Immunity Boost Through Food, Exercise and Mindset

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“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” —Jim Rohn 

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It was the competitive season of one of the country’s largest CrossFit events, the Manila Throwdown Team Edition, and I was deep into my training program. Every day for about three months, me and my training partners would check into the gym and push our bodies to its physical limits. With a sound training program, it is possible to dance on the thin line of personal records and physical breakdown. However, walking on this tightrope can be very tricky as any competitive athlete would know. 

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After pushing my body to its breaking point, contracted a severe viral infection which got me confined in a hospital for three days.

It was one Saturday afternoon when I gained new perspective on training. The workout  was done in teams of three, which involved weightlifting and running. Multiple repetitions of heavy Clean and Jerks, coupled with an eight hundred meter run, carrying a forty five pound plate. At that time, the workout was way beyond my comfort zone, but I remember pushing stupid hard just so I wouldn’t slow my teammates down. It was a combination of ego and wanting to prove something which led me to make the worst decision in my training career. My body started feeling chilly. My immune system took a beating because of over fatigue and dehydration. My nutrition was poor back then, too, relying so much on refined white rice as my main energy source. Immediately after our training session I contracted a severe viral infection which got me confined in a hospital for three days.

“Our immune system can take a lot of abuse from 21st century life. We can compromise it with things like heavy athletic training, chronic nutritional, physical and mental and/or emotional stress and long work hours/ intense work demands.” —John Berardi, PhD, co-founder of Precision Nutrition

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Many of us who get into the fitness lifestyle have a simple goal in mind—to avoid getting sick and to become as healthy as we can be. Not all of those who workout consistently and eat well, however, achieve these goals. There are not enough people who realize that exercising can be overdone, which can lead to overtraining and chronic fatigue. Also, being obsessed with eating healthy all the time is no good either. There is actually an eating disorder called Orthorexia which is an obsession over consuming perceived healthy foods. Our bodies are delicate biological machines where every single cell in our body work in concert with one another, keeping us functioning normally under any condition. Our cells group themselves into tissues which further group into organ systems which create regulatory and defense mechanisms to keep us healthy. Each of our body’s organ systems can work independently of each other but also together where they create a stable chemical environment inside us. There is one system, however, that when compromised, can send all of our systems into a screeching halt— our immune system. I believe that as conscious creatures, is our duty to take care what is given to us. 

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How I Got Sick

Harmful microbes and pathogens are everywhere and is a part of how our planet evolved. Trillions of microscopic creatures such as bacteria, fungi and viruses inhabit our homes and billions more are found in our bodies. Our immune system is our body’s defense team and it begins developing while we are still inside the womb. It continues to develop and strengthen as we grow up. Our lifestyle plays a huge part on how strong our defense team can become. Believe it or not, multiple studies have shown how food and exercise can affect our immunity—for the better or worse. I was heavily overtrained and undernourished that training day and my immune system took a serious hit. I stood helpless against harmful invaders and finally succumbed to their invasion. In 2002, researchers from Oxford University found that heavily exercising endurance athletes experience extreme physiological stress, which is associated with temporary immunodepression and higher risk of infection.

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” —Chief Seattle 

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I was heavily overtrained and undernourished that training day and my immune system took a serious hit.

Meet Our Body’s Defense Team

You might be wondering what makes up our immune system and where it is located. Apparently, it comprises of many cells and fluids, and it’s not just in one place. Our immune system has four main parts, scattered all over our body. It includes physical barriers such as our skin, saliva, tears and stomach acids. Cells, such as white blood cells, lymphocytes and phagocytes. Organs, such as the thymus and bone marrow, and molecules such as antibodies and cytokines. We also have a lymphatic system that works side by side our blood vessels and filters microbes and harmful substances. 

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Vegetables and real, whole food nourish our gut microbiome while sugar and processed food wreck havoc on them making us susceptible to infections.

Aside from what is biologically our own, our gut microbiome—the friendly bacteria that reside in our gut—play a major part in fending off unwanted invaders. Recent studies suggest that our microbiome makes up of 70% of our immune system—that’s a a huge part. These friendly critters outnumber our own cells 10:1 and is our first line of defense from pathogens found in our food. 

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However, it’s just not our own cells, molecules and symbiotic relationships that protect us from harm. Much of what promote or compromise our immunity has a lot do with the lifestyle choices we make. Exercise, food and even the mindset we carry directly impacts the efficacy of our immunity. Let’s dive in further into these lifestyle factors and learn about what we can do to boost our immunity.

