If you are about to begin a rigorous training program, or even if you domoderate exercise, there is much you can do to prevent immune suppression and overtraining syndrome from developing. It is common for symptoms such as fatigue and infections to occur within 2 to 3 weeks of starting training. This simplymeans that the body is having difficulty adapting to the new stress caused by training. There are measures you can take to prevent or minimise these symptoms. The old adage “prevention is better than cure” is very true in this instance. Ideally, preventative measures will commence prior to the beginning of training, however if this is not done start as soon as possible. A full health appraisal can be carried out to determine any problem areas such as already depleted immunity, a stressed nervous system, lowered vitality or reduced digestive capacity. Any additional nutritional requirements can be addressed and appropriate herbal medicines may be prescribed. A class of herbal medicines known as ‘adaptogen/tonic’ herbs are ideal for athletes. They increase physical and mental activity and endurance, help the body adapt to stress (e.g. increased physical training) and enhance immunity. There are a number of herbal medicines in this category. I will be able to prescribe those best suited to your needs.
What is overtraining syndrome?
Over-training syndrome is a common condition in athletes, particularly endurance athletes. However fatigue can occur in those undertaking moderate exercise. This is more likely to occur if the diet is not adequate to supply the extra nutritional demands created by exercise. Overtraining syndrome is defined as a failure of the athlete’s performance to progress or be maintained, despite an adequate training program being attempted. Basically, it is the athlete’s failure to adapt to the stress generated by training.
What causes overtraining syndrome?
The different pathways within the body that contribute to the development of over-training syndrome are many and very complex. In this article, for the sake of space and easy understanding, we will use a broad overview.
One of the major factors associated with the development of over-training syndrome is inadequate carbohydrate intake. Athletes who present with over-training syndrome often have a history of training without using a quality carbohydrate source to promote recovery after training. However, eating too much carbohydrate at the expense of protein and fat is a mistake many athletes make. Endurance athletes have a very high demand for protein and getting enough quality protein can be one of their greatest challenges.
With increased physical activity there is an increased demand for nutrients. In many instances, because the training program is so intensive it can be difficult for the appropriate level of nutrients to be obtained from food alone. Some of the most important nutrients to prevent problems in athletes include glutamine, vitamin C, zinc, iron, magnesium, B vitamins, creatine, carnitine and co-enzyme Q10. Among other things adequate amounts of these nutrients are essential for maintaining energy production in the body. They also assist with tissue repair, for example muscle fibres.
What are the symptoms of overtraining syndrome?
Apart from the obvious fatigue and inability to reach training goals, perhaps the most common symptom is immune suppression. This results in the athlete experiencing frequent and recurrent infections. These are often viral (for example repeated colds, flus and herpes) and can be of a chronic or acute nature. These infections further deplete the athlete and in many instances render further training impossible until full rest and recovery are achieved.
Symptoms of nervous system dysfunction (sympathetic and parasympathetic) include high resting heart rate, increased heart rate during training, irritability, poor concentration, lack of motivation, shaking and craving for stimulants such as caffeine products. Gastrointestinal symptoms may also be present. An increase in gastric transit time results in loose or watery stools and decreased absorption of essential nutrients, which further exacerbates the problem.
Many studies demonstrate that athletes are very susceptible to infection after strenuous competition or periods of heavy training.
Unfortunately, immune suppression in athletes is a very common occurrence causing fatigue, loss of training time, and a general sense of feeling unwell. Acute (short, aggressive) infections of the upper or lower respiratory tract are common, however there is usually an underlying chronic (long-term) suppression of the immune system. This chronic immune suppression is often caused by a low-grade viral infection and can be characterised by symptoms that are not obviously related to immune function.
One of the most common underlying viral infections is Epstein Barr virus, which causes glandula fever, although other viruses may be involved. The result of this chronic systemic viral infection is erratic, inconsistent performance, which is not related to rest and recovery. There is often a sensation of feeling hot without a measurable increase in body temperature.
Under normal circumstances the immune system keeps chronic viral infections in check. However, in athletes a number of changes can occur in the immune system that reduces its capacity to provide protection against infectious organisms. This not only renders the athlete susceptible to a flare up of the chronic infection, it also makes him or her much more vulnerable to acute infections such as colds and flus.
What are the changes that occur in the immune system?
It is interesting to note that moderate exercise actually enhances immune activity but this is not the case with intense training. There is much research to demonstrate that the immune system is adversely affected by extreme exercise. The measure of ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ is entirely individual. What is extreme exercise for one person may be only moderate for someone who has an extensive exercise/training program.
Many components of the immune system exhibit adverse changes after prolonged, intense exertion. These changes can last between 3 and 72 hours and it is during this time that the athlete is susceptible to infection. The duration of the transient immune suppression increases with the amount and intensity of training.
It seems that most immune cells can be adversely affected by endurance exercise. These include natural killer cells, macrophages, T-helper cells and immunoglobulins, particularly IgA. Optimal functioning of these cells is required for immune protection. It is probably the reduction of IgA concentrations that render endurance athletes prone to acute respiratory infections. IgA is the first line of defense in the respiratory tract where it inhibits the binding of viruses to the airways, prevents them from entering cells and prevents them from replicating. IgA can be low for up to 18 hours after a 31 km race.
Not only is there a reduction in the numbers of many immune cells, there is also reduced activity of many of these cells. For example a decrease in T-helper cells results in a reduced output of chemicals which activate natural killer cells and other T cells.
As we have already discussed these changes can last for up to 72 hours. Many ‘serious’ athletes train 5 to 6 days per week, therefore there is not time for these changes in the immune system to be normalised before intense training begins again. Without some intervention this increases the risk of continued immune suppression.
Can overtraining syndrome be treated with natural medicines?
The answer is ‘YES’.
Athletes suffering from over-training syndrome or those experiencing even a low level of symptoms can benefit greatly from nutritional and herbal therapies. The needs of each individual are different, therefore it is best to be professionally assessed and to have medicines prescribed by a qualified practitioner rather than self-prescribe. Self-prescription can be a costly option that will usually not provide the best possible outcomes and in many cases give no improvement at all.
Article by Berris Burgoyne ©
I am passionate about helping people improve their health and well-being.
I believe that the human spirit has the potent ability to bring about healing when it is given the necessary support to do so.
This support can be achieved in a number of ways including dietary and lifestyle adjustments and natural medicines.
These address any imbalances, and by adopting healthy habits and attitudes that nourish your spiritual, emotional and physical well-being you can achieve optimal health.