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Immune system and nutrition: You should pay attention to it as an athlete

Regular moderate exercise strengthens the immune system - almost everyone knows that today. However, intensive training sessions can weaken your immune system in the short and / or long term. How you counteract this, you will learn here!

When is the immune system particularly susceptible to infection?

A big factor when it comes to regeneration and a strong immune system: our diet. In the large anti-inflammatory cookbook you will find recipes that promise vitality and fitness. | ORDER NOW

In addition to banal infections, athletes are at increased risk of developing upper respiratory tract infections. Annoying, when recurrent illnesses disturb your basic training or you can not participate in important competitions. For a well-functioning immune system in addition to a balanced ratio of stress and recovery, in terms of recovery and sleep, also a needs-based diet is important.

Your immune system is influenced by several factors. As mentioned above, intense physical stress causes your organism to become more susceptible to infection during the subsequent regeneration phase. This condition can last for up to 72 hours and is often referred to as the "open window effect".

When an immunodeficiency is inevitable

Moreover, this physiological stress manifests itself in clinical changes in the immune system. In combination with psychological stress, lack of sleep, environmental stress and a poor diet, immune deficiency is inevitable. If, as an athlete, you are increasingly exposed to pathogens as a result of your lifestyle (travel, crowds, skin abrasions, etc.), the infection is not far away.

Immune defense - the white blood cells

The white blood cells, the so-called leukocytes, form our immune system. They are divided into two different defense systems: one distinguishes the specific from the nonspecific defense. The functionaries of the non-specific defense system of the blood are the granulocytes and the monocytes. They are also called scavenger cells. They "eat" almost every type of invading bacteria and cell debris in the tissue. (2)

Properties of granulocytes and monocytes

The common features of the phagocytes are as follows: As a result of amoeboid motions through minute pores in the vessels, they are able to pass through them, which is called diapedesis. In the process of chemotaxis, these cells migrate in the intercellular clefts to the site of inflammation. Subsequently, they are activated by chemical changes such as bacterial toxins. As a result, the actual process of destruction of bacteria and cell debris called phagocytosis occurs. Finally, the leukocytes perish themselves and form the pus with the bacteria and tissue parts. Bacterial infections lead to a proliferation of leucocytes, which can be seen in the blood picture. (2)

Lymphocytes - the specific defense

Specific defense reactions by lymphocytes are also called immune reactions. There are three types of lymphocytes: T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes and so-called null cells, nonspecific natural killer cells. T lymphocytes realize the specific cellular defense, for example, by killing cancer cells. But they also act as T helper cells for B lymphocytes. They bind foreign substances, so-called antigens, and then to form plasma cells that can produce antibodies .

Can your diet do something?

This certainly. The interaction of macro and micronutrients has not been fully explored. The effects of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals condition or influence each other. A balanced, needs-based diet is the most important prerequisite for an optimally functioning immune system. It has been proven that carbohydrate intake during long-lasting intensive stress helps to reduce stress-related inflammatory reactions and to positively influence the immune defense due to reduced stress hormone concentrations. Positive effects on the immune system are also known for a number of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. (1)

Fat for the immune system

According to scientific findings, fats also play a major role in the immune system. For example, there is an interesting connection between your immune system, blood lipid levels, and cholesterol. Since fat is not soluble in the "aqueous" blood, it could not be distributed properly in the organism without special transporters. To make fat soluble in the blood transportable, the body uses proteins, which can be spread well with the blood. Inside the proteins is the fat and can be transported everywhere.

Lipoproteins and supposedly "dangerous" cholesterol

These fat-protein transporters are called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) and high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) transport cholesterol and very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs) to transport fatty acids. However, cholesterol, which has been on the wrong side for decades in the media, does not seem to be that "dangerous". Researchers found that lipoproteins are an important part of our immune system. Thus, lipoproteins are able to prevent infections or mitigate their consequences.

In addition, they can bind and neutralize bacterial toxins and viral components. For example, men with high cholesterol levels had more and more active immune cells compared to men with low cholesterol. It was also found in the elderly that more cholesterol in the blood had a positive effect on the lifespan. Conversely, mortality appears to increase at very low cholesterol levels. (3)

Zinc: Important for athletes

After iron, zinc is the most important trace element for humans. It is part of more than 300 enzymes and has many effects in virtually all metabolic areas. Within the immune defense of our organism it is involved in the production of thymic hormones and T-lymphocyte differentiation.

