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The Immune System
by Anthony Millar of dotfitness.co.uk

If you were to ask yourself or others what goals you or they aim to achieve in the coming 12 months, what response would you expect to hear? An extra inch on the chest or arms? An extra 10lb of lean muscle tissue? Or maybe a vast improvement in a lagging muscle group? How many people do you think would reply with a simple ‘just to stay healthy’? The answer to this is predictably, not many. Yet our bodies unique ability to ‘stay healthy’ is what enables us in the first place to make the gains in strength and size that inevitably attracted us to bodybuilding as a sport/recreational pastime. It is probably fair to say that issues of good health are not the main reasons why people dedicate themselves to strict eating and training regimes. Yet progress can be significantly increased by attaining and maintaining good health. Think about it, when you are ill you are of no use to anybody, least of all yourself. Your body uses up all the energy it requires for growth to ward off the invading organisms, whilst at the same time ‘tearing’ into your hard earned muscle, also to be used as a source of fuel. This clearly emphasises the need to stay in good health as slow continual gains, i.e. the real gains are so dependent on a predominantly anabolic environment which in turn are so dependent on a clean bill of health. We need to bear in mind that falling ill is essentially catabolic, therefore remaining healthy provides us with a very powerful anti-catabolic strategy. I cannot make this point strongly enough.

It is important to recognise the fact that we are under attack at all times from countless varieties of bacteria and fungi. Without the ability to combat these contaminates our lives would be turned upside down by the ‘explosion’ of disease that would inevitably engulf us. Remember the ‘Black Death,’ it is because of our defensive strength that this terrible illness has very similar symptoms to influenza. I am of course referring to the Immune System which is one of our most complex biological systems comprising of many different types of cells, tissues and enzymes. Basically it works by manufacturing antibodies to seek and destroy antigens, the foreign invaders. Our bodies produce a specific type of antibody for each antigen, if we have never had the illness it takes a certain amount of time to produce an antibody fit for the job, which can cause problems. This is why it is better to get measles, chicken pox etc when we are young and strong. After we recover to full health our body files the necessary antibody for use in the future. If on the other hand we have previously fallen foul to these contaminates then we simply search our library of antibodies until the correct one is found and send it out to do it’s work. This is the reasoning behind vaccinations, we are given a mild bout of the illness so we can build up our files for future reference. It goes without saying there is a lot more to it than that, this really is just a very brief summary and as bodybuilders/athletes is essentially all we need to know on the topic. We should be far more concerned with what weakens our immune system and of course what actions we can take to strengthen it.

As previously mentioned we all come into contact with many ‘air-born’ diseases everyday. This to a large extent is completely out of our hands as there is nothing we can do. However a wealth of research has suggested that we are under attack from many different sides as stress, exercise and eating habits are all very influential players and to a large extent affect our susceptibility to illness. Stress represents a massive health issue, one in which I cannot possibly hope to cover in such a short article. It is important to recognise that stress is part of everyday life and there isn’t a great deal that we can do, it’s our ability to cope with stress that makes all the difference. Stress presents itself in many different forms, in truth any situation that you are not in control of is stressful. These may even be positive aspects of our lives like starting a new job or the birth of a child. It’s important to keep things in perspective and not allow ourselves to be consumed by our problems. If this is the case then our bodies respond with a flood of hormones that prepare us for extreme action, the "fight or flight" response.

There is now overwhelming evidence that stress can significantly weaken our immune system. There is a gland in our bodies called the pineal gland which is almost entirely influenced by our emotional state. This in turn directly affects the pituitary gland, the master gland of our body which manipulates the way all our other glands work. Our adrenal glands go into overdrive and start excreting adrenaline which inevitably stimulates a cortisol release. These hormones are such potent suppressors of the immune system that they are frequently prescribed for disorders in which the immune system is overactive, such as allergies and autoimmune diseases. This isn’t just talk controlling stress effectively is vital to staying fit and well all year round and it doesn’t stop there. It is a fact that ‘stressed’ people almost encourage a weak immune system by their resulting behaviour. Unhealthy coping strategies such as drink and smoking are often adopted, this coupled with a lack of sleep, exercise and inadequate nutrition poses a severe threat to our own natural defensive system.


This leads us inevitably to the question, what can we do? As previously mentioned it is of paramount importance to keep things in perspective and to save our ‘fight or flight’ response for when it is really needed. What ever has happened has happened and there is really nothing we can do. The past is in the past and that’s where it belongs, not in our present or future. We need to confront our problems head on in a clearly defined rational way. I concede this is much easier said than done but nonetheless it still holds the key to controlling our vast spectrum of hormones, thereby protecting our immune system which in turn helps keep us on the straight and narrow path to continual gains. There has also been a recent emergence in stress-management techniques, such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation to aid in our efforts. These are helpful for some as they provide a constructive way of ‘fighting off’ stress related behaviour. For others a reduction in destructive methods, such as smoking, drink, over/under eating etc is sure to pay dividends.

