Special Forces At Work To Protect Athletes From Invasion

Dr Forrest Baker

November 16, 2016


Winter is here and with that comes the start of multiple sports seasons. Athletes are looking to do all they can to boost the numbers in the win column. This desire to win is crucial but can also cause athletes to neglect the biological warning signs of an impeding injury. Training staff and athletes work to prevent injuries over the course of the season, but a different, just as debilitating type of injury is often overlooked: illness. 

The immune system is the body’s defense mechanism against invading pathogens (i.e. an infection). It’s a bit like a carefully choreographed war. If a pathogen enters the body, an immune response kicks in to eliminate the threat. It has been proven that, during exercise, the immune system receives a temporary boost by moving more immune cells into the blood. This allows for better surveillance of invaders and a quicker response in the event that a pathogen is detected. We even see evidence that people who exercise regularly maintain a more effective immune system and stronger immune response. Yet, despite being some of the most active people in the world, we still see athletes succumb to illness. 

This phenomenon can be explained by the “open window concept”, where the temporary boost of immunity we see during exercise is removed immediately after a workout. This leaves the athlete immunosuppressed or prone to becoming sick for up to 72 hours after an exercise session. This window occurs because immune cells recruited in the event of an invading pathogen have been trafficked to other parts of the body. 

Making matters worse, professional athletes receive few days off during a season, which combined with intense travel schedules, results in little time and resources for the immune system to recover. Athletes who start each training session in an immunosuppressed state create a larger “open window” with each subsequent exercise session. When an athlete repeats this cycle throughout the season, they risk becoming immunocompromised, meaning their immune system is less responsive and their body is more susceptible to illness. By the end of the season and after heavy periods of training, competition, and travel, their immune function can be at rock bottom, making it difficult to avoid illness. 

The immune system is very complex and adapts constantly, but luckily for us, maintaining immune health is not as complex. There are a few simple things everyone can do to ensure their immune system is functioning effectively: 

1. Make sure to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables each day. Fruit and vegetables have been shown to boost aspects of the immune system that act as the first line of defense to invading pathogens. 

2. Ensure adequate sleep and periods of rest. Athletes should aim to sleep more than 7 hours a night to ensure their immune system recovers before the next training session. 

3. Everyone should be aware of their vitamin-D levels as deficiency has been associated with detrimental effects to the immune system. One simple way to increase vitamin D is by enjoying time outdoors as our bodies convert UV rays from sunlight to vitamin D (1). 

4. Hygiene – personal discipline with hand washing goes a long way to defending against bugs. The same goes for keeping equipment and facilities clean. 

For athletes, following these simple rules and being proactive about immune health could be the difference between being ‘Ready to Perform’ and scoring the game winning goal or being benched with the flu. 

Orreco is invested in immunology research through our partners at the NASA funded Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Houston. Orreco provides advanced immunology biomarkers and immune protection strategies to elite athletes. 

Forrest Baker is an Orreco funded doctoral researcher at the University of Houston who is studying effects of exercise on immune function in astronauts, elite athletes, and cancer patients.  

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