Over the past week, amidst the Covid-19 outbreak in Ireland, we have witnessed numerous social media accounts promoting how to ‘boost’ your immune system in the current climate through the use of various vitamin and mineral supplements.
Please know that such posts provide information that are highly unlikely to ‘boost’ immune function unless you currently suffer from severe nutrient deficiencies or have a highly stressed immune system. However, today I would like to address how we can alter our everyday diet and lifestyle choices to SUPPORT those busy immune cells in our bodies and make their job less stressful.
Firstly, a disclaimer. This is not to say I am advising a magic cure against the flu/cold/covid-19 (because I am not!), however let’s do what we can to make sure we are as fighting fit and healthy as can be.
Step 1: Fuel Immune Cells
Like before we head into a training session, our body’s’ immune cells require a source of energy. Therefore, to ensure that our immune cells
are able to operate optimally, we should work towards an energy balance. In simple terms, we must match the energy we consume in our
foods to the energy we expend through exercise and daily activities.
This also means ensuring you are not following an excessive calorie restriction to lose fat or cutting out all forms of carbohydrate from
your diet. Not only would this be ridiculously boring, but it will also increase the stress that your immune system is under. So, at each
main meal, include at least one handful of starchy carbohydrate such as bread, potatoes, pasta or oats to provide that all important
energy. And remember, refuelling with a carbohydrate and protein-based snack (e.g. a pint of semi-skimmed milk and a banana) is also key
after intense exercise!
Step 2: Eat the rainbow
By now we have established that fruit and veggies are sacred! Not only do they provide vitamins and minerals for overall health, but they
also are a source of polyphenols and antioxidants which help to reduce oxidative stress in our bodies and contribute to immune regulation. So basically- they support and contribute to fighting infection! So, fill up your plate with the rainbow, aiming for at least 5 portions of
fruit and veggies per day. Apples, bananas, oranges, broccoli, parsnips, spinach, pineapple, tomato, corn, cauliflower- the choice is
up to you! Did you know: fruit and vegetables tend to be rich in fibre, encouraging regular bowel movements and supporting our bowel
Step 3: Don’t underestimate sleep
Some of the best advice as an athlete you will ever get- don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep! Not only is sleep
essential in our bodies recovery process as an athlete, but it supports our immune systems. I will admit, I am most definitely not a
sleep expert, but experts do report more sleep will not necessarily prevent you from getting ill, however without sufficient sleep, your
body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets inflammation and infection. Current recommendations suggest aiming for
between seven and nine hours of sleep per night to prevent increase of infection risk.
Step 4: Hand Hygiene
It has been well circulated by now, however I want to reiterate the importance of hand hygiene in the prevention of disease and infection
spread. This is the only factor we can control when it comes to Covid-19 and so let’s get it right! Wash your hands with warm water
for at least 20 seconds with antibacterial hand wash. If this involves you singing ‘Happy Birthday’ for timing, then do it! And what if you
don’t have immediate access to water and soap? Bring a 60% alcohol hand sanitiser with you and use in between washes. Use after touching
a door handle. Use after handling money. Use after using a public bathroom. USE IT. This is in our HANDS now!
Step 5: Get your probiotics
Have you heard of probiotics before? Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria which assist in restoring natural balance of bacteria in your
intestinal tract when it has been disrupted by illness. Further, in the intestinal tract, a robust population of beneficial bacteria can
help crowd out the ‘bad’ bacteria, making it harder for them to thrive and subsequently reducing risk of developing specific illnesses. So,
where can we get our probiotics from? – Yakult Probiotic drinks- Certain brands of yoghurt such as Fage 100% Greek Yoghurt and Activia
– Kimchi – Danone Actimel
Step 6: Getting Your Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential in regulating the amount of calcium and phosphorus that are readily available to our bodies. These nutrients
are essential to keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Not only is this important for the general population, but for athletes who put
constant strain on their muscles and bones, we need to make sure we are supporting our bodies as much as we can! As our primary source of Vitamin D is from direct sunlight, uptake is limited to certain months in the year i.e. summer months. As a result, we must consider how we can increase our uptake in winter months. Initially, I would encourage optimising Vitamin D food sources in your diet e.g. oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified foods such as Kellogg’s Cocopops and Rice Krispies (and no I
am not sponsored!!). For some, it will be essential to commence a Vitamin D supplement and so if concerned, consult your GP or
Registered Dietitian to consider this. So that is all from me for now. If you would like further advice on diet, health and immune support, please do not be afraid to contact me on my tags shown below. But for now; be careful, be consistent and
look after each other.
Anne-Marie is a Sport Dietitian with a BSc in Dietetics and MSc in Sport Nutrition. Anne-Marie has experience in both Clinical and Sport environments and currently works within the IRFU as a Performance Nutritionist. You can catch Anne-Marie on Instagram @theperformancedietitian and Twitter @AnneMarie_Mul