Immune Health For Yogis

With fears of Ebola on the rise and people as a whole getting more germaphobic, taking a yoga class can be scary for some.  Working out with large groups of people, dehydration and erratic eating schedules can also cause a compromised immune system.  A weakened immune system leaves the body vulnerable to virtually every type of illness and disease, especially during seasonal shifts when new generation of viruses cause coughs and colds.  Although the immune system can recognize viral strains it has encountered and beaten off before, it will not recognize a virus that has mutated.  Even the smallest genetic change will trick it into thinking a brand new species, for which it has no antibodies, has landed - and while a strong immune system will cope with this attack, one that has been weakened by poor nutrition and too much stress will struggle to get you back to good health.

Fatigue, lethargy, repeated infections, slow wound healing, allergies, thrush, yeast infections,  colds and flu are all signs that the body’s immune system is functioning below par. A healthy adult, for example, should suffer no more than two colds a year - so if you do succumb more to every passing infection, you definitely need to start supporting your immune system.

As yogis it is crucial that we take care of ourselves.  Taking care of yourself on the go starts with taking care of yourself at home: getting enough rest, eating healthy foods, avoiding excess alcohol or caffeine & stimulants, exercising, and practicing meditaion and introspection.  All will help you maintain health.   

Here are some practical tips to help you stay healthy.

Stay Hydrated & Eat at Regular Intervals – I always have a bar of some sort with me. Hitting the grocery store for carrots, organic apples, or tuna in a bag should always be a priority. Staying away from airplane food is always a big help.  I find that I feel sick and have a headache after airplane food.  I always bring some apples, turkey, and veggies packed in small plastic bags on the flight.

Meditate:  Studies have shows that meditation boosts the immune system.  People who meditate are much happier and healthier, and they have greatly extended life spans, too.  As a matter of fact, there have been numerous studies showing that meditation dramatically reduces, and even reverses disease of all types.

Ashwagandha – This amazing ayervedic herb boosts the immune system and helps strengthen your immune system. It also provides for a better night's sleep and balances hormones.

Vitamin C  Powder – I start my day with two packages mixed with 6 oz of water . A great source of Vitamin C and easily absorbed in liquid form. 

ProBiotics - Crucial for maintaining good intestinal health. When the digestive system is working properly, germs have less of a chance to grab hold.  I take 4 Primal Defence tablets daily with my Emergen-C . These are best taken on an empty stomach.  Garden Of Life makes great quality formulas.

Echinacea -  Almost everyone has now heard of this best-selling herbal remedy, which is prescribed in Germany by doctors and pharmacists to help fight colds and flu.  It is effective, as long as you don’t overuse it.

Goldenseal - First discovered by the Aborigine healers in Australia, it will not only help prevent an infection if you are feeling low, but can reduce the inflammation of mucous membranes once you have a cough or cold.

Plain old Vitamin C - Most people will also reach for the vitamin C tablets at the first sign of a splutter.  Many of the symptoms of a cold have nothing to do with the cold virus itself, but are caused by the body’s own immune response to that alien invader.  It is this secondary problem that vitamin C can help counter.  One of the nutrients most commonly associated with preventing colds is vitamin C, which has a widespread reputation as an immune system booster.  Don't underestimate the importance of consuming good food sources of this vitamin. Endurance athletes can consume over three servings of fresh fruit daily and up to two cups of cooked vegetables daily for ample amounts of dietary vitamin C.  Most research measuring the effects of high doses of vitamin C through supplementation have not shown additional protection to the immune system, though many athletes swear by their vitamin C supplements. What we do know is that a daily dose of 250 mg is adequate to saturate your body with vitamin C. Excellent sources of vitamin C include sweet peppers, citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, cantaloupe, kiwi fruit and broccoli.

VitaminE:  This antioxidant & nutrient helps to slow down the symptoms of aging and strengthen body cells that fight infection. People who eat foods rich in vitamin E or take supplements have an added weapon against bacteria and viruses.  Vitamin E also helps in the fight against heart disease and cancer. Good food sources of Vitamin E are whole grain foods and vegetable oils. Supplements are recommended to reach the daily requirement of this vitamin. Check with your doctor on the dose.

What happens is that during a cold, the mucous membranes that line the nose become charged with the white blood cells that release large amounts of chemicals designed to destroy the virus. Unfortunately, these substances also attack the cells of the mucous membranes themselves, causing a runny nose and other disturbances. So the idea behind taking antioxidants such as vitamins C, A, and E to tackle a cold is two-fold.  Firstly, these nutrients have now been shown to support the immune system, but, just as importantly, they weaken the immune attack on the body’s own tissues.

