The sudden change in the weather along with increased training and all the lovely back to school bugs floating around can lead to a number of unwanted illnesses and time away from your training programme. It is therefore important to help your body out and give your immune system a boost so you can happily roam the trails and roads all year round. Exercise places extra demands on the body for certain nutrients so in the run up to this years Run the Line I thought I'd put something together for you all to reference to make sure everybody makes it to the start line and has a great run on the day. It's common knowledge that vitamin C aids immune function but what else can you do?
1) RESTING HEART RATE
Monitoring your resting heart rate will give you a good overview of your health. Resting heart rate raises when the body is fighting an illness, this can be seen before symptoms appear in most cases. Heart rate raises if you have even a low grade temperature, this is one of your body's first defense mechanisms for fighting unknown invaders. Heart rate will also raise in times of stress so that is something to keep an eye on as you will find out further down the blog. Most fitness watches on the market will automatically track this data for you and you can monitor results from the accompanying app. If you are oldschool you will need to take your heart rate first thing in the morning before you even sit up in the bed and record your findings every morning. A difference of more than two or three beats, particularly if it occurs over a few days, means something is brewing and you need to take action!
2) GUT HEALTH
Gut health is directly associated with the immune system and mental health so it is a top priority keeping all those microscopic bacteria that live in your microbiome happy and healthy. The more a diversity of good gut bacteria you have, the greater a defense your immune system can build as these “good” bacteria crowd out any “bad” bacteria by not allow them make a home for themselves. These bacteria are essential to our existence, they allow for the final break down of foods and nutrients in the body and for absorption of vitamin K which is essential for bone health (important for us runners with all the wear and tear we inflict on our bones!) as well as blood clotting and vitamin B12 which is essential for energy production and brain function. In fact recent studies have linked a lack of vitamin B12 to cognitive diseases such as dementia! Fluids and electrolytes are also reabsorbed from the gut into the bloodstream and unwanted by products such as excess cholesterol are excreted with the help of your team of gut microbiology. The best way to populate your gut with a good diversity of beneficial bacteria is to eat a wide variety of wholesome foods as different bacteria are needed to break down different foods so if you only eat three types of vegetables, you'll only have the specific bacteria needed to break down that food. Fibre is essential to creating a healthy environment for your microbiome as this is as excellent source of food for healthy bacteria. Foods such as fruit and vegetables (especially skins), wholemeal bread and pastas, brown rice and porridge are all excellent options and good news for balancing blood sugars too!
3) STRESS RESPONSE
As mentioned above, gut health has a direct link to mental health as 90% of the serotonin made in the body is produced in the gut! Serotonin is the “happy hormone”, it plays a number of roles such as regulating mood, behaviour, digestion, sleep and memory. We need serotonin to counteract the effects of cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones. Keeping your stress response balanced is essential to good health. The body cannot differentiate between emotional and physical stresses or even how great a stress is present, it reacts in the same way to all threats. Systems are put on high alert, blood flow is restricted in the digestive system and other “non essential” areas and diverted to the limbs, heart and lungs for the purpose of running away from the threat. All well and good if Kylo-Ren is after you, not so helpful if you actually need that blood flow to digest your meal and absorb nutrients effectively! Excessive or chronic stress creates hormonal imbalance which places a high demand on the adrenal glands as they try to provide the hormones the body is looking for. Adrenal fatigue can then result from this chronic stress response. Exercise, particularly over training, is something that places a stress on the body, partly because of the physical action but also because the whole picture has to be taken into account. Today's lifestyle is non stop, there are work and family commitments, financial demands, the list goes on! You have to factor in time to rest and relax to allow the body return to a balanced state hormonally and physically. The best thing to do is to find what works for you, some people use mindfulness, some use music, whatever it is that allows you to switch off.
