There seems to be a big debate over what effect exercise has on the body's ferociously hard working immune system. Some argue that it helps strengthens the immune system, while others will spend hours telling you how damaging it can be.
Unfortunately, the answer isn't always as crystal clear as we might expect it to be. Because in all actuality, both sides are correct. Intense, balls to the wall, full fatigue training, especially while ill or injured, can make it very difficult for the immune system to perform its normal, day-to-day defense duties.
In retrospect, light anaerobic exercise can actually strengthen the body's response to stress and inflammation. In order to better understand what takes place at the body's cellular defense level, it's important to have a brief understanding of the immune system on a functional level. Let's examine.
The Immune System
The immune system is a highly complex system of organs (lymph nodes) and cells (lymphocytes) that works, essentially, by seeking and destroying anything foreign that enters the body. It is so complex, mind you, that it even has its own dedicated system of circulation, the lymphatic vessels.
Lymph nodes are housed strategically throughout the body, and serve as the checkpoint for fluids that carry lymphocytes—cells that patrol the body for potential threats in the form of bacteria, virus and fungi. Without taking things to a level that's far too complicated, let's just say that there are two main classes of lymphocytes:
B-cells reach their full maturity within the body's bone marrow reserves, and produce antibodies that travel throughout the lymphatic vessels and bloodstream. When they encounter a foreign substance, they attach themselves to said invader, marking it for later destruction by another type of immune system lymphocyte—NK cells, or simply natural killer cells.
T-cells are regulatory in function, meaning that they serve as a biological dispatch unit for B-cells. Here's one way to look at it. If a T-cell spots a foreign substance before a B-cell does, it will immediately send a signal to the B-cell, informing it that something needs to be checked out. The B-cell responds by visiting the tissue in question, and marking it for destruction after an instantaneous evaluation.
What are T Cells
T cells are a subset of lymphocytes that play a large role in the immune response. The abbreviation "T" stands for thymus, the organ in which their final stage of development occurs.
In addition, T-cells can create microphages and scavenger cells that scour the body looking for foreign substances in need of a smackdown. Once identifying them, these cellular hitmen reign fury on the threatening cell and all goes back to normal. Keep in mind that this explanation has been drastically simplified, as the immune system is incredibly specialized. It would be effortless to spend hours discussing its core method of operation, detailed functions, affected systems and specialized role in human health.
The Immune System & High Intensity Training
Any athlete who has had a bout with the flu, an infection or other immune challenging stint, will be the first to tell you what a toll it can take on their training. What we fail to realize is that heavy training, all on its own, can do as much short term damage to their immune system as those conditions mentioned above.
Ongoing research has suggested that high-intensity training (exceeding 90% VO Max, or near exhaustion) is generally followed by an immune system crash. Lasting anywhere from 3 to 72 hours depending on the person in question, many experts believe that there are several factors that contribute to this period of vulnerability.
By now, we've all heard stories and seen commercials that center around the stress hormone cortisol. But keep something in mind—high-intensity training is one of most stressful situations the body will ever encounter. Billions of chemical reactions are firing, and hormone levels are all over the place.
Oxygen usage skyrockets, and the massive influx of lactic acid forces the body to pull alkaline reserves from bones and other mineral dense sources. ATP reserves get drained, muscle tissues are ripping and tearing and forcing other systems to respond in the form of repair and energy output.
All of this commotion can send even the most responsive immune system into a to lunatic-inspired frenzy that the immune system has a very difficult time keeping up with.
Scary huh? And to think that this internal madness has been going on every time you train. But rather than throw in the towel or scale things down, I believe that we can take some simple supplemental measures to ensure that our bodies are prepared for, and well-fueled after the onslaught that follows a madman session in the gym. Done properly, and coupled with smart training tactics, these tactics can help keep your immune system from throwing in a towel of its own.
Supplements For A Strong Immune System
As one of the most abundant amino acids in the human body, your glutamine reserves get hit hard during training. Aside from the role it plays in recovery, cell volumization and nitrogen transfer, glutamine is also a very active component in the immune system's response to stress.
Supplementing 5 grams before and after your heaviest workouts can spare the reserves that the body calls on to prevent antigens (foreign invaders) from taking over your system. Some new studies have shown that glutamine levels do not drop significantly during training, however we still need to compensate for the rush of glutathione that is released during exercise-induced stress response. Without a generous reserve, muscles can become catabolic, thus defeating the entire point of training to begin with.
Excess cortisol production can spell disaster for any athlete trying to add strength or fine-tune their physique. From an immune response perspective, producing more cortisol than the body can handle is something that should definitely be taken into consideration. Not only does it interfere with recovery, nitrogen uptake and glucose utilization, it can also lead to an increase of trapped abdominal fat, muscle catabolization, fatigue and memory-related challenges.
PS has been shown in numerous studies to limit the amount of cortisol that is released in response to stress, in addition to other beneficial effects that help support memory, mood and focus. The dosage used in the majority of these studies was 400 mg prior to training.
One of the most grossly overlooked aspects of training in this day and age is pH. When the body's pH level drops below 6.0, be it gradually or suddenly, we unsuspectingly create the perfect scenario for immune system meltdown.
Viruses and other pathogens thrive in acidic conditions, and are weakened by those that are highly oxygenated. During intense training, we eventually cross the barrier from aerobic (with oxygen) to anaerobic (without oxygen).
When this happens, the body responds by robbing other vital systems of their alkaline (acid neutralizing) compounds. So in addition to compensating for all of the acid in your system, you also unknowingly send your immune system into overtime—trying to determine why this is taking place.
Bottom line, you leave yourself wide open to infection, injury and illness. Minerals, such as Coral Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium and Potassium, neutralize acids and can be especially helpful in the hours and days that follow intense training sessions.
We've become mentally conditioned to flood our systems with protein immediately after workouts, and I will be the first in line when it comes to standing behind that statement. Sadly, our inept fascination with protein seems to have overshadowed our ability to recognize the dangers of post workout free radical accumulation.
And in case ya' haven't heard, free radicals are a big no-no for bodybuilders and strength athletes. For this reason, it is of great importance to fuel your post workout system with a good source of antioxidants. Alpha Lipoic acid, Selenium, Vitamin E, CoQ10 and Grapeseed Oil are among the best.
Here's the bottom line. If you're here, reading this, and looking for an edge, you're going to have to face the fact that, at some point, your training will eventually graduate to a level that can take a serious toll on the body. This much, we know. And regardless of how old you are, you're aging. We all are.
So be smart when you train, and always listen to the signals and warning signs that follow your training. If you notice yourself coming down with colds or unusual bouts of fatigue after your heaviest sessions, maybe it's time to start showing your immune system the same respect that you might show your muscular-skeletal system.