Playing Defense: Use nutrition to bolster your body’s immune system

Heavy training and prolonged workouts are both known to suppress the body’s immune system. In addition to leaving athletes more vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections, a weakened immune system can also interfere with exercise recovery, thus increasing injury risk. But as the saying goes, the best defense is a strong offense. A new report, published in the journal Immunology and Cell Biology, reviewed the top research-backed immune-focused strategies that really work, specifically for athletes. Here are four ways to bolster your body’s immune potential, get the most from your training regimen, and optimize your performance.

Meet Your Vitamin D Needs

Over 75% of adults have insufficient vitamin D levels, and athletes are no exception. In addition to supporting muscle power and force, sustained energy production, and reducing the risk of fractures, vitamin D is critical for immune function and anti-inflammation. The few foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D—salmon, tuna, sardines, whole eggs (the vitamin D is found in the yolk), and mushrooms—are foods you’re unlikely to eat daily, or eat enough of to fill your needs. And while exposure to the sun’s UV rays triggers vitamin D production, studies show it’s unlikely to entirely meet your body’s requirement. One recent study of exclusively outdoor athletes found that up to 30% were vitamin D deficient, particularly in the fall and winter months. For most athletes, a supplement is needed, but you can get too much of a good thing. Excess supplemental vitamin D has been linked to unwanted side effects, including heart arrhythmias, loss of appetite, and high blood calcium, which may damage the heart, blood vessels, and kidneys. To determine the right dose for your body’s needs, have your blood vitamin D level tested, and re-test regularly to ensure that you remain in the optimal zone.

Eat Protein Immediately After Training

Including lean protein in every meal is important for muscle maintenance. But research shows that consuming about 20 grams of protein after strenuous exercise, ideally within a half hour, also helps support immunity, and reduces the risk of respiratory infections. Add a clean protein powder to a shake, such as plant-based pea protein made from yellow split peas, or grass fed and organic whey protein. Portable options also include organic jerky, or even a tin of sardines, a superfood trending with athletes. Bonus: the tiny fish are also a rich source of vitamin D and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.

Make Fruit, Seasonings, and Dark Chocolate a Daily Habit 

These food groups may not be top of mind for immunity, but research backs their benefits. A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that among physically active adults, those with higher fruit intakes had fewer episodes of respiratory illnesses. Antioxidants may be the key, particularly polyphenols, which have been tied to strengthened immunity, as well as enhanced training adaptation and exercise performance. The best polyphenol fruit sources include blueberries, plums, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, black grapes and apples. Herbs and spices rank even higher in polyphenol potency, especially cloves, peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary, spearmint, thyme, basil and curry powder. Dark chocolate also ranks as a top polyphenol source. This may be why a UK study found that athletes who consumed dark chocolate prior to exhaustive cycling experienced less exercise-induced cell stress. Look for products with at least 70% cacao and without unnecessary additives. I advise my athlete clients to opt for bars with just four to five ingredients: cocoa beans, raw cane sugar, cocoa butter, sea salt and vanilla.

Eat More Good Bacteria

Probiotics, or “friendly” bacteria have linked to a number of protective outcomes, including overall digestive health, anti-inflammation, obesity prevention, enhanced mood and mental calm and stronger immunity. Several studies in athletes have shown that a daily intake of probiotics results in a lower incidence of respiratory illnesses and a reduced severity of infections. Look for a supplement containing both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, with 10 billion live bacteria cultures. Food sources of probiotics include kimchi, fermented vegetables such as jarred fermented cauliflower, salsa, and sauerkraut. It also includes kefir and yogurt, including non-dairy, plant-based versions, such as fermented coconut milk products.

Cynthia Sass is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees. She previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. Her latest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Sass privately counsels athletes in NYC, LA, and long distance. She can be reached via



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