Beat the Winter Bugs
Updated: Aug 2, 2018
(this article first appeared in Muscle & Fitness UK, March 2018)
Have you been hit with a bug or two this winter? If you are lucky enough to have avoided the winter coughs, colds and ‘flu so far then you are likely to be in the minority; the average adult catches between 2-4 respiratory tract infections each year. Maybe you’ll manage to hold out until spring arrives, but what if you don’t? In sports and fitness the best improvements are seen with consistent, quality work. In the quest to be the best we can be, how often can we really afford to have time out with illness?
In this article, I give you the low down on steering clear of bugs during the cold season so that you can stay on track to hit your goals. With a spotlight on new research into how our Vitamin D levels could be making the difference I'll explain how some people seem to be better than others at holding out against coughs, colds and ‘flu. Maybe you could improve your defences by putting some of these simple steps into action.
I bet there’s not an athlete, competitor or dedicated gym-goer out there who doesn’t relate; Your training plan is on point, sessions are going well and you’re feeling like those goals you set yourself are totally within reach if you can just keep consistently putting in the work and progressing through the plan. Maybe you’re deep into your off season, or maybe you’re a matter of days away from a major event in your calendar… and then…
… you get hit with a bug; you know the one; it’s been knocking people around you for six for weeks but you’ve managed to avoid it… until now.
Be it a cough/cold or even worse the dreaded ‘flu, you’re not getting to the gym, track or practice fields anytime soon. Respiratory Tract Infections (RTIs) are easily spread, so even if you did manage to drag yourself to training, you’d be treated like you have the plague. And there’s definitely nothing to be gained from forcing training when you’re ill.
No one wants to get ill and when you have invested so much time, money, physical and emotional effort in your fitness journey it can feel devastating. Not only do you feel like death warmed up, but with each day you are sick you are now slipping further away from your goals. Once you are well enough to get back training you’re going to have to take a step back to rebuild what you’ve lost from the time out. If your goals are time sensitive then catching a bug at the wrong time could spell disaster for your next competition, tournament, or charity challenge event and perhaps even have a knock on affect for your whole season.
“But you spend so much time training, I thought you were super healthy?”
I’ve heard this so many times from employers and colleagues when I catch a winter bug. They imagine that all the hard training and healthy eating will turn me into some sort of superhuman that is immune to illness.
But the reality is everyone gets infections at one time or another, in fact the average adult suffers between 2 and 4 upper respiratory tract infections every year (BASES).
On top of this the amount and type of exercise we do affects how susceptible we are to respiratory tract infections: Depending on how intensely you train and how long the session lasts, a single training session can leave your immune system depressed for between 3 -24 hours afterwards (BASES), particularly if you are performing the sessions ‘fasted’ (without food intake) (Gleeson). During this 3-24 hours period whilst your defences are low you are more vulnerable. So in fact, periods of hard training will leave you more susceptible to infections than someone who only trains moderately (BASES).
With such a huge investment resting on keeping ourselves healthy enough to be able to train, coupled with the irony that hard training makes us more susceptible to getting these infections, athletes and serious gym-goers really do need some tools in their armoury to help keep infections at bay if we are to maximise our chances of hitting our sports and fitness goals.
Prevention is better than Cure
I think we’d all agree that preventing getting ill in the first place is better than dealing with the consequences of being ill. There’s no way to guarantee 100% you won’t catch a cold, ‘flu or get a sore throat or chest infection, but there’s definitely ways to reduce the risk.
The three ways fitness enthusiasts and athletes can fight back against our high risk of catching these dreaded winter bugs all work together to make our defences stronger:
OPTIMISE RECOVERY FROM TRAINING
REDUCE EXPOSURE TO VIRUSES
TAKE DIRECT ACTION
To help you in your fitness quest I’ve made a QUICK GUIDE TO: Maximising Your Winter Defences which you can find below. Also check out these recipes I put together: a quick and easy Super Smoothie and a Bug Busting Breakfast Jar. I really hope you find these useful to keep you training hard for the rest of the cold period.
