As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. Consult your physician before implementing any of these topics. We are not your physician. If your physician disagrees with any of the clinically-researched concepts discussed, consider getting a second opinion.
While it’s certainly fun to entertain the idea that some rare witchcraft-like therapy will immediately transform your body’s immune system from suboptimal to elite, the areas with the greatest return on investment don’t require anything except a little time and dedication. The secret sauce is not always the sexiest. In the case of immunity (and pretty much anything relevant to performance), I’d argue that sleep, diet, and exercise are activities that require some of the least long-term compromise and get you the vast majority of long-term gains. Whether you’re a competitive athlete or working professional, compounding your mental, physical, or spiritual results typically requires consistent time at task. Maintaining proper immune function enables consistency in this regard.
So what are a few proven steps you can take that will support your journey towards peak performance? First, let’s explore what makes up the immune system.
The immune system can generally be divided into two categories, innate and adaptive. The innate immune response works exactly like the name implies: it is an always-ready, nonspecific defense system that can immediately protect your body from a foreign invader (aka antigens). Beyond the physical barriers in your body (i.e. skin), the innate immune response is characterized by immune cells that are activated by the general chemistry of the ‘invader’. The second category is the adaptive immune response. This type of immunity has high specificity to antigens and is characterized by an immune ‘memory’. After the immune system creates specific antibodies to antigens, it can efficiently respond to similar invaders the next time.
Now, a few of our researched techniques for optimized immunity:Exercise. Exercise stimulates cells in the innate immune response. Specifically, moderate+ daily exercise increases the number of lymphocytes, natural killer cells, and more. If someone mentions that high-intensity exercise suppresses the immune system, they are simply operating off of old and/or incomplete data. Recent research has suggested that any increase in infection rates among elite athletes (who undergo frequent high-intensity training) is accounted for in other areas of competitive arenas: travel, lack of sleep, etc. In extreme cases, frequent 3hr+ high-intensity exercise has transiently (i.e. temporarily) decreased activity of some immune cells. If you’re training that much, recover harder. If you’re looking for some new recovery tips, keep reading or look here, here, here, here, and here.
- What are some steps you can take? Moderate+ exercise is different for every athlete. If you haven’t been tackling your daily exercise, going for a solid walk or doing calisthenics for 30 minutes can get you started. If you’ve been training consistently, continuing your work will keep your immune system strong for the long-run. The minimum recommended volume is 150 minutes/week, but more is better. Obesity has been shown to impair the immune system and creates a chronically-inflamed state. Increase your basal metabolic rate by increasing your lean muscle mass or build out your work-capacity with more time spent in higher heart-rate zones.
Sleep. We’ve discussed the radical performance-enhancing benefits of sleep in recent articles. How does sleep impact your immune system specifically? Proper sleep helps restock the defenses of your innate and adaptive immune responses. Inadequate sleep wreaks havoc on the same processes. In lab settings, researchers showed that infection rates for individuals sleeping <5 hours/night was almost 50%. For individuals sleeping over 7 hours/night, the same measure dropped to a rate of 18%. Note: Researchers have also found differences in how sleep impacts the effectiveness of vaccines. In one study, individuals who slept between 7 and 9 hours had a robust antibody response (adaptive immunity was ‘trained’). For individuals who slept four hours, the immune response was cut in half. If you’re considering a vaccination sometime soon, sleep ahead of time. When comparing 4-hour-nights to sleeping a full 8-hours, other researchers saw a 70% reduction in natural killer cells (key members of your body’s innate immune response) after one night of lost sleep.
- What are some steps you can take? We’ve already put together a toolkit for your success on the sleep front. On a basic level, sleep more than 7 hours at a minimum and shoot for 9+. Make use of naps. If you’re not getting a full night of sleep, you can get another cycle during the day with a 90 minute nap. Maximize your rest with professional sleep hygiene: use red lights, drop the temperature, have a dark bedroom, remove electronics, maintain a sexy sleeping environment (nothing but the two), unwind before bed with a book or breath exercise (more below).
