Using Nutrition to Boost Your Immunity

Last year around this time I touched on nutrition and our immune system. I just wrote an updated article for a Team Red White and Blue on the is subject, and I wanted to share it with you guys too. Here you go…let’s not get sick this winter!

As athletes, we put so much time and effort into training, that staying healthy is a big deal. Our immune systems must work harder than the average person as we are constantly bombarding it with stress hormones and pro-inflammatory proteins. While there is a fine balance between needing to have a stress response to create the desired adaptations from exercise, we can help to minimize the additional damage with healthy nutrition.

We’re moving into cold and flu season, so here are some nutrition tips to help maintain a healthy immune system. Remember, always consult with your physician before taking or adding in a supplement. Always try to consume your nutrients first with whole foods before supplementing.

  1. Consume enough carbohydrates and fats for your training: nothing depresses the immune system more than a diet too low in carbohydrates, or too low in fat. If you find yourself getting sick, look at your overall carbohydrate levels and make sure yours are adequate. Most endurance athletes require around 3-5g/kg of carbohydrate per day (during periods of moderate training). During long workouts, take in 30-60g of carb per day. Shoot to have daily fat intake levels around 20-35% of daily calories.
  2. Low levels of Vitamin D: athletes low in Vit. D have an increased incidence of illness. Vitamin D increases anti-microbial peptides and lymphocyte activation. Best sources: the sun (especially true for winter when we get less sun), oily fish, mushrooms, fortified foods. Aim for at least 600IU/day.
  3. Low levels of Vitamin C: Vit. C is an antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory and anti-pathogenic properties. While some antioxidants have been shown to impede exercise induced adaptations, Vit. C has not. Runners that supplemented with Vit. C for 3 weeks prior to an ultra-marathon were less likely to develop a upper respiratory infection post run (33% vs 68%) than those runners that did not. Best sources: peppers, dark green leafy veggies, broccoli and citrus fruit. Aim for at least 75-90mg/day.
  4. Prebiotics/Beta-Glucan: Many athletes have heard of probiotics, but not prebiotics. Prebiotics are quickly becoming just as important though. These are specialized plant fibers that are non-digestible (soluble fiber) and feed probiotics. Beta-glucan is a prebiotic found in oats and barley that has been linked to a healthier GI tract and boosted immune system. Other sources include: beans, legumes and vegetables like asparagus and onions.
  5. Probiotics: While prebiotics feed probiotics, probiotics feed our GI tract’s healthy bacteria. There is a lot of great research coming out on the numerous benefits of a healthy gut. For athletes, one benefit is an increased immune system. Probiotics can be found in supplement and food form. Food sources: fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir. Supplements can be in powder form or tablet. If taking a supplement, look for CFU (colony forming units) in the billions. If you see a supplement that touts CFUs is in the millions, keep looking.
  6. Zinc:  Evidence shows that zinc can increase the response rate of immune cells, so if taken at the onset of a cold, can reduce duration and severity of the cold. Unfortunately, there has been no clear data on how much zinc one needs to take to achieve this benefit. One study showed taking a zinc lozenge every few hours was enough to shorten a cold. Too much zinc taken for too long can lead to a toxicity. Best sources: beef, beans, seeds, dark leafy greens.
  7. Green Tea-EGCG: Epigallocatechin-3-gallage (EGCG) is a compound found in green tea. It’s been shown to fight inflammation and boost anti-viral activity against viruses like retrovirus, the flu and even hepatitis. Matcha green tea powder can be added to smoothies or yogurt, however the taste is acquired. Instead, drink green tea daily (5 cups have been shown to be the most beneficial, however give it a go by just adding in 1 cup).
  8. Quercetin: A flavonoid, which is a plant pigment found in many fruits and vegetables has been shown to be effective in reducing the inflammatory response from an upper respiratory infection, in addition to blocking the virus’s replication. Sources include: onions, capers, citrus fruits, apples, berries, and black and green tea.

More Controversial but with some good research:

  1. Bovine Colostrum: Yes, this one sounds a bit controversial. I’m including it here as there is some good research on it and the immune system. This isn’t as practical as the others due to no fresh food sources, however I wanted to include it. Colostrum is the pre-milk fluid produced in the mammary glands during the first 2-4 days after giving birth and contains numerous antibodies and immune factors. Bovine colostrum increases salivary IgA, which in turn helps prevent upper respiratory tract infections. Usually found in powder or capsule form from cows.
  2. Astragalus Root: This root has been used in ancient Chinese medicine for the past thousands of years. It is called an adaptogen, which means it helps protect the body from stress (physical, emotional, etc). Research has shown both anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties with benefits to those with weakened immune systems. There is some evidence that shows if you have an auto-immune disorder, it will interfere with your medicine. Please consult your physician before taking this as there are no food sources that I can recommend.

Good nutrition is key to a healthy body, training and performance. Shoot for a balanced nutrition plan that includes proper calories and macronutrients, fruits, vegetables, whole grains with soluble fiber, fermented foods, lean protein and green tea. With just those suggestions, you’re on your way to a healthy and cold/flu free winter. Remember that sleep is also a key. Happy Training!

