11 Factors Increasing an Athlete’s Risk of Cold & Flu

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To achieve your athletic potential, you need to train hard and train often. This means walking the fine line between the appropriate amount of training (and life) stress and the positive adaptations it provides and pushing yourself over the edge. The sport science term pushing athletes just past their capacity to improve performance is called functional over-reaching (FOR), it’s what every good strength coach and sport scientist are striving to achieve. Unfortunately, the quest for constant gains means the possibility of stumbling over the line into too much stress (i.e.  non-functional over-reaching), or the abyss of overtraining syndrome, when athletes are tired, rundown and progress stalls for months.(1) Incredibly, 70% of high level athletes have experienced or will experience over-training syndrome (OTS) at some point.(2)

Adding to all this complexity is the reality that increasing training volume is strongly associated with increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections (i.e. cold or flu) and upper respiratory symptoms.(3) Interestingly, even if you're athlete experiences pronounced symptoms of an infection - congestion, scratchy throat, fatigue, etc. - they're at similarly increased risk of diminished performance.(4)

Simply keeping your athlete healthy enough to train is a crucial piece of the high-performance puzzle. If you're healthy, you can train. And if you can train more than the competition, you'll have the best chance of winning (all other things being equal).

To fall victim to an infection, two things must happen; your immune system gets compromised and you're exposed to an infection. Let's take a closer looker at 11 factors that can increase your risk of catching a nasty bug.

1.    Exercise - As I mentioned above, when your training load increases so too does your risk of URTI.(5) This is unavoidable for high-level athletes as they must follow their periodized training plan to achieve their goals and prep for competition. If you're about to enter an intense training period and you feel a scratchy throat, congestion or fatigue setting in, then shifting your focus to your sleep and nutrition strategies is key to supporting immunity.

2.    Mental & Emotional Stress - If you're a person who get stressed out more easily, it actually makes you more susceptible to catching a cold or flu.(6) If you're a type-A personality, experience anxiety-like symptoms or are a general "worrier" than you’re at greater risk of infection as well. Key things to watch out for include fatigue, tension, anger and depression.

3.    Sleep - Lack of sleep is major roadblock to a healthy immune system. If you get less than 7 hours of sleep per night your risk of cold and flu increases 3-fold.(7) Prioritize sleep if you're feeling like you're coming down with something (especially if you're hitting the gym hard).

4.    Personal Hygiene – It’s not very sexy advice, but it plays a massive role in keeping you cold and flu free. Washing your hands regularly – before every meal and after contact with sick people -  and keeping your hands away from your mouth and nose should be your top priority to reduce your risk of infection plummets.(8)

5.    Poor Nutrition - If your diet doesn't have enough calories (i.e. energy) to meet the demands of your training, if you're training at high-intensity with low-carbohydrate availability, if your diet is restricted and low in vitamin D, zinc or iron (just to name a few) then you're likely compromising your immune system.(9) Nutrition is a key player for maintaining a robust immune system and reducing frequency and severity of colds and flu.

6.    Dental Hygiene - You might not think brushing your teeth is a powerful immune booster, but in fact, it's a reliable method for reducing your risk of infection.(10) If you don't keep your teeth clean, bacteria accumulate in your oral mucosa, especially if you’re eating multiple meals and shakes throughout the day. Brush 2-3x a day to reduce your risk.

7.    Sharing Water Bottles - A great motto for life is “Sharing is caring”, just not when comes to athletes and their immunity. Sharing water bottles increases your risk of mononucleosis infection 8-fold!(11) Stick to your own water bottle.. no sharing!

8.    Travel – Plane travel can feel like an immunity Armageddon; waiting to succumb to the onslaught of microbes with nowhere to hide. There is always a handful of passengers  - sneezing, coughing and touching everything in sight – increasing your risk of exposure to infection.(12) Unfortunately, they're putting you at risk and there isn't much you can do about it. Hand sanitizer, a face mask, and if the person next to you is ill, asking to changes seats are probably your best strategies.

9.    Extreme Environments - If you're training at altitude, or in extremely hot and humid environments, your immune system can be impacted. Altitude has been shown to reduce sIgA levels, potentially increasing risk of infection, while hot climates can lead to dehydration and reduced plasma volume, also potentially compromising immunity.(13,14)

10.   Drugs - If your athlete or client is taking medications like corticosteroids for arthritis, asthma or allergies, or if they’re taking immune-suppressive medications for an auto-immune condition they may also be more susceptible to colds and flu.

11.    Vaccination History - If you're team is traveling abroad and you haven't had all the appropriate vaccinations (i.e. hep C, hep B, flu vaccine) then you're increasing your risk of infection.(15) This is not only a performance problem, but a potentially serious health problem.

These 11 factors are some of the most common reasons why your immune system is compromised, and risk of infection increased. Reducing this risk factors, as best as you can, will go a long way to keeping you cold and flu free this winter (or anytime of the year for that matter!) so you can keep training and keep improving.

What about factors that can positively impact your immunity? Here's a short-list of high-impact factors;

1.    Sleep (Listen to Dr. Amy Bender PhD talk sleep strategies in athletes)

2.    Nutrition (Check out 21 Foods To Boost Your Immunity)

3.    Relaxation (Learn how deep-breathing impacts performance)

4.    Periodized Exercise

5.    Holidays  (When was the last time you actually went on holiday? If you can't remember... you need a holiday!) 

Maximize your performance high this winter by minimizing your exposure to colds and flu. Next, add a few fundamental strategies that increase pillars of recovery; sleep, nutrition and mental stress.

Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, MSc(c), CISSN, CSCS

 

Want to learn 10 evidence-based strategies to reduce illness in athletes? Download my FREE infrographic here! (Coming soon...)

15 Causes of Low Vitamin B12 Status

15 Causes of Low Vitamin B12 Status

Do you struggle with persistent fatigue or unexplained low energy? Are you having trouble maintaining your strength at the gym? Are you constantly getting mouth ulcers or dealing with low mood? While there are many potential causes of these symptoms, vitamin B12 deficiency could be part of the problem holding you back from feeling and performing your best.,

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Top-3 Mineral Deficiencies On A Ketogenic Diet (And How To Fix It)

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A common question I get asked after clients start a ketogenic diet is “why do I feel lousy?” Like them, you’re probably thinking going keto will provide an immediate mental and physical boost. For some, it will. For others, you may experience adverse symptoms, also known as the “keto flu”. When you start a very low-carb ketogenic diet, you’ll flush water and sodium out of your body in the first few weeks. As your sodium levels fall, so too will potassium levels. This can leave you feeling tired, sluggish, and wondering what you got yourself into. Fear not, it’s only temporary. Here are some suggestions for avoiding key mineral deficiencies when jumping into a ketogenic diet. 

Sodium

One of the biggest health and nutrition “myths” is that you should avoid salt. If you’re fit, healthy, and following a keto diet you’ll lose water and sodium in the first few weeks. For athletes, this problem can be compounded because you also lose sodium through your sweat, and as your sweat rate increases, your sodium and blood volume will decline. Not a good recipe for optimal energy and performance.

On the flip side, if you’re overweight, out of shape or in poor health then your body is likely already holding on to too much sodium from high consumption of packaged and processed foods (i.e. sodium is used as the primary preservative) or from chronically elevated insulin levels. Therefore, a low-carb or keto approach is great way to restore healthy levels.

Symptoms of low sodium include fatigue, headaches, compromised ability to perform (especially outdoors in the heat) and in more serious cases you may pass out. Remember that most of the sodium in your body is found in your bloodstream, so if your body gets deficient, you don’t have many reserves to tap into.

In the first few weeks on a keto diet, only about half of your weight loss is from body-fat. The other half is from water and sodium loss. Therefore, getting enough sodium is crucial.

Aim for an extra 1,000-2,000mg of sodium daily via:

  • Pink Himalayan or Celtic Sea salt (not standard table salt)

  • Broth or bouillon (1-2 cups per day)

  • Shellfish (i.e. oysters, mussels, crab, etc.)

Athletes should aim to take one gram 30 minutes before workouts to offset adverse effects of low sodium on performance.

Potassium

When you lose sodium on a keto diet, the salt depletion causes a parallel loss of potassium. Common symptoms of a potassium deficiency - the medical term is hypokalemia - include weakness, muscular cramps, constipation, irritability or skin problems. In athletes, low potassium can compromise lean muscle mass which will ultimately impact performance, and in more severe cases, you may experience heart palpitations, irregular heartbeats, respiratory distress (and even heart failure with serious deficiency). 

Virtually all fruits and veggies contain significant amounts of potassium, but not all are keto friendly. In fact, most people don’t realize that animal protein is terrific source of dietary potassium, however the cooking process strips a great deal of it away (but the leftover juices from cooking can be used to keep your levels up).  

Here is a list of my potassium rich keto-friendly foods:

  • Spinach (2 cups) – 330mg

  • Chicken breast - 330mg

  • Salmon (3 oz) - 326mg

  • Beef (3 oz) - 315mg

  • Avocado (1/2 medium) - 320mg

  • Broccoli (1/2 cup) - 230mg

  • Asparagus (1/2 cup) – 202mg

Magnesium

Do you ever suffer from muscle cramps? Lack of magnesium is likely the culprit. Magnesium is the body’s “calming” mineral; helping to keep your brain, heart and muscles relaxed. It’s also essential for protein synthesis, blood sugar control, energy metabolism and over 300 other biochemical reactions in the body. Intense exercise, lack of sleep, and stress can all deplete magnesium levels.

Animal protein is also a great source of magnesium – in particular shellfish like oysters and mussels – along with leafy greens. Veggies get their deep green colour from chlorophyll, and the core of the chlorophyll molecule is magnesium, so make sure to always eat your leafy greens at mealtime. The darker the leafy green, the more magnesium.

Include the following regularly:

  • Spinach (1 cup cooked) – 157mg

  • Swiss Chard (1 cup cooked) – 154mg

  • Pumpkin Seeds (1/8 cup) – 90mg

  • Oysters (3 oz.) – 80mg

  • Yogurt (Plain) – 50mg

  • Avocado (1/2 medium)– 30mg

The Bottom Line: If you’re starting up (or already following) a keto diet, it’s important to make sure you keep your electrolytes in balance; boost sodium levels by adding Sea salt to meals and a bone broth drink, and keep potassium and magnesium levels up via nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens, fish and shellfish.

If you follow this approach, you can significantly reduce – and even prevent – many of the adverse symptoms associated with starting up a ketogenic diet. Try these simple tips to help you thrive with your keto diet this year.

Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS

 

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Want to learn more about keto? Listen to Dr. Ryan Lowery PhD talk all things ketogenic diet in Episode #33 of the Dr. Bubbs Performance Podcast... 

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Vitamin D has been gaining significant momentum recently in the research for its ability to influence over 1,000 different genes in the body and subsequently some important performance parameters. Failing to get sufficient vitamin D regularly can negatively impact many endurance parameters, including maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max), susceptibility to colds and flu, inflammation, recovery, and stress fractures.

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