of defence - we have our front line, which is our intestinal wall - that acts as like a physical barrier to foreign invaders. So think of that, like the bouncer. He's the big guy at the front. stopping people from coming in.
Taryn Richardson 09:56
Our intestinal wall is made up of these barrier cells that are tightly joined together. They let the good guys in - so think our nutrients, and they keep the bad guys out - so think things like pathogens. If that junction between the cells becomes too weak or too loose, then that allows the unwanted bad guys in. And that is not what we want. If those bad guys do make it through that door, past the bouncer, then our immune system is still ready to pounce on them with our second line of defence.
Taryn Richardson 10:03
This is our much more sophisticated immune system - and that's made up of cells and tissues and organs. So think, like, the alarm or the security cameras in a security system. They send out the distress signal, and that causes a cascade of events to combat the invaders. But there's this delicate balance between fending off the bad and balancing the good microbes in our gut. If that balance gets tipped in one direction, that's not good.
Taryn Richardson 10:57
If it gets boosted, our immune system gets boosted - so think allergies and auto-immune disease - that's not good. Versus immune-compromised - think things like cancer with chemo. Our body becomes so much more vulnerable to invasion by the bad guys and that can lead to illness and infection. So we really want to look after our gut health.
Taryn Richardson 11:25
There's a range of things that you can do. Let me give you a couple of quick tips. The first one is definitely fibre. Fibre is what keeps our gut microbes happy. And as a triathlete, you might be constantly thinking, "Alright, carbs and protein, carbs and protein. These are the things I need. Recovery. Performance". But don't forget about fibre. Fibre comes from: fruits and vegetables, our grains, legumes, (fibre comes from our fruits and etc) and we need to make sure we're getting at least 30gms of fibre a day. That's a general health recommendation.
Taryn Richardson 12:05
But even if you're crazy active, you still should be getting about that much in a day. So I'd really encourage you to eat the rainbow. All of the different colours and varieties of fruits and vegetables, they are very rich in fibre. So don't peel anything - keep the skin on. There's a lot of fibre in the skin. But they also contain a huge range of our micro-nutrients that we need as well.
Taryn Richardson 12:28
And a lot of these are involved in our immune function. So things like iron, vitamin C, and D, and zinc. If you have even a mild deficiency in any of these micro-nutrients, you can have altered immune response. The easiest way to make sure you're getting enough of those micronutrients is to consume a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables. So eat the rainbow. If you find yourself always reaching for the same two or three varieties, like maybe you go to the shops every week and you get carrot and zucchini, capsicum, some apples - done! - probably is time to start shaking things up. Pick up things of different colours next time and pick up a few different varieties depending on what's in season in your area.
Taryn Richardson 13:10
The other thing we can do for our gut microbes is include our prebiotic and probiotic foods. These definitely keep them happy. So our prebiotic foods, they're foods that our microbes feed on. So think inulin fructooligosaccharides, and galactooligosaccharides or FOS + GOS, because they're definitely a mouthful. If you've ever done any work with FODMAPs, you'll understand what those are. But a couple of examples of foods that contain these things might be nectarines, chickpeas, almonds, asparagus, grapefruit - there's a huge range of prebiotic foods. So if you're focusing on eating the rainbow, then you should be getting these things as well.
Taryn Richardson 13:10
The other thing you can do for your gut is those probiotic foods. You can take a probiotic supplement, but there's plenty of ways to get it from food. So think yoghurt, miso, tempeh, sourdough, some cheeses, kefir, kombucha - there are so many probiotic foods. So if you're not eating any of these things, maybe you want to start looking at implementing them into your diet.
Taryn Richardson 14:17
And my final point for you, with your immune system, is, that if you are getting sick, like, at those first signs of getting a cold, or an upper respiratory tract infection, then you can start taking some zinc and vitamin C. There's no point taking it prophylactically but at the first signs of getting sick, you can start taking some of these things. There is a specific dose that you need of both of them and a duration that you would take it, but I'm not going to give that to you on this platform because I'd prefer you consult with your health professional to get individualised advice for you.
Taryn Richardson 14:17
I'm not going to give it to you over the airways. But my take-home for today's episode is, like everything else, there's no magic pill to improve your immunity. I definitely suggest planning some rest days and some lighter training weeks. Just checking that your training stress load doesn't spike really quickly. Make sure you having a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, the more different varieties and colours and the more the better. Make sure you're meeting your total energy needs on a day to day basis, so you're not putting yourself into low energy availability.
Taryn Richardson 15:32
And you're not so afraid of carbohydrate that your glycogen stores are low all the time. There are some metabolic advantages to training on low glycogen stores, but it's not a strategy you want to do all the time. You can layer it in strategically, once you've built your other foundations of your nutrition and your cake sponge, you've iced it and then the low glycogen training is a sprinkle that you put on to the cake. You're unlikely to get any advantage out of it if you haven't built those bottom layers first, because there's nothing for the sprinkles to stick to.
Taryn Richardson 16:09
And finally, make sure you sleep well - sleep is your ultimate form of recovery. If you're not getting seven to nine hours a night, then you need to look at some strategies to increase this - because you're burning the candle at both ends. Wash your hands before eating and touching your face. Wear your mask when you have to! And make sure you stay well this winter. Happy training!
Taryn Richardson 16:38
Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned. Email me at [email protected]. You could also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media at @dietitian.approved so I can give you a shout out too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to www.dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smash it in the fourth leg - nutrition!