Training vs Exercising

Personally, I distinguish training and exercising as two different concepts. In training, there is a physical performance goal that is usually associated with sports and competition. When one “trains”, one aims to perform—on a bodybuilding stage, on the WOD floor or on any sport. In training, there is a competitive goal or a goal to win. “Exercising” simply means moving and working out to make the body strong for health and fitness reasons. There are no competitive goals in “exercising”. Training can be rewarding especially when we edge out our opponents but can be taxing to our health. It’s not unusual to hear competitive athletes complain about burnout and over fatigue. 

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“If you’re tired all the time, it’s difficult to enjoy your life, love the people you love well, and do your best work.” —Dr. Rachel Abrams, author of Body Wise

Exercising on the other hand, is rewarding in the sense that it can improve our mood, confidence, metabolism and health and immunity. However, it’s very hard to push past our physical limitations and achieve the next level of fitness with simply exercising. Both training and exercising have their ups and downs and can improve our health and fitness levels. There are definitely some overlaps like that’s why it is crucially important to know which one is best suited for us. Newbies, for example, can easily jump into competitive training when they have no goals on competing in any sport. Are you aspiring for a podium finish on a marathon race? Or are you simply working out to normalize your blood pressure? It is very important to ask ourselves these important questions before following any fitness program. 

“A powerful bench press is admired. A fast marathon time is impressive. But a strong immune system is essential. Why? Because all gym-based training goals, from losing fat to building muscle, become instantly more achievable when your’e working with a healthy, fully functioning immune system.” —Ross Edgley

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Moderate Exercise is Best for Immunity

We can easily overdose on training especially when we become addicted to external rewards, accolades and applause. On the other hand, it’s also hard to take a day off from exercising if we are dependent on its serotonin boost. I, for one, am guilty of both. Back when I was training competitively, I pushed my body to its breaking limits for other people’s word of affirmation. When I switched to exercising, I still found it hard to take a day off because I have gotten so used to the mood boosting effect of pumping my muscles. Balance is crucial and most of the time we need other people to call us out of our bad habits. That’s why I recommend working out with a gym partner or hiring a coach to keep our blind spots in check.

Movement is essential to immune health. According to Elson Haas, MD and Sondra Barrett, PhD, authors of Ultimate Immunity, “movement accelerates the filtering and cleansing of our lymphatic system—a filtration network that catches stray microbes in the blood and circulates lymphocytes that destroy harmful invaders.” According to their prescription, gentle and moderate exercises such as Yoga or Tai Chi work best when we are nursing a minor illness. These type of exercises help lower inflammation and mobilize immune cells because the body in is constant, gentle motion.

In preventing illness, moderate strength training and interval training are great for boosting the immune system. In 1990, Dr. Nieman and his team found that moderate exercise has the ability to improve immune function compared to being sedentary. He also suggests that “high intensity exercises can depress the immune system, making us susceptible to viral and bacterial diseases.” 

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Staying in a moderate intensity level, of course, depends on many factors such as your health, gender, age, current fitness level, past injuries, weak areas, the duration of the activity and frequency. Be sure to work with a knowledgeable fitness coach to learn about what truly is moderate for your individual capacity. Guesstimating or following another person’s fitness program is a sure way to sabotage your health.

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Here are my exercise non-negotiables for immune health:

  1. Weight training for strength and bone density
  2. Stretching for muscle flexibility
  3. Mobility exercises for joint strength
  4. Cardiovascular exercises for heart and lung capacity
  5. Deep breathing exercises to lower stress and improve relaxation

Again, I advise working with a fitness coach in creating an individualized regimen best suited for your lifestyle. A program that you dread can make you sick even faster, as being stressed-out all the time increases cortisol and inflammation. A good sign of a healthy program is one you can enjoy and sustain for a very long time. The secret to being fit for life?—Enjoying the journey, not the destination.

“Every single muscle contraction we make is an anti-inflammatory signal to the body.” —Dr. Rangan Chatterjee

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Food Fuels Our Mind, Body and Immunity

Many are unaware that stress, mood and relationships highly influence the kinds of food we select. When we we are feeling lonely, tired or anxious, we tend to make poorer decisions like considering another cheat day or reaching for a bag of chips for instant satisfaction. On the other hand, when we always stick around alcoholics, it’s very hard to drink in moderation. Remember, you are the sum of the closest people you associate with.

Our nutrition is vital for the proper function of our mind and crucial for energy metabolism in our body. But not only that, food also contributes to our immune health. Whether or not we are nursing an illness or simply trying to avoid disease for our kids, these foods will surely help build a strong immune system. There are lots more, but these are my favorites!