It probably comes as no surprise that the foods in which we eat can also influence the effectiveness of our immune system. Fats in particular weaken our ability to fight off disease. I am a firm believer that you don’t need a diet rich in unhealthy saturated fats in order to grow. This is confusing weight with muscle, remember the only gains are the ones that are still there after the fat is removed, i.e. the cut-to-cut gains. This also applies to excess consumption of refined sugars and alcohol. Obviously there is a compromise to be reached here as living the life of a competitive bodybuilder 12 months of the year is sure to grind you down and present you with all sorts of other problems. The point here is to be aware of such issues and consider the importance of eating for optimum health. This provides us with a very potent natural approach to boosting our immune function. A great place to start is to increase your consumption of fibrous carbohydrates. Fibre is a wonderful nutrient worthy of an article all on its own, yet it is often perceived to be a space filler and is therefore neglected by the vast majority of athletes/bodybuilders. However fibrous carbohydrates contain many nutrients such as beta-carotene that are proven to help buffer our immune system. There are six groups of fibre and it makes good sense consume some of each variety everyday. These are pectin’s, lignin’s, cellulose’s, gums, mucilage’s and hemicellulos’s. Pectin’s are ideally derived from carrots, gum’s from oatmeal and the cellulose’s from wheat and bran. For the rest rely on green vegetables and mushrooms, shiitake ones in particular. Try and get down some sort of fibre with each meal, I know this sounds a lot but achieving your ultimate goals takes a lot of effort. Remember it is this kind of dedication what sets us apart from the rest of society.

There are of course many supplements touted to strengthen a weakened immune system. These are usually herbs made into supplement form for our benefit. In summary there is not a great deal of evidence backing up these claims but there are a few herbs, notably astragalus, echinacea, ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wart and garlic that do stand out from the rest for promoting resistance against disease and improving blood supply. I would like to make the point that these are by no means essential and that a reduction of saturates, and an increase of fibrous carbohydrates and fluids is in my opinion sufficient. Maybe the inclusion of Vitamin C, Zinc and Selinium can add extra insurance but I wouldn’t like to rely on these alone. One supplement, if you could call it that is well worth trying and is an excellent way to increase your immunity. What am I referring to? The flu jab of course. The flu jab is widely available and protects us from over 90 strains of flu for a full 12 months. Admittedly you do feel a little under the weather for the following 24hours but after that you're flu free for a whole year. Most colds are simply strains of flu and after taking the jab you will also be covered for these as well. The actual jab is free and your doctor should be more than willing to help you if you explain to him/her that you are particularly susceptible and because of this lost a lot of days at work through being ill.

The final aspect of this article I’d like to discuss is the affects of exercise on our immune function. It has to be noted that this is a topic littered with controversy. As previously mentioned exercise in general helps buffer our immune system but how much will help and how much is too much? Most studies that conclude exercise is a potent immune enhancer usually include female subjects doing non strenuous exercise such as walking, they are then tested against another group of females who for the purpose of the study have remained largely sedentary. Results usually reveal that the sedentary group are twice as likely to fall ill with a cold than the exercising subjects. In truth this doesn’t tell us a great deal, especially if we train like ‘animals.’ This approach to exercise places immense stress on our immune system and as a beginner I was forever coming down with colds. This is a Catch-22 situation, we have to train hard to succeed but doing so increases our chances of falling ill which is the last thing we want. This can be likened to the one step forward, one step back principle. All we can do is make every effort to minimise this risk as much as possible through dealing with our stress effectively and eating right. We can also make a concerted effort to make our training short and sharp, to keep well wrapped up, re-hydrated and attain a good 8 hours of sleep daily with an extra 1 hour nap midday if the opportunity presents itself. This I feel would significantly limit the chances of falling ill.

To conclude then this article wishes to stress the important role our immune system plays in our quest for our ultimate goals, whatever they may be. Hopefully I have shed light on some issues worthy of our consideration. Prevention is always better than the cure, this is again worth remembering. It is also worth noting the many variables that affect our ability to fight off disease, the main ones being stress, eating habits and exercise. It is important for us to understand this and learn how to manipulate our defence mechanisms so that we achieve super immunity. This can only be done by taking a holistic approach and assessing our own levels of stress along with our exercise and eating habits. This I feel is the way forward for many athletes as so much more gains can be made with continual good health. We owe it to ourselves as examples for the rest of society to achieve high levels of good health. This is the golden path to success. To make serious improvements to our physiques we need at least 6 months back to back of continual hard training complemented by an effective eating/supplement regime along with plenty of quality rest. Hopefully through this article I have emphasised the importance of a strong resilient immune system and the significant role it plays to make these optimum gains happen. It is on this note that I wish to finish off and wish you all continued good health.

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