Super Human Resilience
Keen gym goers are often pretty clued up about nutrition and supplementation, at least to some extent. Some of their information may be out-dated or from dubious sources but, for the most part at least, they have a basic understanding of what to do. Protein and carbs are good, fruit and vegetables are good. Take supplements until they come out of your eyes (OK, not that).
But action sports
However, there are a group of people who love nothing more than scaring the shit out of themselves by jumping off of cliffs or buildings, occasionally with a parachute on their back or wearing a wingsuit. Or, perhaps they prefer to climb these structures, sometimes without a harness. These are your adrenalin junkies, the action or extreme sports aficionados who’s live life on the edge. But, if they have such low regard for their safety should they pay attention to their diet?
When it comes to action sports there’s no doubt that it takes a certain level of ruggedness, an unusual attitude, a desire to push one’s limits and often the boundaries of safety.
When I was asked about the subject of immunity by a health conscious coasteering enthusiast I did the usual thing and looked into the research. Guess what? There doesn’t appear to be a great deal out there.
So, if you are into jumping off mountains in wingsuits, white water kayaking, big wave surfing, rock climbing, back country snowboarding or whatever dangerous yet adventurous activity you choose that makes you feel like a superhero, should you be concerned that the extra adrenalin demand in combination with the natural elements is going to compromise your immunity? After-all, there’s no thrills to be sought while you’re laid up in bed with the flu.
The immune system is complex, the adaptive immune system takes a few days to, well adapt… So, in the meantime the innate immune system has to fill the gaps and it’s pretty good at doing so (1).
But, prolonged periods of medium to intense exercise bring about a noticeable reduction in immune function (2) and it’s well documented that athletes often battle with upper respiratory infections.
As I said, the research seems vague (or maybe it’s just my poor research skills) and aside from all the usual, sensible precautions like eating a balanced diet, maintaining fitness and a healthy weight, reducing alcohol intake, getting adequate sleep and all those boring things that we should all be doing anyway, there may not be too much more, certainly from an evidence based standpoint, to counter this (3).
So, unless your skeleton is made from adamantium and you have an unearthly ability to regenerate your body like Wolverine or have skin so tough that bullets bounce off your biceps like Luke Cage you might have to just accept the fact that at some point you’re going to get ill.
"The adaptive immune system takes a few days to, well adapt…".
Recently a lot is being made of antioxidants but the evidence seems to point to the fact that consuming antioxidants, outside of those that you will consume through that nicely balanced whole food diet that you already consume might, in fact, inhibit adaptations to recovery (4). So, eat your greens like Popeye but don’t super compensate, especially immediately post exercise.
The use of probiotics has been shown to hold some weight (5,6) so if you’re trekking through the amazon rainforest or camping in the Chugach mountains of Alaska packing some fermented foods like sauerkraut or miso might be useful and a lot more practical than a bottle of lactobacillus pills.
There is more research going into this area and as recently as last year a paper came out that may have found the use of zinc carnosine and colostrum to be effective in reducing exercise induced intestinal permeability (7). But, as always, more research is needed.
So far it’s not looking too promising is it? The chances of gaining superhuman resilience through dietary intervention might not be difficult. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. I mean, Batman has no superpowers and gets his arse kicked on a regular basis but always manages to bounce back. Granted he has all those wonderful toys but maybe his resilience is more down to his mental strength?
If you’re out in the elements and your activity levels are high, say you’re hiking in the backcountry Alps to find some ‘freshies’ to shred are you really going to be able to eat the amount of food required? Anyone who has ever taken part in a cycle tour or an ultra-endurance event will tell you, achieving energy balance is a big challenge but is that really a problem?
However, we have seen how intermittent fasting and caloric restriction can attenuate pro-inflammatory cytokines in rats, was this the method that mighty mouse used to become so awesome? Probably not… But, thanks to the Muslim community there is considerable human data on fasting populations and it does appear that the body adapts quite well to being in the fasted state and we often see a reduction in inflammatory markers during this time (8,9).
But what does all this mean to the hardened adventurer? From what my research has thrown up I would suggest that eating a balanced, mostly whole food diet and dialling in all the other basics like energy balance, hydration and sleep will be enough to create a robust environment within your own body in the days leading up to your adventure. So long as you have consumed enough energy to be able to perform it probably won’t matter if you skip lunch that day. The fact that you consider placing yourself into immediate danger by throwing yourself off mountains or being towed into waves big enough to swallow a small village means that you already have the level of mental strength to ensure that resilience is as second nature to you as it is to Bruce Wayne. Even if you don’t have Luke Cage’s unbreakable skin or Wolverine’s ability to regenerate.
One more thing that’s just a personal observation. Adrenalin junkies tend to have lots of nervous energy and it might be that they have a personality type that means they struggle to relax. If this sounds familiar to you then I would strongly advise you to create a meditation practice to help you slow down your mind. What are you running from anyway? Not only will this calm you down a bit, the deep breathing can have some profound benefits on calming your central nervous system and sensing any disruptions in the force. There’s an old saying I like “deep breathing alone has made many a sick man well and many a weak man strong.” An app like headspace should do the trick.
- Aim for energy balance
- Eat a good balance of macronutrients
- Eat a wide variety of vegetables
- Consume some probiotic foods
- Get plenty of sleep
- Chill the F*** out
- Janeway CA Jr, Travers P, Walport M, et al. Immunobiology: The Immune System in Health and Disease. 5th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2001. Principles of innate and adaptive immunity http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27090/
- Gleeson M. Immune function in sport and exercise. J Appl Physiol 103: 693–699, 2007. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00008.2007
- Lamprecht M, editor. Antioxidants in Sport Nutrition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2015.
- West et al. Lactobacillus fermentum (PCC®) supplementation and gastrointestinal and respiratory-tract illness symptoms: a randomised control trial in athletes. Nutrition Journal 2011, 10:30 http://www.nutritionj.com/content/10/1/30
- Lamprecht et al. Probiotic supplementation affects markers of intestinal barrier, oxidation, and inflammation in trained men; a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2012, 9:45 http://www.jissn.com/content/9/1/45
- Beneficial effects of intermittent fasting and caloric restriction on the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems. Mattson, Mark P. et al. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry , Volume 16 , Issue 3 , 129 – 137
- Intermittent fasting during Ramadan attenuates proinflammatory cytokines and immune cells in healthy subjects Faris, “Mo'ez Al-Islam” E. et al. Nutrition Research , Volume 32 , Issue 12 , 947 - 955