  1. Dark Chocolate. The friendly bacteria in our gut love dark chocolate. Scientists have recently discovered that our gut bacteria ferment dark chocolate into powerful anti-inflammatory compounds. In another study, in which 30 people ate 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate everyday for two weeks improved gut microbial activity and lowered stress hormones. Go for raw cacao nibs and natural dark chocolate as these work best. Avoid cocoa powders and milk chocolate as these are loaded with sugar.
  2. Probiotic-rich/ fermented foods such as brewer’s yeast, miso, unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi and tempeh are great options. Probiotics recruit T and B immune cells in our gut and make it tougher for harmful pathogens to cause illness.
  3. Sourdough bread can also be great. It is a good source of the beneficial lactobacillus strain according to some studies.
  4. Prebiotic foods such as cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli and kale nourish our gut bacteria. Other examples are asparagus, legumes, wild honey and green banana and even red wine.
  5. Immune-supporting vitamins such as vitamin A, C, E, and D. 
  6. Immune-supporting minerals such as zinc, selenium, iron and magnesium.
  7. Medium chain triglycerides such as MCT oil not only provide cleans and instant energy, it also has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
  8. Spices such as turmeric, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, clove, garlic, ginger, onions, oregano, rosemary are all rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Exercise caution however when using these as supplements because antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds can alter blood clotting and some herbs interact with prescription medicines.  
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Sourdough is fermented by lactobacillus instead of traditional baker’s yeast.

Pro Tip: On major meals, let vegetables take up the most space on your plate. Make it as colorful and varied as possible. Use coconut oil in cooking to real the antimicrobial properties of lauric acid. Treat meat as a condiment, as functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman prescribes and season with lots of herbs and spices mentioned above. 

“A new level of energy and inspiration is possible when you move, eat and rest in the way your body needs.” —Dr. Rachel Abrams, author of Body Wise

What If We’re Simply Allergic?

Our immune system evolved thousands of years ago to protect us from a variety of organisms like bacteria, viruses, worms and parasites. In the modern world, however, our well-honed defense system live in highly sanitized environments. Suddenly, there is very little to protect against compared to the jungles and savannas where our paleolithic ancestors used to thrive. Indeed, sanitation has increased our lifespan, but has also caused our immune systems to be on constant high alert. According to Dr. Rachel Abrams, “Our overly ‘Mr. Clean’ environment is one of the several causes driving the worldwide epidemic of allergy and autoimmune disease.” Our immune system is regularly attacking the wrong targets. When our immune systems attack harmless proteins in our environment such as foods, plants, animals, insects, molds, chemicals and medications, we call it allergy. When our immune system attack our own cells, we call it autoimmunity. I’m not suggesting that we totally do away with cleaning ourselves and disinfecting our environment. But there is a fine balance between being overly sanitized and healthfully exposing ourselves to dirt, where beneficial bacteria can be found. 

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“We have to stop seeing ourselves as the masters of the universe and eat some humble mud pie. The only way for us to coexist peacefully and healthfully with the microbes around is to simply give in and eat dirt.” —Dr. Josh Axe, author of Eat Dirt

Here are some nutritional strategies by Dr. Rachel Abrams which may strengthen your immune system and help improve your allergies and autoimmune diseases. These are simple guides and should not replace medical treatment. It is still best to consult with your physician.

  1. Avoid excessively sanitizing 
  2. Avoid wheat and dairy
  3. Limit your food to organic, pesticide-free foods
  4. Include vitamin D3, magnesium, zinc, Omega-3s, vitamin B12 and glutathione in your foods
  5. Cultivate a healthy gut microbiome and immune system to teach your body which are foes and friends

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Where the Mind Goes, the Body Follows

As cliché as it may sound, it’s true. Our mindset, attitudes and beliefs highly contribute to our immune function. After all, these mental factors don’t simply stay in our head. They direct our feelings and emotions, behaviors and daily choices. Whether or not we exercise, eat healthy or sleep early—all these decisions are governed by our mindset and attitude. Mental well-being directly translate into immune system well-being. 

Getting clear with our intentions, goals and aspirations are a must before embarking on a fitness lifestyle. Being healthy, fit and competitive are great goals to have but be sure to know where your starting point is and where it is you want to go so that as you tread along your journey, you truly promote your immunity and well-being instead of destroy it. To reach our destination we need to know our current location. To achieve our goals we must first get clear on how we will get there. 

“A healthy outside starts from the inside.” —Robert Urich

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