Zinc, Iron, B Vitamins: Other nutrients essential for a strong immune system include adequate intakes of zinc, iron, and vitamins B6 and B12. A good daily multivitamin and mineral supplement providing 100-percent of the Daily Values ensures adequate intake of these nutrients on top of a well-balanced diet. Megadosing with vitamins and minerals can often compromise the immune system, especially with excessive intakes of iron.  This is not advised as it could impair immune function and increase susceptibility to infection.  While iron is an important mineral, iron supplements should be taken as required with regular monitoring or iron status.  Excess iron can increase inflammation in the body.  Research on zinc supplementation and the common cold is split down the middle in regards to effectiveness.  While there is limited evidence that zinc supplementation can reduce the severity or duration of a cold, it appears that zinc must be taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms to provide any benefit.

Nutrition: sticking with a high intake of fruits and vegetables should pay off immune wise.  They contain hundreds of phytochemicals that provide many preventative health benefits, and are also excellent sources of carotenoids that boost the activity of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Beta-carotene can also be converted to vitamin A in your body, an important nutrient for the immune system. Organic fruits & vegetables are always a wise choice.

Poor nutrition is a common cause of a weakened immune response. Foods that are good natural sources of the immune-boosting antioxidants include kiwi fruit, which contain more vitamin C than oranges; chinese cabbage, which is an excellent source of vitamin A; avocado, known as nature’s own super-food because it provides the optimum healthy ratio of fat, carbohydrate, protein and vitamin E.  Foods that are rich in vitamin B6, which boosts the production of antibodies to fight infection, will also help.  These include bananas, carrots, lentils, tuna, salmon, wholegrain flour, and sunflower seeds. You also need to step up your intake of dietary zinc by eating more seafood, eggs, turkey, pumpkin seeds, and crabmeat.

Dieting?  Rapid weight loss of greater than 2 pounds per week (an amount often recommended by many diet programs) can have negative immune effects.  Consuming adequate calories is, of course, also beneficial for an athlete's recovery and energy levels.  Poorly planned and low calorie diets can also be low in protein, which also compromises your immune system.  Diets too low in energy can also result in inadequate intake of immune boosting vitamins and minerals.  Having the proper balance of fat in your diet, and choosing good fats can also give your immune system a boost.  While a very high fat diet can compromise immune function, a very low fat diet does not provide adequate amounts of essential fatty acids.  Polyunsaturated oils that provide omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are good for the immune system.  However, most North Americans consume enough of the omega-6 fats (if not an excess) and need to increase intake of the omega-3s.  Walnuts, fatty fish, flax, soy, and canola oils are good sources of this healthy fat.

Nutritional Strategies for Training & Working Out:

Periods of heavy training are also associated with a depressed immune function, and compromised immune function can be further aggravated by inadequate nutrition. The body's susceptibility to a respiratory infection can be elevated for 24 hours after a tough workout, and a demanding race can impair your immune function for one to two weeks.  Combining training withwork can overtax an endurance athlete's resources, stress your body, and compromise your ability to fight infection.

Because increased oxygen utilization during exercise can increase the production of free radicals (unstable molecules that can cause tissue damage at the cellular level), increased food intake and supplementation with antioxidants may enhance immune-system performance. 

Consume a healthy diet and supplement wisely:  Here are specific nutrition strategies that are also beneficial. When your immune system is compromised from training, this effect is related to elevated concentrations of stress hormones. Nutritional strategies to boost the immune system around training sessions should focus on yoga to reduce the stress hormone response.  Consuming carbohydrates before, during, and after training is also a familiar practice for endurance athletes.  Consuming carbohydrates seems to diminish some of the immunosuppressive effects of intense training.  Carbohydrate intake before, during, and after training results in lower cortisol levels, fewer changes in blood immune cell counts, lower oxidative activity, and a diminished inflammatory response.

So, training with optimal stores of carbohydrate not only provide fuel for your workouts, but supports a strong immune system. Endurance athletes who train in the carbohydrate depleted state experience greater increases in the stress hormones that increase during exercise.  There is a window of at least several hours of depressed immune function after hard exercise. Try to stay away from individuals who have colds after hard training.

In conclusion - managing life stress, eating clean and healthy foods, doing yoga, resting, sleeping, and meditaion go a long way to support a healthy immune system.