by Robert Yang T-Nation
I'll let you in on a little secret: A little piece of my soul dies every time I hear someone say, "The "cold and flu season is here."
Think about it. Does the influenza virus read the calendar and say, "Hey, it's December, we better start infecting people!" Of course not.
Truth is, we're constantly being attacked by pathogens – it's the environment that we create for our body that changes. We seem to enter a cold and flu "season" because we're stressed out, eating like pigs, and drinking like fish!
Despite calls for holiday cheer, the holidays can be stressful. We're traveling far distances to see family and friends and the travels are far from pleasant. We're stuck on the freeway or in commuter trains, or camped out in airport terminals because our connection from Cedar Rapids was delayed.
Once boarded, if you're really lucky, someone who could be a contestant on The Biggest Loser squirms in beside you and starts hacking up a year's worth of phlegm into a greasy hankie. Your patience throughout this experience is finally rewarded when you arrive at your destination, where you'll get to spend the next seven days arguing politics with your in-laws and sleeping on a leaky air mattress.
It doesn't help that during these times of stress we get bombarded by gluttonous feasts loaded with sugar and alcohol. Studies have shown that sugar may depress the immune system for up to five hours, while booze can depress the regenerative hormone human growth hormone (HGH) at night during sleep.
The point is, it's not the flu season! We're putting ourselves in an environment that's conducive for a virus or bacteria to take hold and cause us to get sick!
The Immune System is Your Friend
Everyone knows the immune system is the key to preventing sickness, but the relationship between stress and the immune system isn't often considered.
Back in Paleolithic times, if you came upon a bear, you'd enter a state of "fight or flight." The body quickly released the stress hormone cortisol in preparation for the impending attack, as well as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which mobilize glucose to be dumped into the bloodstream.
As the Paleolithic era was decidedly simpler, the sudden stress was quickly resolved in one of three ways:
You killed the bear
You evaded the bear
You became lunch
Since the stress is gone, cortisol levels soon drop back to normal levels. The bear encounter is an example of an acute stress and the body is well equipped to handle it.
Today, however, stress comes in many forms and can last for weeks or months. It can be your job that you hate, going through a divorce, sitting in daily traffic, or your two-a-day workouts. It doesn't matter what the stress is, the body's response is the same – but unlike bear attacks, which last just a few moments, the body is not designed to handle prolonged stress.
Prolonged stress leads to chronically high cortisol levels. If cortisol is high for an extended period, secretory immunoglobulin A (SIgA) will start to decrease. SIgA is a major antibody in the mucosa cells that protects you from pathogens. It's also a reliable index of immune activity. As SIgA levels drop, the immune system defenses start to shut down and you're in an immune-depressed state.
Think of the old school video game Pac Man. In the immune system, the body's macrophages are like Pac Man and bacteria and viruses are like the ghosts. When your immune system is depressed, Pac Man gets overwhelmed and the ghost takes over and creates havoc in the body – then it's game over! So what can we do to prevent this?
An Ounce Of Prevention
We all know that prehab is critical for longevity in the gym. If you're injured, you can't train. If you can't train, you can't make progress, which means your muscle-gaining efforts are halted or worse – you start losing hard earned muscle mass.
It's the same situation with being sick. If you're sick, you can't train and make progress.
The most powerful tool that you have to keep the immune system running high is sleep. You should be spending a third of your life sleeping! If you're training hard and not sleeping, you're cutting off your body's ability to recover and regenerate at the knees.
Research shows us that lack of sleep compromises the immune system, thus leaving your guard down and predisposing you to sickness. Don't underestimate this powerful tool.
These are some guidelines for deep restful sleep:
Dim the lights. Exposure to bright lights releases cortisol at night, which stimulates you and prevents melatonin from being released.
Say no to surfing. Today's computer screens and smart phones are brighter than flashlights! Dimming the lights means all artificial light.
De-stress before you rest. Chamomile tea or a warm Epsom salt bath is a great way to wind down and set-up a restful sleep.
Take calming agents like ZMA® before you sleep. Zinc and magnesium are extremely important minerals and can greatly improve length and quality of sleep.
Editor's note: and if none of the above work, score yourself some non-addictive Z-12™ and sleep like a water bed full of the proverbial sleeping babies.
What To Do When Sick?
Let's say you've been training for eight solid weeks and it's been going well, but during the last four weeks a lot of other stuff has been going on. An important project is due at work so sleep has been sparse. Holiday parties have popped up and you've been eating more sugar than usual and indulging in a few extra drinks. And to top it off, you've been hanging around your sister's kids who always seem to have green snot on their faces.
This morning you woke up with a sore throat, runny nose, and body aches that seem like you went five rounds with Tito Ortiz the night before. You're sick – but should you take time away from the gym?
It depends on the severity of your condition. Sometimes exercise can be "just what the doctor ordered," but you also run the risk of slipping even further into a catabolic state and losing precious strength and muscle mass.
A good rule of thumb is if you have body aches, fever, and an overall feeling like the Grim Reaper is waiting for you to check out, then listen to your body and opt out of training that day.
If you just have a runny nose or sore throat but have decent energy overall then you can hit the gym, but use the following to support the immune system and decrease sick time.
You need to support the body and give it what it needs to reduce recovery time and get back into the gym. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is very important for the immune system. It's best to take ascorbic acid every three hours when sick because blood levels peak in 2-3 hours.
