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When you think of the immune system, what do you think of? Probably something quite abstract, hard to comprehend, and only relevant in times of sickness or ill health. But right now, the immune system has never been closer to the front of everyone’s minds.

So, what can we do to strengthen it?

We sat down with Bern-based expert clinical psychoneuroimmunologist Nicolai Loboda of Circles Health to learn more about how we, as cyclists, can be proactive to support this vital component of our bodies.

We began with, what we presumed, was an innocuous question:

ASSOS: After what intensity of training do we start to weaken our immune system?

Nico: Any training. That is why it’s called training. Training is designed to be stressful on the body, but the key is to think about how much stress we are putting it under. Elite athletes during hard training or racing periods impact their immune system. But beyond training stress, everyone who practices sport at a serious level should think about the wide range of factors that affect your immune system, because after all it is a system that is extremely interconnected to the daily function of our bodies.

ASSOS: So, how can we make sure we are not compromising our immune system and that we’re actually doing our best to support it?

Nico: It’s impossible to not compromise the immune system. It will be activated. It will react to everything. This is its job, so we have to think about how we reduce it reacting to different things.

It’s better to rephrase your question and ask this instead:

  • How can we help to calm down the immune system and make sure that it reacts just as much as it should to resolve the reaction? In our current state of being, our immune systems are overworking — this is where the issue of insufficient regeneration comes into play. We can counter this negative state through mindful nutrition, mindsetting, supplements, thermoregulation, sleep, etc.
  • When is it necessary to let the immune system work without intervening? Let’s consider this question in more depth: sometimes inducing a (controlled) fever makes complete sense. Imagine the scenario after a training session when we actively want free radicals and muscle damage — this confirms that the stimuli we gave during training will trigger our body to grow…so in this case, free radicals are a positive trigger.

ASSOS: Is there anything we should be doing to strengthen our immune systems?

Nico: There are a lot of different things that will have an affect on an athlete’s immune system — it is a subject that we are still researching — but we do know, at a basic level, that we should consider the following in terms of healthy habits that can help protect us better. But as mentioned above, the best way to help your immune system is by stressing it only when it is needed.

Reduce stress: Training causes the release of two hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, both of which are used for the fight or flight mechanism. That means that they stop nonessential processes in the body, such as the immune system. General stress in our daily life also causes the release of cortisol, so if we can work to reduce that via meditation etc., then we can make sure that our immune systems are stronger.

General hygiene: Our body has natural barriers to stop infection and invasion. Our mouth, noise and eyes are some of the most susceptible areas to attack, mainly through touching them with our hands. With that in mind, if we practice general hygiene, proper hand washing, cleaning of food, etc. before consumption, then we will present our immune systems with less to deal with, thus allowing it to focus on other needs.

Sleep: As they say, sleep is everything to the human body. It’s the time when it repairs itself. That means if you want to make sure that your immune system is tip-top, try to aim for a minimum of 7-to-9 hours sleep per night.

Reduce toxins: Toxins at their most simplistic level are a poison of plant or animal origin, which act as an antigen (foreign substance which induces an immune response in the body). The majority of toxins that we take into our body are through our diet, in the form of pesticides, chemicals, etc. That is why anyone looking to allow their immune system to operate optimally needs to think about reducing their intake of toxins.

Have periods of rest: Though known, not many of us really invest the time in as much recovery as we should. It is only during rest that our bodies recover and repair themselves, which in turn will reduce the demand put on our immune system. So include rest periods, short-term, weekly, as well as working in micro-cycles with your training, plus add bigger blocks of rest during the year, like an end-of-season break — that will help your immune system.

Supplements: Make sure you’re taking sufficient Vitamin C, A, E, plus that your body is obtaining sufficient Vitamin D levels — for many in Northern Europe, the required quantity is difficult to obtain. The best time to measure your vitamin D levels is in September, once the summer is over. This will give you a good gauge for the following year.

ASSOS: Is there a way to monitor our immune systems, i.e., what are the signs that we are getting run-down?

Nico: Here at Circles Health in Bern, we use a tool called Bioelectrical Impedanz Analysis (BIA) with our elite athletes from a variety of sports. This tool shows us the body composition and the state of the tissue — whether it’s anabolic or catabolic. This knowledge then helps us and the athletes to structure their training. We also use a 24-hour heart rate variability measurement that shows us an individual’s pattern of sleep and stress reaction — it’s a great tool to monitor their recovery and see whether we need to implement more rest into their programme.

In addition, we use certain blood parameters (ferritin, Q10, Homocystein, etc, etc…) to monitor an individual’s current state, looking particularly at their omega 6 to omega 3 ratio.

ASSOS: You’re also a nutritionist, what changes can we make to our diets so that our immune systems are always working at their best?

Nico: A balanced diet is key here, with an emphasis on organic and home-cooked food, but I’d also suggest the following general rules:

- Avoid red meat and a high sugar intake

- Introduce as much mushrooms and algae into your diet as possible

- Large variety in vegetables and fruits (more than 40 per week)

- Eat seafood twice a week

- Check your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio

ASSOS: What is the best combination of vitamins to boost your immune system, and how do we take them to maximise our uptake of them?

Nico: Vitamin C, E, A, D, B6 and B12, Q 10, as a basic combination. But there are many other things that we can look at with further analysis through closer work with an individual’s needs, as well as the knowledge that an individual can bring to help answer this question.

Of note: Make sure your barriers (mouth, gut, etc.) are functioning properly because this is key for absorption and digestion.

ASSOS: Other than what we put into our bodies, and sleep, can we do within our everyday lives to support our immune system?

Nico: Stop using all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you go to bed; the blue light depresses your melatonin onset (which signifies the moment to go to bed).

Thermoregulation training is proven to have positive effects on your body’s regenerative capacity, which therefore has a significant impact on your immunity. Furthermore, it helps with detoxing and alters your fat composition.

Intermittent fasting (such as a carb-free dinner followed by fasting training the following morning) shows good effects too. Always stay hydrated.

ASSOS: So, training fasted has a larger impact on our immune systems?

Nico: Fasted training doesn’t specifically have a higher impact on your immune system, but it can have a positive effect. Be flexible about your timings of fasted training — don’t do it the week before an important race or performance; you need to train and adapt your metabolism in order to get the benefits.

ASSOS: What options do you suggest for mid and post-training refueling?

Nico: High fat, low fibre, liquid during your session. Details depend on the duration, intensity, temperature, and state of training. For anything less than 90 minutes, you won’t need “real food” intake; it won’t be digested before the end of the training.

After the session make sure you refill your glycogen storage in the first 30 minutes and watch your protein intake over the next 90 minutes. 1–1.5 grams protein per kilogram body weight is the official recommendation, but in my opinion this isn’t easy to do.

Given current events, our immune systems are firmly at the forefront of our minds. We are absorbing new or forgotten information — such as the benefits of certain vitamins–but without an emotional stimulus to act on this information, we are not likely to follow it. Right now, we have the emotional stimulus and the information so let’s build on it.

If neurons fire together, they wire together.

Now the task is to pair the emotional stimulus with the tips above and use this moment to instil even better routines into our daily lives.