Pump Up the Immune System for School and Competition

Fight off those Bugs with Good Nutrition

(By Carol Lapin, MS, RD, LD)


Back to school and fall athletic training means more exposure to colds, flu, and infections. The weaker your immune system, the more susceptible you are to illness.  Most folks would expect the athlete to be so well conditioned that he or she would be less likely than most to get sick; however, strenuous/intense or long-duration exercise puts added stress on the immune system. If proper nutrition is not there to lend support, athletes will be more susceptible to the microbial invaders surrounding us.

Like the student athlete, a number of Houstonians (myself included) are also training. Our event is a local Tough Mudder competition in October.  Intense exercise can suppress the immune system and leave the athlete open to pathogens, especially viruses that lead to infections.

Here are some ways to help make sure your body is able to put up its best defense against those game stopping viruses and bacteria:

  • Make sure you are getting enough calories to support the energy you burn. There needs to be the correct balance of the energy nutrients proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
  • Make sure you are staying hydrated. See my article on hydration.
  • Get adequate rest at night and ensure appropriate recovery between strenuous workouts.
  • Before, during and after long strenuous bouts of exercise, consume fluid replacement drinks that contain both carbohydrates and electrolytes.
  • Do not get overheated. Make sure cold fluids are available if the weather is still warm to help keep you from getting overheated.
  • Once the cold weather hits, dress in layers that you can remove as soon as you start to sweat and then put back on as needed.

Emphasize Food not Pills to Support Your Immune System.

Table showing major foods providing substances that regulate the immune system:


Amino Acids:

Glutamine             meat, fish, legumes, dairy, raw               cabbage and beets

Arginine                nuts, legumes, fish, eggs, whole grains

Fatty acids: 
 n-3 PUFAs            EPA & DHA sources: Herring, Salmon, Sardines, farmed
Rainbow Trout, fresh Tuna, Mackerel, Pacific, Oysters.
LNA sources: walnuts, flaxseed, and Canola oil
Vitamins and Minerals
 Vitamin A             apricots, peaches, cantaloupes and watermelons,
carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, greens, pumpkin
 Vitamin C             sweet red pepper, oranges, papaya, orange, grapefruit
and pineapple juice, broccoli, hot green chili pepper
 Vitamin D             fortified cow’s milk, egg, Chinook Salmon, shrimp
Herring, Trout, Yellow Fin Tuna, Cod, Mackeral

Vitamin E              Sunflower seeds, almonds, olives, mustard greens,

                             Swiss chard, spinach, papaya, collard greens, Kale

Selenium             calf’s liver, Snapper, Halibut, Cod, Yellowfin tuna,
                            Chinook  Salmon, Crimini mushrooms, Shrimp, eggs
  Zinc                   calf’s liver, beef, lamb, venison, Crimini mushrooms,
spinach, asparagus, Swiss chard
   Iron                    heme sources: beef liver, canned sardines, shrimp,
pork roast, lean beef, dark meat turkey, chicken
non-heme: thyme, spinach, Swiss chard, Romaine
Lactobacillus Paracasei    Found in commercial products like: Yakult Milk ,
Lactobacillus Salivarius   yogurts, Kefir (fermented dairy product)

The Best Strategy for Immune Health

The best nutritional strategy for promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to wisely choose a wide variety of nutrient dense foods. Many discoveries for constituents in foods are being newly investigated (over 3000 phytochemicals have been documented) with many more discoveries left to be made. The synergistic effect of all the components in food makes it difficult to isolate micronutrients and other substances in food for desirable health consequences. This is why you need to depend on whole food rather than supplements for your good health.

Your student athlete or “tough training competitor” needs a nutrient dense healthy lunch during the day, as well as some healthy snacks.   Make sure that lunch contains protein, some of the colorful nutrient rich produce sources in the table above, some healthy oils and a dairy source along with a couple of hardy snacks, especially if he or she is staying late after school.  See my other blog article on lunch and snack ideas to help your whole family enjoy a healthy immune system all school year and athletic season.




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