Tuesday, November 27, 2001 - Nutrition
Improving the Immune Systems of Athletes - Nutrition and Supplements

- By: John Berardi

The interaction between the immune system and exercise is a paradoxical one. It seems that low to moderate intensity exercise can stimulate the immune system and make one less susceptible to infection. However, as I'm sure you well know, high intensity exercise often leads to immune suppression and a higher incidence of infection (respiratory tract and gastrointestinal).

So what's the big deal, you ask? Well, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked determinants of success in elite level athletics is resource management. Basically, it's important to understand that you only have a limited amount of "currency" in your immune and recovery "accounts". The trick to being successful then is to figure out how to accumulate the highest volume of quality work per year without overdrawing those accounts.

As I've mentioned before, the use of proper nutrition is the key to promoting recovery. In short, finding ways to get in lots of quality calories per day without adding a significant amount of body weight is the first step. If you can do this your rates of tissue turnover (muscle, immune, etc) will increase. Think of it this way. We all know that skin cells constantly die, are sloughed off, and are regenerated. Well, this happens to all the cells of our body, including bone, muscle, and immune cells. So go to the mirror and look at yourself today. When you return to that mirror a few months from now, you may not think much has changed but much of what you see will be new. By eating tons of calories per day you can actually speed up this process. And that's a good thing. The faster the rates of tissue turnover, the faster the old tissue will be lost and the faster the new tissue will be created. This new tissue, whether it be muscle or immune cells, will be better in that it will be more suited to future demands.

I've also previously talked about the importance of nutritional beverages in and around your training to promote recovery. By consuming specific amounts of carbohydrate, water, and electrolytes during training, you can increase the quality of your work. And adding in a targeted blend of carbohydrates, amino acids, and protein after training will allow you to recovery faster.

But is there anything to specifically target the immune system? Maybe. In a study published in the May 1999 issue of the International Journal of Sport Medicine a mixture of the plant sterols (the scientific name for fats) Beta-Sitosterol and Beta-Sitosterol Glucoside show promise (Bouic et al., The effects of BSS and BSSG on selected immune parameters in marathon runners: Inhibition of post marathon immune suppression and inflammation).

In this study two groups of marathon runners were tested 4 weeks before an ultra marathon and again 3 days after. For the 4 weeks after pre-testing subjects received their supplements. Group 1 received a placebo supplement and group 2 received a plant sterol supplement. They all took 2 capsules, each containing 10mg BSS and 0.1mg BSSG, 3 times per day. When all the data were analyzed, the placebo group showed normal post-marathon decreases in immune cells, increased inflammation, and increased blood concentrations of the catabolic stress hormone, cortisol. The changes seen after a marathon are quite profound. Adequate recovery from a marathon can take weeks or months. However the supplemented group showed increased immune cell numbers, decreased inflammation, and decreased concentrations of the catabolic stress hormone, cortisol. The supplement was not only able to prevent the detrimental changes seen after a marathon, but it actually improved their profiles relative to the measures taken before the marathon!

So, in the end, a three tiered strategy for improving your recovery and immune resources would be:
1) Consume lots of quality calories to increase tissue turnover rates
2) Consume hydrating and energy delivering carbohydrate/electrolyte drinks during training
3) Consume carbohydrate, amino acid, protein drinks immediately after training
4) Experiment with plant sterol use during your most intense and damaging training periods of the year.

John M Berardi is a scientist and PhD candidate in the area of Exercise and Nutritional Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. His company Science Link: Translating Research into Results specializes in providing integrated training, nutritional, and supplementation programs for high-level strength and endurance athletes. You can contact Science Link at:

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