Diet. “Diet” encompasses perhaps the widest range of subcategories. As far as food choices are concerned, aim for a nutrient-rich diet (lots of vegetables, some fruits, grass-fed meats, and seafood are good guiding principles but adapt where necessary). Inflammation is largely the culprit for compromised immunity through dietary choices.
- What are some steps you can take? Eliminate inflammatory foods like refined carbohydrates (sugar/grains), excessive alcohol, and trans fats (run from the words ‘hydrogenated oil’. Aim for more anti-inflammatory foods like those high in omega-3s, micronutrient-dense vegetables and fruits, and anything that some might consider “one-ingredient” products (zero processing).Some micronutrients you should pay attention to (and this is where supplementing can step in to support): Vitamin C, vitamin D3 (more below), zinc, iron, L-glutamine (more below), vitamin A, and vitamin B6.
Vitamin D3. This “super hormone” deserves its own bullet point because of the impressive research backing its role in immune health. We have an entire article on it here. “Deficient levels of vitamin D have been shown to increase susceptibility to infection and are associated with increased autoimmunity. Vitamin D has been used to treat infections throughout history (as seen with tuberculosis patients prescribed sunlight and cod liver oil), but recent studies have highlighted the significance of vitamin D and protection against infection. When using vitamin D in a double blind placebo controlled study to evaluate influenza susceptibility, researchers found vitamin D groups were 42% less likely to develop flu.”
- What are some steps you can take? You should be aware of how much time you spend outside, what time of day you go outside, how many high-vitamin D2/vitamin D3 foods you consume, your body fat percentage (vitamin D is fat-soluble and high body fat will decrease available levels), and how tan you are. A standard recommendation for ensuring you don’t become deficient in serum vitamin D levels is 15-25 minutes of direct midday sunlight across as much surface area as possible. Supplementation with vitamin D3 is regarded as a strong and safe way to ensure you are at sufficient levels and in the optimal window of 40-60ng/ml. Aiming for between 1,000 and 4,000 IUs of vitamin D3 will allow you to raise serum levels of vitamin D, though you should consult with your healthcare provider to see how your lifestyle habits shape your current levels; it’s as easy as a standard blood test. Take our Stack for third-party tested, Informed Sport Certified vitamin D3.
L-Glutamine. Like vitamin D3, this is another crucial micronutrient (particularly for competitive athletes with rigorous training). Given its prevalence in the body, L-glutamine is considered conditionally essential, meaning the average person with limited exercise can get enough from diet alone. In people who exercise more frequently and at a higher intensity, L-glutamine levels are often insufficient from diet alone. For these individuals, L-glutamine supplementation becomes necessary. For athletes of this class, further studies have shown that L-glutamine supplementation promotes muscle tissue repair, faster recovery of peak force, and improved immune function after heavy training episodes.
- What are some steps you can take? Studies that demonstrated statistically significant benefits used 10 g of L-glutamine. We created our Stack because 1) everything else had ingredients we didn’t want, such as high-glycemic pro-inflammatory compounds (i.e. highly processed maltodextrin, GI: 105), and 2) because no other Stack included the clinically tested dose or 3) was third-party tested for banned-substances, metals, or any contaminants. If you’re only wanting L-glutamine and not any of our other 5 core ingredients, look for brands that are third-party tested by Informed Sport or NSF for Sport.
Breathing/meditation. Chronic stress can derail your immune system. Stress is characterized by an overactive sympathetic nervous system (part of your autonomic nervous system). We have a few articles on some tips and tricks that have worked for us in our competitive, academic, and professional lifestyles. In studies, Wim Hof has shown that his variation of the Tummo breathing technique can trigger an immune response to neurotoxins. We defer any description of his method to his website.
- What are some steps you can take? Resonant breathing, alternate nostril breathing, Buteyko breathing, and Wim Hof breathing are favorites. The main goal is to take your autonomic nervous system from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state. A calm nervous system enables restorative processes and the restocking of your immune system. It takes practice, so make it part of your daily routines.
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