Why You Should Be Consuming Probiotics and a Probiotic Smoothie (GF)

A lot of people have heard that after you’ve been on a course of antibiotics, you should eat more friendly bacteria. Often this comes in the form of yogurt. We all know the Activia commercials with Jaime Lee Curtis. I haven’t seen one in a while, but I bet you remember them. She was always running around a gym or restaurant trying to get others to eat their bacteria filled yogurt.

When we take an antibiotic, the antibiotic is non-discriminant in it’s killing of bacteria. Our body is teeming with good bacteria (in the trillions), and this is a good thing. So, when you take the antibiotic to kill the bad bacteria, you’re also killing off the healthy bacteria. Our body uses the healthy bacteria in our digestive health, and to inhibit the growth of yeast and unfriendly bacteria. Also, some research has shown that the promotion of healthy bacteria can help to prevent colitis and crohns disease and alleviate diarrhea, IBS-irritable bowel syndrome and IBD-inflammatory bowel disease. There are many different strains of probiotics, but the two that are most often spoken about are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium.

There’s not just one good reason to take a probiotic, there are many. The one I want to focus on is immune protection. A 2010 study in the European Journal of Nutrition studied 272 adults taking a probiotic with 10^9 cfu (colony forming units) or a placebo. After 12 weeks, the adults taking the probiotic had a 55% incidence of developing a cold vs 67% of the placebo. In addition, once getting a cold, those taking the probiotics had symptoms dissipate after 6.2 vs 8.6 days. So almost 3 days less of symptoms. I’ll take that!

Supplement or Real Food:

There are certainly a lot of probiotic supplements on the market today. A March, 2014 University of Berkeley’s wellness newsletter stated:Probiotics are a big and rapidly growing business, with annual global sales of products expected to rise to $42 billion by 2016. That’s a pretty huge number.

Because a probiotic is not a drug, it is considered a “food” and not regulated by the FDA. With all supplements, it’s important to be skeptical that what they have on their label is truly what they have in their bottle. At this point I’d be more apt to tell you to consume your probiotics from food sources. The best food sources of probiotics are yogurt and other fermented foods. Just make sure that if the food is labeled, like yogurt or kefir, you’re getting a food that says it has multiple strains of bacteria and billions of probiotics.

Food Sources:

  1. Yogurt
  2. Kefir
  3. Sauerkraut
  4. Kombucha
  5. Miso
  6. Pickles
  7. Kimchi
  8. Tempeh

Of these foods, I prefer yogurt and kefir. Although pickles and sauerkraut are very close to the top as well. I’m not as big of a fan of the others, but that is just my own personal opinion and my taste buds. Yogurt is delicious and as always, you want to look for plain yogurt with no added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Most yogurt is pasteurized, and this process kills the healthy bacteria. Some yogurt, like Activia add the probiotics back in. Kefir is a fermented milk product, that is similar to yogurt, but thinner. Kefir is slightly sour due to the fermentation, but it is delicious added to a smoothie, cereal or just as a drink. In addition to the probiotics, kefir is full of protein, calcium, magnesium, and B-vitamins. For those that are lactose intolerant, it actually aids in lactose digestion and not does not cause any negative symptoms like other dairy products. In fact, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of lactose intolerant people consuming kefir, which actually boosted their ability to handle lactose, and they now enjoy some dairy products. Here’s the kefir that I drink:

Fueled and Focused Food Pictures 001

Since I’m a big fan of increasing your immunity, eating nutritious foods, and just boosting your overall health, I’m a fan of drinking kefir. Here’s a smoothie I made that will boost your immunity, plus help your overall health. This smoothie also contains vegetables, healthy fat, and oats. It’s an all around great smoothie, and I would recommend this as a recovery smoothie for athletes post workout. You’ve got your protein, carbs, healthy fat, in addition to being chock full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and immunity boosting ingredients. Enjoy!


Kale Cherry Recovery Smoothie (Serves 1)

1 cup plain nonfat kefir
1/2 banana
3/4 cup dark cherries (I used frozen, add ice if you’re using fresh)
1 cup kale
1 tbsp peanut butter
1/4 cup oats

  • In a blender pour kefir, and add additional ingredients. Blend till smooth
  • Add additional ice if necessary


  • Kcal: 450
  • Carb: 70g
  • Protein: 20g
  • Fat: 12g
  • Fiber: 10g

*If you’re not an athlete and not looking for this to be a recovery drink, you an omit the oats. This will then make the smoothie nutrition:

  • Kcal: 380
  • Carb: 58g
  • Protein: 18g
  • Fat:11g
  • Fiber: 8g

So, still a healthy and delicious smoothie. The oats add a fantastic creaminess, in addition to healthy carbs, fiber, more immune boost, and vitamins.



Berggren A, Lazou Ahrén I, Larsson N, Önning G; Lazou Ahrén; Larsson; Önning (Aug 2010). “Randomised, double-blind and placebo-controlled study using new probiotic lactobacilli for strengthening the body immune defence against viral infections”. Eur J Nutr. 50 (3): 203–10