Don't Get Sidelined by a Cold: Tips for Boosting Immunity in Athletes

STACK Expert Mitch Calvert lays out five way athletes can boost their immune system function during flu season.

Sick Athlete

It's well known that regular exercise is a great immunity booster, so athletes who go way beyond regular exercise—into the realm of daily 6 a.m. practices, games and weight room sessions—should be all set this flu season, right? Wrong! Pushing your body to the limits may be great for your performance, but it can compromise your immune system. (Check out what the YOUDocs have to say in Be Immune to Getting Sick This Season.)

So how do busy athletes avoid health setbacks? Five ways.

Find Ways to Relax in Your Downtime

High stress situations (like intense games or training) activate the "fight or flight" response in the sympathetic nervous system. The more this happens, the weaker your immune system becomes. To recover from frequent exercise, take time away from athletic pursuits to relax each day. Even just 30 minutes of quiet meditation, yoga or a hot bath will make a difference.

Sleep Matters

If I have one or two nights of bad sleep, I start seeing signs of a compromised immune system—like nasal congestion or sore joints. Sleep is when the body and immune system perform repairs and rejuvenation, so as an active athlete you need plenty of sleep to prepare for the busy day that follows. Strive to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. 

(Read Study Finds Teen Sports Injuries Linked to Lack of Sleep.)

Feed Your Immune System Well

According to a number of studies, insufficient nutrients in your diet can weaken your immune system. That's why nutritionists recommend a well-balanced diet, including plenty of fruit, vegetables, quality carbohydrates, dietary fats and protein to repair and rebuild muscle tissue.

Carb Up Post-Workout

Post-exercise immune suppression is thought to be due partly to an increase in production of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Since they are in a carb-deprived state after training, athletes are especially prone to experiencing an increase in these hormones. They should take in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of intense exercise to reduce stress and immune markers. (Gleeson et al., 2004). Basically, before and after exercise, athletes need to supply their muscles with protein and carbs to maximize recovery.

Take Advantage of Immune System-Supporting Supplementation

Deficiency of vitamins A, C, D, E, B6 and B12, along with the minerals iron, zinc, selenium, and copper, are commonly associated with immune dysfunction. Try to eat food sources that contain these vitamins. But if you find this difficult, some over-the-counter supplements can help fill the gap. Cod liver oil is a rich source of vitamin A and D, and  many  other vitamins and minerals can be take individually or as part of a quality multivitamin.

(Are you under the weather but feeling guilty for skipping a workout? See Should You Train When You're Sick?)


Gleeson M, Nieman DC, Pedersen BK. "Exercise, nutrition and immune function." J Sports Sci. 2004 Jan;22(1):115-25.


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