Vitamin D for Defence
I can’t write and article on immunity without giving some well-deserved limelight to some exciting new research:
One vitamin that has got Sports Medicine, Scientists and Performance Nutritionists all over the world excited is Vitamin D. The way this intriguing seco-steroid acts puts it into the TAKING DIRECT ACTION category in your defence against respiratory tract infections. Scientists identified that vitamin D doesn’t just work to keep our bones healthy, it also modifies how our immune system responds when we are exposed to viruses and that when our levels drop, this could be leaving our immune systems more vulnerable.
It turns out that it’s no coincidence we get more respiratory infections during the winter months. For the six months between October and April 90% of the UK lies too far north to allow our skin to be exposed to the UVB wavelength from the sun that is necessary for Vitamin D synthesis in human skin. In other words, you can’t make your own Vitamin D during winter if you live in the UK; you are reliant on the stores you have built up through summer.
As we go through each month of winter our stores are gradually used up in all the many processes that Vitamin D is needed for day to day. If your stores are not enough to see you through to springtime, studies have shown you are at higher risk of getting acute respiratory tract infections (BMJ). This explains in part, why some athletes might be more resilient than others; because they have better stores of Vitamin D to help in the defense against respiratory tract infections.
So how would you know if your levels are high enough? The most reliable way is to have a blood test, which although quick and easy to do (I offer this service nationally) it is not necessary for most people unless you are experiencing symptoms as well as risk factors.
Risk factors for Inadequate Vitamin D level
•Living in the UK or anywhere as northerly.
•Wearing high SPF sunscreens during summer (this is essential to prevent skin cancer, so don't stop)
•Wearing clothing that covers the skin
•Working indoors, training indoors
•Pregnant or breastfeeding women
•Living in areas with air pollution
•Certain medications and illnesses
Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency
I imagine most people reading this article will find they have least two risk factors; in fact, unless you take action, it is likely that your level WILL drop low during the winter months leaving you at higher risk of infection and potentially muscular and bone health issues. Because of this, Public Health England now recommends everyone over the age of 1 year living in the UK considers taking a supplement of 10micrograms (400IU) Vitamin D daily throughout the autumn and winter months (PHE). This dose is considered to be enough for most people and can be found in products purchased from Pharmacies, health food shops etc. If you already take a multivitamin or other supplements, check whether they contain vitamin D and in what amount.
Some people won’t need to take a supplement; for example, if you spend time in sunnier climates during winter, because there you will top up your stores via the sun. Conversely, some people will need to take a higher dose of vitamin D, but whether you need higher, and exactly how high should be determined from a blood test and/or under recommendation from a professional. (Again, if you are particularly worried about your levels you can contact me directly to arrange blood tests and a personalised nutrition prescription).
In my article in last months MF about supplements I advocated always using the “food first” approach, so at this point you might be asking yourself: “Can’t I just eat food that is high in Vitamin D?” This would be the ideal but unfortunately not many foods naturally contain Vitamin D and those that do; oily fish (sardines, mackerel) and eggs, have only a small amount, not enough to reach the requirements. So a supplement it has to be.
The great news is The British Medical Journal recently carried out some research that strengthens our confidence in taking a supplement of Vitamin D for Defence. In a high quality systematic review and meta-analysis of over 10,000 people researchers uncovered strong evidence that not only is taking a Vitamin D supplement safe, but that people taking a regular daily or weekly dose were protected against acute respiratory infections (BMJ)
So there you go, you can have all the dedication of a Champion, but you are only human and when you get hit with a bug a true Champion knows when to take time out to recover. Hopefully now you have the added advantage of some practical tips and steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting ill in the first place.
If you would like more personalised advice to help you stay the right side of healthy and maximise your fitness, Ruth can be contacted directly for a range of blood tests, health screening and personalised nutrition prescription service covering the whole of the UK.
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Website - ruthmariedales.co.uk
The BASES Expert Statement on Exercise, Immunity and Infection (2011)
Gleeson et al Immune System adaptation in elite athletes. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and metabolic Care (2006)
PHE: Public Health England Position Stand 2016.
BMJ: Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. (British Medical Journal 2017)
PEN The Global Resource for Nutrition Practice (accessed January 2017)
ACSM: Joint Position Stand; Nutrition and Athletic Performance (American College of Sports Medicine & Canadian Dieticians 2016)