Due to biochemical individuality, the amount of ascorbic acid to take will vary from person to person, especially during sickness. I discovered this while battling a wicked cold 7-8 years ago. I normally take two grams per day as a maintenance dose, but after reading the works of Robert Cathcart, M.D, I decided to play guinea pig and find my individual dose by titrating to bowel tolerance.
I started taking three grams every 2-3 hours. The next day I felt better and had no symptoms of loose stool, so I upped the dose. I eventually reached 25 grams per day – I was afraid I was going to explode – but nothing happened. I stayed at this dose for several days and my cold symptoms completely disappeared.
Unfortunately, after I got better I failed to reduce my dose fast enough and two days later, well, let's just say my explosive fears were suddenly realized.
If you start to feel a sore throat, excessive mucous, or overall run-down feeling, try loading up on vitamin C until loose bowel movements or excessive gas occur. Trust me, you'll know.
We all know how important glutamine is for muscle growth and recovery, but glutamine is also essential for immune function. It's considered a "conditionally essential" amino acid. In my opinion, it should be one of the essential amino acids.
I stated looking into glutamine back in 1995, and the first paper I found was about burn patients and the immune system. Burn patients have no skin and therefore no barrier from bacteria so they have extremely high rates of infection. In this study, doctors were experimenting with high amounts of glutamine to upregulate patients' immune systems, as research shows that lymphocytes, macrophages, and neutrophils – all defenders of the immune system – use extremely high amounts of glutamine as an energy source.
Think about the last time you were sick. You likely didn't have much of an appetite, especially for protein, which seemed weird – one day you're a ravenous carnivore, the next day a picky vegetarian. This is a sign your gastrointestinal tract (GI) has been compromised.
The thing is, the digestive system is critical for the immune system to be strong as the GI tract uses a tremendous amount of glutamine to feed the mucosal cells. In fact, the GI tract will rob your muscles of glutamine to feed the stomach cells!
So if you're under the weather and experiencing GI symptoms, start upping your glutamine intake. Take 20 grams for every 50 pounds (23 kg) of bodyweight. Make sure a dose is taken upon rising, mid day, and before bed. The dose before bed is important because the immune system is very active at night during sleep.
Vitamin D deficiency is a global epidemic. Through testing, I can confirm that 80% of my clients show up with a vitamin D deficiency, which is disturbing as poor vitamin D status is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and many other chronic conditions.
Vitamin D is also very important for the immune system. It's been shown to have an immune supportive role, anti-inflammatory actions, and anti-microbial effects.
Most people are low because they lack exposure to sunlight, often out of fear of developing skin cancer. This is a false assumption, as I believe a lack of sun actually creates malignant melanoma. In fact, Edward Gorham's research has shown that UVB rays protect us from malignant melanoma.
Those that do venture into the sun are often still vitamin D deficient because they lather on the sunscreen. Sorry folks, sunscreen blocks out the beneficial UVB rays that permit vitamin D production in the body.
For every minute you're in the sun between the hours of 10 AM-2 PM, your body produces 1000 IU of vitamin D. So 20 minutes in the sun at these times will get you 20,000 IU's. This is doable if you live in a hospitable clime and walk around shirtless for a living, but what are less fortunate folk to do?
It's important to know your vitamin D levels first. A simple test can be run by your doctor, or you can test it in the privacy of your home with a blood prick test kit.
Optimal levels of 25(OH) D (the storage of Vitamin D) is thought to be 40-60 ng/ml, although I'd opt for the higher range of 60 ng/ml. Most will need to take in 5000 IU per day to obtain that level of vitamin D, and avid exercisers should shoot for a maintenance dose of 10,000 IU, says James Cannell M.D, of the vitamin D council. I believe this should be a maintenance dose for everyone.
Getting back to sickness, when ill I've gone upwards of 500 IU of vitamin D per pound of bodyweight. Considering I weigh 180 pounds, that's 90,000 IU per day – but only for 3-5 days at most!
Admittedly, it's an aggressive approach, but one I've used many times with clients that have been sick for weeks at a time, even with antibiotic therapy. They continued to be sick until they started taking high doses of vitamin D.
When dealing with sickness, I use every avenue I can to get better ASAP. I love to lift and will do anything to get back to the gym. This next method may be unorthodox and may not have enough hardcore research for some, but all I can say is that it works. I've used this on my family and myself, with great success.
I first heard about using hydrogen peroxide to combat sickness from Dr. Joseph Mercola. He published an article referring to a doctor unfortunately named Richard Simmons, who hypothesized that hydrogen peroxide in the ears will kill the cold virus. This works best if used early on, when signs and symptoms of a cold first appear.
I use this a lot because I'm a surfer. When in the ocean I'm getting a nice sinus and ear flush, but when it rains the water quality becomes quite suspect. Let's just say I've seen some logs floating around occasionally and I'm not talking about the wood variety.
Buy 3% hydrogen peroxide and fill up a dropper bottle. Lie on your side and administer a full dropper into your ear. You'll feel one of two sensations, either a popping or cracking or nothing at all. Just know that the cracking or popping is a sign that a viral massacre is taking place. Remain on your side for 5-10 minutes or until the popping and cracking ceases. Do the other side, then drain.
Prevention is the key when it comes to staying healthy this holiday season. Visiting with family and friends is what life's all about, but too much holiday stress can create the perfect storm for sickness and fatigue.
Sickness sucks, but the last time I checked there wasn't a "colds and flu" season marked on the calendar. Take these steps and say good riddance to your Christmas cold.
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