Athletic Recovery & Immunity – What’s the connection?

By Chris Edwards B.S., CFT, SFN, SSN



The topic of “Recovery” has been gaining more and more popularity in recent years. Many athletes and non-athletes are being introduced to how the human body and its different systems react to stress and what they can to do anticipate and counteract that stress.


Ahh yes! Stress! This word has many meanings. It can mean many different things to many different people, but one thing is for sure…too much of it can be a bad thing.


Stress comes in many forms:

Physical

Mental

Emotional

Environmental

Social

Etc.


Each of these avenues of stress can create a host of different effects on the body’s systems:

Nervous system

Hormones

Hydration

Adrenal

Musculoskeletal

Digestive

Etc.


How someone perceives stress and then how their body responds to stress can vary greatly from person to person. Here is an example:


Many times, when I am working with Type A personality clients, they don’t recognize that they are even under stress. Being Type A, they have the mental fortitude to be able to power through, only get 5 hours of sleep, not eat much, barely drink any water… yet they are losing muscle and gaining body fat! They don’t realize the impact stress is having on their health because they are so hyper-focused on their job, a situation, or a goal.


It may take a month or so before the impact is felt - when they can’t fit into their clothes or they have a physical stress response. For example, they get very sick, develop a migraine, their blood pressure is high, they start having diarrhea…or their doctor tells them their blood work is way off!


At that point, stress has reared its ugly head and produced a physical symptom that of course they don’t like! Now it’s not only taking them away from their lifestyle, but if they have any kind of body composition or athletic performance goal, they are greatly suffering in that area too!

  1. How do we identify and address stress before it’s too late?

  2. How do athletes and non-athletes manage stress to perform better in their sport or job?


Let start with question number one:

  • How do we identify and address stress before it’s too late?


Recovery rate from workouts, improving sleep quality to feel rested, recovering from an injury, or mentally healing from a traumatic experience are all extremely important. Being able to understand when you need to “down shift” or “slow down” or “deload” is not only important for longevity, but also for short term health and performance.


When your body and its different systems get pounded day in and day out, without proper recovery (sleep, stress management, hydration, nutrition etc.), something is going to give. The first casualty will be your immune system. The immune system is your body’s first line of defense against stress. It will help protect you from external viruses and bacteria that try to infect your body. It is a combination of frontline defenses including lymph, white blood cells, and antibodies, as well as a physical barrier to block pathogens’ entry into the body. It also helps you rebuild and recover from injuries and tissue damage.


Have you ever heard of the word “oxidation?” And how about the word “antioxidant?”


“Oxidation is a normal and necessary process that takes place in your bodyOxidative stress, on the other hand, occurs when there's an imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity. When functioning properly, free radicals can help fight off pathogens as part of the immune response. Pathogens lead to infections.” (1)


Although free radical activity helps fight off pathogens, the immune response itself can become inflammatory and cause stress of its own in excess and without a balance of antioxidants.


Pham-Huy, Lien Ai et al. “Free radicals, antioxidants in disease and health.” International journal of biomedical science : IJBS vol. 4,2 (2008): 89-96. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3614697/ This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


One way to identify stress is to listen to your body… Be self-aware. If you start to feel “run down,” take the steps needed to recover.


We have all been there…Just a small headache, a little tickle in your throat, sneezing and feeling cold or hot…these are all signs that your body is saying slow down! Listen to it! This is a sure sign that you need to take a step back and rest.


Question number two:

  • How do athletes and non-athletes manage stress in order to perform better in their sport or job?


When your body is under stress from a heavy or hard workout, family issues at home, mental stress at work, or even self-induced anxiety, it can have an effect on your immune system. This in turn will have a direct effect on your recovery!


So, is it wise for people to “train hard all the time” or “no pain - no gain” or “never take a rest day”…?


Absolutely not!


Letting your body heal, rest, restore, and recover will not only rejuvenate your body and help recover from any stress, but also will BOOST your immune system!


Here is a great graphic that explains the documented relationship between upper respiratory tract infections and exercise intensity:


This study from the Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews (3), shows that exercise, recovery time, and stress management, when properly programmed, can have an immune-boosting effect. OR if mismanaged, can actually have a negative effect.


And since exercise is a form of stress, this needs to be considered in the big picture to know when it’s important for you to recover and rest to improve performance, but also to reduce your risk of infection. A meta-analysis of studies suggests that “regular, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise” may even help prevent the common cold! (4)


So simply put, a person must understand all of the factors related to stress in their lives, and then make educated decisions on what kind of “exercise stress” they need in order to improve performance, recover, and actually boost immunity.


This is yet another reason why it is important to have a Professional Coach, or Health Advisor that understands these scientific principles to help manage stress, recover faster, and boost the immune system.


To expect that the general population knows these scientific facts would be wrong. This is why there are professionals in fitness, nutrition, and recovery and professional coaching that help clients expedite this process and provide the advice and tips needed to be able to manage their health for the short and the long term.


We have only discussed the relationship between stress, exercise, and immunity here briefly. But there are many factors that can affect your health and stress level and a variety of ways to address them.


Nutrition

Blood Chemistry

Micronutrients

Antioxidants

Physical recovery therapies

Psychology

Etc.


All of these methods should be considered to help an individual achieve optimal health and performance.


My advice: Seek out a professional coach if you are looking to maximize your recovery and boost your immune system. Each individual is different. Their lifestyles are different. Their methods of management and application of specific recovery methods will be different. There is a lot to consider. Seek out a professional that can deliver the tools needed to create a personalized plan designed for you. Make sure they are using scientific principles, and are then using those principles to determine the right plan that you need to improve your recovery and immunity.


Ultimately, the connection between recovery, immunity, and health is balance.


References:

1. https://www.healthline.com/health/oxidative-stress

2. https://www.healthline.com/health/cold-flu/fun-facts

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2803113/

4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4040429/

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