Sleep is often the one element of a training programme that can be overlooked but it is one of the most important. Both quality and quantity of sleep needs to be examined. These are influenced greatly by bedtime routine or as it is now known, sleep hygiene. The body and brain use the time you are asleep to rebuild and renew. Not enough sleep or disturbed sleep and the body does not have adequate time to do this, it cannot effectively rebuild and resynthesise needed tissues and hormones. Diet can play a role in sleep quality, if there has been an intake of caffiene before going asleep it is more likely to be a restless night. Eating late in the evening also has a huge impact on quality of sleep. Have you noticed that if you eat late you wake up tired the next morning? This is because the digestive system, the liver in particular, has had to work all night to digest and absorb the food just eaten so your body has not had the opportunity to rest. The liver needs to have a rest everyday as this organ controls and influences so many functions throughout the body so try not to eat for the last 3 hours before going to bed. Sleep hygiene involves keeping the environment quiet,darkened and at a moderate temperature ensuring you are not too hot or too cold, avoiding the use of screens so the hormone melatonin can take affect and the brain can start to wind down, keeping food out of the bedroom and creating a routine where there is a consistant time for sleeping and waking. Optimal sleep times are between seven and nine hours a night. If you are like me and need the full nine hours, take steps to ensure you can reach that target as you will feel the benefits straight away! From a performance point of view adequate sleep will speed up recovery, reduce injury risk as your reaction times are quicker and your mental alertness is improved you will have a stronger immune system as there is less stress on the body and it is not playing catch up all the time on cellular regeneration. You will find you also make better food choices after a good night's sleep as the brain is not craving sugary carbs for energy. Important stuff I think you will agree!
5) VITAMINS AND MINERALS
There are of course dietary influences on the immune system such as B vitamins as well as vitamins C and D, iron and zinc. B vitamins are needed for energy and protein synthesis as well as cellular repair and brain function. Vitamin B5 (pantothetic acid) is known as the anti stress vitamin as it aids adrenal function. Athletes deficient in B vitamins are shown to under perform and have a decreased ability to repair and build muscle. All B vitamins are water soluble which means we need them every day as they are flushed from our system easily. It has long been recognised that vitamin C will help the immune system, it is a fantastic antioxidant that will knock free radicals right between the eyes! Vitamin C is also involved in connective tissue formation and wound healing. Those undertaking intensive exercise need higher amounts of vitamin C particularly to help combat free radical damage. This is also a water soluble vitamin so we need to include it in the diet daily. Absorption of iron is greatly increased with the addition of vitamin C, we need iron to make heamoglobin in red blood cells to allow for transportation of oxygen to all tissues. Iron is also found in myoglobin which provides extra fuel to working muscles. Deprivation of oxygen to tissues during exercise results in reduced performance and early fatigue. A deficiency in Iron is more common in women or those with bleeding disorders, symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, heart palpitations, reduced immune response and sensitivity to cold but it is worth noting that too much iron is not healthy either and has similar symptoms so it is best to get your iron requirements from both vegetable and animal sources to balance absorption and if you think you have a deficiency get a blood test. Zinc also works in conjunction with vitamin C to help the immune system and wound healing as well as blood pressure regulation, bone growth, protein formation, insulin secretion and hormone production...quite an important mineral to include in the diet! White spots on nails and loss of taste are common deficiency symptoms. It is found in foods such as seafood, eggs, pumpkin seeds and peanuts. Finally to vitamin D,which is actually a hormone! This is a fat soluble vitamin meaning we need to include healthy oils such as omega 3's in the diet to aid absorption and storage. Salmon is a good source of both the vitamin and the oils. Deficiency in Ireland is common as we are too high north in the hemisphere to get enough sunshine to activate the hormone in the body (this summer may be an exception to that though) Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption to aid bone health but also mental health as it aids serotonin production. Vitamin D levels can also be checked via a blood test and should be requested at regular intervals. Eating a balanced diet with a wide variety of colour is the best way to get what your body needs.
This is not rocket science, you just need to take a step back and look at this logically to understand it but water is often overlooked as being beneficial to immune health. First of all, most of the body is water, we need it for so many functions! Adequate hydration allows for normal mucous production in the mouth and nose which, after the skin, is the body's primary defence mechanism. You know yourself what it does be like on a chilly winters morn sucking in freezing cold air and how raw your throat may get from this. Tonsils are like baggage screening at the airport, they check for invaders and act appropriately. Adequate water in the body is also needed for correct blood consistency which will allow for a smoother and quicker delivery of oxygen and nutrients to body tissues. The lymphatic system is the body's main screening system and defence force collecting samples of fluids from all over the body. This is where the big guns come out to fight any invaders and to set off immune mechanisms. Having enough water in the system allows for better function and movement of lymph throughout the body. The kidneys are a detox organ and it's quite obvious they need water for function so proper hydration allows for proper function and efficient detoxification of what the body does not want. The brain also needs water to function properly which is why one of the symptoms of dehydration is confusion. So there's much more to water than meets the eye as you can see. After all that you'll never look at a tap the same way again!