The most common recommendations to boost immunity always seem the same - supplement vitamin C, zinc, or some holistic concoction of herbs and “superfoods.”
While supplementing those vitamins and minerals is certainly good for the immune system, there’s one major nutrient that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves for immune support. In fact, it’s one of the 3 macronutrients vital to our health - protein.
Protein comes up a lot when we talk about nutrition and fitness, but you may not know just how important protein is for the immune system.
In this article, we’ll talk about how your workouts could be disrupting your immune system, and how protein can give you a boost to avoid getting sick and missing important training time.
How Stress Weakens Immunity
When you’re stressed, your body releases a stress hormone called cortisol. This hormone helps your body deal with stressful situations, and it’s totally normal for your body to respond this way.
However, chronic stress and high cortisol can lead to health issues like diabetes and heart disease, mood problems, disrupted sleep, and decreased immune function.
When your adrenal glands release cortisol in times of stress, it triggers an inflammatory response. So, chronic stress means chronically high cortisol and chronic inflammation. Over time, inflammation disrupts the immune system and its ability to fight off certain viruses.
Working Out Is Physical Stress
You may think of stress as just mental stress, from things like work or challenges in life. But stress on the body can come from physical work too.
When you workout, you break down muscle fibers, fatigue the muscle, and challenge the cardiovascular system. This is stress. Although it’s normal and necessary to see growth and improvement, it can impact your immune system.
It works the same way as other types of stress. Exercise also triggers the release of stress hormone cortisol and an inflammatory response.
This is one reason why rest days are important. While you give your body time to recover and repair muscle tissue, your body is also recovering from physical stress. Cortisol levels decrease and inflammation subsides.
If your body doesn’t have time to recover, you’ll see consequences with your goals, performance, and eventually, your immune system.
How Nutrition Plays Into Stress Relief And Recovery
Nutrition goes hand in hand with rest for recovery from physical and mental stress. On the physical side, food gives your body exactly what it needs to replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle.
The food you eat impacts your body’s stress response too. For example, a high sugar diet can actually trigger high cortisol.
On the other hand, some foods promote healthy cortisol levels. Some of these foods include:
- Probiotics and Prebiotics
Managing stress with rest and nutrition is a great way to boost the immune system.
How Protein Boosts The Immune System
There’s another, more direct way that nutrition impacts the immune system - protein. You probably know how it works to rebuild and repair your muscle fibers after a tough workout, but the body uses protein for more than just muscle tissue.
Protein is structural. It literally serves as building blocks for every structure within our bodies. This is true even at a cellular level and specifically for cells in the immune system that fight off harmful pathogens.
Certain pathways and functions within the immune system depend on protein as well.
Specific Amino Acids Are Important
You probably remember that protein is broken down into amino acids in the body before they’re absorbed. High-protein foods contain a variety of amino acids, and each one serves a different purpose.
There are two amino acids that play important roles in the immune system - arginine and glutamine.
Arginine contains the most nitrogen out of all of the amino acids, which makes it an important precursor for nitric oxide (NO). NO regulates inflammation and activates the immune system.
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the entire body and specifically in the immune system. It’s considered to be essential for immune cell production and other immune functions.
In fact, glutamine is a standard piece of nutrition supplementation for hospitalized patients with compromised immune systems. Some studies are looking at how supplementing glutamine may support the immune system in other forms of stress, such as heavy exercise.
Our grass-fed whey protein powder not only helps you build and maintain lean muscle mass, but also helps support immune function. Grass-fed whey contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that boosts immune function.
You can also check out Naked Glutamine, especially if you perform a lot of endurance exercises.
Other Ways To Support A Healthy Immune System
Getting sick is something all athletes want to avoid. Illness results in missed training sessions, slowed progress, and even big setbacks. To avoid this and stay illness-free, it’s important to prioritize immune health.
Nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle to support a healthy immune system. The way your body functions to fight off infection and stay healthy depends on how you take care of yourself.
First, focus on overall nutrition. Protein is important, but getting enough variety in your diet is key. Eat plenty of colorful fruits and veggies to get antioxidants. Include whole grains to boost your fiber intake and support gut health, which directly affects the immune system.
Stay active on a regular basis, but don’t forget to rest when you need it.
Next, think about how you handle sleep and stress. If you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to get sick. If you’re constantly stressed, you’re more likely to get sick. So get your 8 hours and prioritize stress management.
Finally, don’t smoke and try to drink alcohol in moderation. And remember to wash your hands.
Protein is often overlooked in discussions about boosting immunity. However, it’s just as important as nutrients like vitamins and antioxidants to support the structure and processes within the immune system.
Stress is a big factor that can impair the immune system. Working out causes stress on the body, so paying attention to recovery and nutrition is key to preventing a weakened immune system.