Q&A: Supporting the immune system

13 May 2020

Q&A: Supporting the immune system

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The most common illness in athletes is upper respiratory tract infections, which is an umbrella term for bacterial and viral infections (such as COVID-19).

A vigilant approach to hygiene is key, but whether you’re preparing to ride a Grand Tour, commuting to work or simply staying as fit and healthy as possible, there are also ways our nutrition can help benefit our immune system.

We spoke with Team INEOS’ Lead Performance Nutritionist, Javier Gonzalez, to find out more.

Hi Javier. Even before we eat, as a first step it’s crucial to make sure we’re doing everything we can to minimise the risk of infection.
 
As a team we’ve had processes in place for a long time around hygiene. It’s always been central to how we work and making sure everyone is compliant with these processes is really important, especially as we move into this next phase of training outside. For the general public the same principles apply. Making sure you wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water or alcohol hand gel, making sure you’ve got clean cutlery and you’re not sharing drinks bottles or glasses. These kind of things will reduce your risk of getting any kind of infection, including COVID-19.
 
We work closely with our chefs, and also consider the environment where the food is served. Going forward, where and how we eat is something we’re thinking about a lot as we prepare to return to racing. It’s just about trying to limit exposure.
 
Obviously everything is heightened at the moment due to the spread of coronavirus. It’s worth just setting out that this information isn’t specifically applicable to COVID-19.

From a nutritional perspective, there’s currently no direct evidence that any nutrition affects COVID-19 specifically. Nethertheless, in some areas it’s reasonable to assume, based on what we know about physiology, that the right diet could provide some benefit, and it’s unlikely to cause any harm.

It’s not a surprise that fruit and vegetables are going to be key. But can you explain how they help our immune system?
 
We know that eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is important for general health and the immune system. As a bit of a guide we say, try to “eat the rainbow”, as that variety in colour is a marker of healthful plant nutrient intake. These are compounds in foods which support health.

The two broad areas of fruit and vegetables that we think are helpful are their vitamin content, which we’ve known for a very long time. If you’re deficient in certain vitamins then aspects of your health are impaired, including your immune system. More recently we’ve been aware of the other compounds or chemicals within fruit and vegetables that have health benefits. Phytonutrients, including polyphenols, are the chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their colour. For example, beta-carotene is a nutrient that gives carrots their orange colour.
 
Can you explain how probiotics and prebiotics work?
 
We can supplement our diet with “good bacteria” known as probiotics, or by consuming food which “feed” these bacteria, known as prebiotics. What we’re doing when we take a probiotic is taking a specific strain of bacteria and trying to introduce that into our gut. Prebiotics are food for that good bacteria. Both of them are ultimately trying to achieve the goal of getting more good bacteria in your gut. That’s beneficial for our immune function in a number of ways. One of them is simply the idea of substitution. If you’ve got more “good" bacteria in your gut, they essentially take the place of the “bad" bacteria. In that way they reduce your risk of infection as you’ve got fewer bad bacteria in your gut that can produce an infection. The other way is through an interaction with our immune system. So when we’ve got more good bacteria in our gut, our whole immune system is enhanced as well.

You can get prebiotics from onions, garlic and those type of vegetables. You can also get some probiotics from fermented foods. Things like live yoghurt, and kefir (fermented probiotic milk drink) is also a popular one. They have some of the strains of bacteria in there that are beneficial.
 
We’ve already talked about the importance of protein in terms of maintaining muscle mass. Does it also play a role for our immune system?
 
Yes, protein is thought to support the immune system – especially in athletes who are training hard. Essentially a diet higher in protein supports the immune system, especially during training. It’s thought to be partly because the amino acids, those building blocks of protein, are a key fuel that is used by our immune cells. If we don’t have enough of those available it can compromise our immune function.
 
What about supplements?
 
Some nutritional supplements have been shown to reduce the duration and/or severity of upper respiratory tract infections. In the team we benefit greatly from working with Science in Sport as they have a comprehensive range of supplements. It’s important to consume these correctly in terms of the recommended daily amount. For an adult, these include Vitamin C (1000 mg as 2 x 500mg per day), Zinc lozenges (30 mg/day dissolve the lozenge in the mouth), and Omega-3 fish oils (1000 mg/d).

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