Slight zinc deficiencies make infection susceptible

A shortcoming has far-reaching consequences. In the western industrialized countries zinc deficiency is rather rare. Slight deficits, however, more often. These are shown in seniors, pregnant women, children and adolescents and also in ambitious athletes. Therefore, it is recommended that you have your zinc status checked regularly. There is evidence to suggest that supplemental zinc supplements may be of health benefit to infectious and colds athletes. (4) If your immune system has a lot to do, it increases your zinc intake. Conversely, even a slight deficiency leads to a limited immune response and thus to an increased susceptibility to infections.

In developing countries, where the zinc status of people living there is often poor, zinc supplementation has been shown to significantly reduce the duration and severity of acute and chronic diarrhea. But whether additional zinc supplements are beneficial for the prevention and treatment of colds is a hot topic in science. There are inconsistent study results for this. Whether giving zinc gives a health benefit in this case can not be conclusively assessed. (4)

Where do you get your zinc from?

Good sources are especially lean red muscle meat, offal and hard cheese. In addition, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds provide a significant level of zinc. Food supplies of animal origin contribute to the demand cover. Similar to iron, one can not assume the absolute level of zinc in foods. The availability for the organism is influenced by so-called absorption inhibiting and promoting factors. For example, certain amino acids in animal proteins increase the availability of zinc, whereas the level of fiber and complexing agents tends to reduce the availability of zinc from plant foods.

Especially vegetarians should be careful

For the majority of the population, a daily requirement of 7 mg for women and 10 mg for men is shown, which can be well covered by a balanced diet. Athletes have an increased demand due to sweat losses and therefore zinc losses. 1-2 liters of spilled sweat would be a 1-2 mg high zinc loss. With a bioavailability of approx. 25%, an additional amount of 4-8 mg zinc per day would have to be taken to compensate for this. As a vegetarian, pay attention to adequate zinc supply. (4)

Your health: A mix of your diet and the right behavior!

Endurance athletes from the top range, but also recreational athletes with large family or professional burdens, move almost consistently in a state between diseases, such as infections, and health. Especially periods of intense stress carry a high risk of disease and you should use all resources to avoid disease in these phases. This will help you reduce training losses and avoid losing your shape. Overall, as discussed earlier, interventions at the level of nutrition and at the level of your behavior are recommended. Trivial recommendations, such as the regular washing of your hands, are just as effective as prevention options, such as avoiding drinking together with other people from a bottle.

Especially in times when many people suffer from coughs or runny nose, grab handles in public transport or on escalators and even traffic light handles are veritable sprouts! As a result, the germs are often recorded and then distributed in the face when you touch there. In addition, if you pay attention to a balanced diet and especially your zinc intake in mind, you are able to effectively avoid infections and stay healthy and fit! However, prevention at this point can only work if you consistently consider all these areas!

With these strategies, they keep the risk of infection low

  • Eat well.
  • Drink enough: Avoid a "dry mouth" through regular drinking intervals.
  • Do not share drinking bottles, towels or similar with other people.
  • Pay attention to good hygiene: regular hand washing and brushing your teeth.
  • Try not to touch your eyes and nose with your hands: this is the main route for intruders.
  • Try to minimize personal and environmental stress.
  • Sleep enough.
  • Avoid large weight loss in short periods of time; Weight reduction not during preparation or even competition phases.
  • Get regular sports check-ups.
  • Never train with an existing infection.

Author: Hanna Sandig

You want to enjoy and do something for your immune system? Then the Trainingsworld editorial office has a book tip for you:

The great anti-inflammatory cookbook


Millions of people are affected by secret inflammation in the body. These manifest themselves, for example, in reddened skin, pain or fatigue and also play a role in many diseases such as diabetes or arthritis. With the right diet, you can fight inflammation and avoid it.

The over 100 delicious and balanced recipes in this book avoid foods such as sugar, wheat or pork that contain pro-inflammatory substances. They use plenty of anti-inflammatory foods such as various types of cabbage, spinach, berries, ginger, walnuts or cold water fish with many omega-3 fatty acids, which prevent inflammation and sequelae and strengthen the immune system. Because with the right food, you bring your body back into balance.


1. Jeukendrup (2010): Sports Nutrition: From Lab To Kitchen. UK: Meyer & Meyer Sports

2. Marées (2002): Sports Physiology. Cologne: sports and book Strauss

3. Worm (2010): More fat. Lünen: systemed publishing house

4. Swiss Journal of Nutritional Medicine, 2010, Vol. 8 (1), pp. 35-41


Amoeboid - describes a creep movement in cells such. B. amoebae or certain leukocytes.

Antibodies - are immunoglobulins that are formed in response to antigens and can act against them to make them harmless to the human organism.

Thyme hormone - a hormone produced in the thymus (part of the lymphatic system) that affects the maturation of T lymphocytes.

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