In the ongoing pandemic it is more important than ever that we can support our immune system to the best of our abilities. When confined to home, this can be difficult.
There is plenty we can do at home, however, to help keep our immune systems strong. As part of a series looking at how INEOS TEAM UK, Team INEOS and Science in Sport are keeping our athletes fit during the lockdown period we have spoken to KXLife’s Aidan Goggins, the man behind the sirtdiet and Nutrition Medicine Consultant for INEOS TEAM UK, on the advice he gives our sailors and how you can follow that same advice.
Hi Aidan, thanks for joining us today. To start, why is it important to support our athletes' immune systems as best we can?
Aidan Goggins: There are two main reasons supporting athlete immune systems is of utmost importance.
Firstly, athletes are often more susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs), cold and flus than the general population and these are the most common medical presentation, next to injury. This is because strenuous exercise suppresses our immune system for a period making us vulnerable to infection until we recover. URTIs are highly undesirable having significant detriment on physical and mental performance. Unlike typical cold and flus which have well observed seasonal fluctuations, in athletes they can present at any time which is why immune support must be all year round.
The second reason is that we rely on our immune systems as a critical part of the recovery from exercise. Often the temporary decrease in our immune system after exercise is simply from high demand, where immune cells are called from the blood to help recover damaged muscle. If we cannot adequately fuel and support our immune systems, however, continued bouts of heavy exercise we will deplete these immune cells and impair recovery as well as leaving us vulnerable to infection.
What are some of the ways in which you can support someone's immune system?
We explain immunity to athletes as a ‘balance scale’. On one side are the ‘fixed factors’ such as training load, events, travel, and environment all which influence immunity, and all of which an athlete can’t usually change. On the other side are the modifiable factors. These include nutrition, sleep and lifestyle. As the demand from the fixed factors increases it is imperative we maximise support through the modifiable ones.
Nutritionally we make sure athletes have sufficient energy intake, correct any identified nutrient deficiencies, provide a diet rich in specific foods that we know support immunity and then when required add additional nutritional support such as probiotics and melatonin for traveling.
Regarding sleep, we recommend eight hours sleep a night consistently, not sleep restriction some nights and then catchup on others. Good sleep hygiene practices are introduced, and even daytime naps encouraged where there is a sleep shortfall.
Finally, lifestyle stresses and anxiety are a big influencer of immunity, so it is important we always support that as much as possible as well.
How important is maintaining balanced diet for a strong immune system and what are the things some people typically get wrong?
Diet is critical to the immune system and so many dietary factors have huge influence on how it functions. It’s why we use a food first approach and make sure we incorporate the full spectrum of nutrients that we know support immunity.
We start by making sure our diets provide enough calories to meet the needs of the athletes and specifically carbohydrates which fuel our immune cells. This means being very careful in times of weight loss. Diets are filled with an array of vibrant and colourful plants to provide a diversity of healthful phytonutrients, all which intricately support our immune system.
We make sure the best food sources of those critical nutrients to specifically aid immunity in athletes, such as kiwis for vitamin C, seafood for zinc, and oily fish for omega-3s are included. We then give added dietary support with medicinal foods such as shiitake mushrooms which stimulate our immune system, and broccoli sprouts which increase resistance to inflammation. We also make sure not to overlook the gut, as 70% of our immune system is housed here, with fermented foods such as kefir and live yogurt providing billions of live probiotics.
A mistake people often make with diet and immunity is that they focus on one food or even a singular nutrient, especially in supplement form, and say “if I just take even more of this it will make up for other shortfalls in my diet”. That’s not how it works, your immune system is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. You must support immunity in a holistic manner.
Why do you recommend supplements and how can they help support an immune system?
While we follow a food first approach there will always be a myriad of reasons we need to also complement diet with supplements. There will be cases where diet simply falls short.
Vitamin D, for example, is essential for healthy immunity but it comes from the sun, not diet, and that’s reason why in the UK we need to supplement, especially in winter months.
In the UK we are also lacking in the critical mineral selenium which contributes to immune regulation of inflammation. It is normally found in the soil but in the UK it is depleted, meaning the foods grown in it are also depleted.
At other defined periods where we know the immune system is under excessive strain and there is a large recovery demand, even a good diet might just not be enough, and an additional supporting layer of supplemental vitamins, protein and immune promoting nutrients will be warranted.
Finally, there will always be occasions when your diet will simply be out of your control for example when you are travelling, and we use supplements then to help bridge the gaps.
You did some blood work with the sailors – how did that help in building a programme to support their immune system?
When we take blood from the sailors we can use that to see just how well the athlete’s immune system is functioning. We assess the different white blood cells and observe if there is depletion of the immune system present. In addition, we measure levels of physical stress, inflammation and recovery in the body to get a comprehensive outlook of immune function. Alongside this we measure the levels of the essential nutrients that support immunity (vitamins, minerals etc) and markers of overall diet diversity and quality.
We can then put all these together to create an image of whether our diet is sufficient for supporting our immune resilience and get a team wide blueprint of the exact nutrients and amounts that we still falling short of during intense periods. Ultimately it tells us to what degree diet needs to be improved, what level of added supplementation is needed and how much we need to focus elsewhere, to areas such as sleep or stress.
The INEOS TEAM UK squad is fuelled by Science in Sport's newly launched Performance Solutions programme, a ground-breaking sports research and nutrition service designed to elevate elite teams and athletes to the next level of performance. Read more here.