The A to Z of Effective & Less Effective Immuno-Nutrients to Prevent and Combat Respiratory Tract & Other Infections

Teddy bears are like vitamin C and zinc. They can help you when you are already sick, but what are supplements athletes and gymrats take in advance to survive the flu season without getting sick at all?
Specifically during the winter time, hard working athlete and manic gymrats can be particularly susceptible to all sorts of infections. To help you having to work out with a handkerchief in your hand all winter long, I have compiled a non-comprehensive list of supplements that may help you to maintain and even improve your immune defenses and thus to survive the cold and dark winter times without catching a cold or even the flu.

In their recent review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition Vinicius Fernandes Cruzat, Maurício Krause and Philip Newsholme reviewed the extensive literature on nutritional supplements that act as immuno-nutrients, may to reduce immunosuppression and excessive inflammation in hard-training athletes and gymrats like yourself (or yourself in 2015 ;-)
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In said paper, the researchers from the CHIRI Biosciences Research Precinct at the Curtin University in Perth and the Laboratory of Cellular Physiology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre focus what they call the "key immuno-nutrients" L-glutamine, L-arginine, branched chain amino acids (BCAA) and whey protein. Now this would not be the SuppVersity if I didn't go beyond this list and added a few more or less promising extra supplements to the list. Before we get to any of those extras, let's briefly recap what Cruzat et al. (2014) found:
"Although a balanced diet with high quality and sufficient quantity of nutrients is essential, there is growing evidence that some non-synthetic supplements can assist optimal nutrition. In fact, the use of nutritional supplements especially the provision of amino acids, has grown year-on-year. [...]

The use of proteins and amino acids for supplementation deserves special attention, since these molecules are critical for anti-oxidant and fuel provision, participating in the whole-body energy homeostasis, growth, development, recovery and immune responses.
As Cruzat et al. point out, the key targets for immunonutrition may include provision of key metabolites for immune cells per se. In other words: Immuno-nutrients feed the immune system and don't suppress but optimize the multi-layered immunte response consisting of
  • the inflammatory response and cytokine release, 
  • the production of chaperone proteins such as the heat shock proteins (HSPs), 
  • changes in the redox balance (including glutathione, GSH metabolism), and 
  • the protection of skeletal muscle mass (see Figure 1). 
Thus your reasons to consume immuno-nutrients go well beyond warding off the common cold and encompass (a) performance improvements, (b) the general strengthening of the immune system and (c) the shortening of the exercise recovery period (Nieper. 2005).
Figure 1: Biphasic immuno-inflammatory response to severe exercise and the possible immunonutrition role. Immuno-inflammatory response induced by severe exercise or heavy periods of training and the proposed role of specific nutrients with immune benefits, also called immunonutrition (Cruzat. 2014).
In that, the most widely used supplements are vitamins and minerals. Reliable evidence for their immuno-protective effects, however is scarce and the results are ambigious:
  • Vitamin C: South African ultramarathon runners did demonstrate that vitamin C (but not E or beta-carotene) supplementation (about 600 mg day7 1 for 3 weeks) was related to fewer reports of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) symptoms (Peters 1983, 1990, 1993, 1996; Peters-Futre, 1997).

    Classic ROS-scavengers like vitamin C are not just ineffective, when it comes to countering the increased susceptibility to infection they have also been shown to hamper the adaptational response to exercise | read more.
    These beneficial effects have yet not been replicated by other research teams. Himmelstein, Robergs, Koehler, Lewis and Qualls (1998), for example, reported no alteration in URTI incidence among 44 marathon runners and 48 sedentary individuals randomly assigned to a 2 month regimen of 1000 mg /day of vitamin C or placebo. And in view of the fact that most randomized, placebo-controlled studies have been unable to demonstrate that vitamin C supplements modulate immune responses following heavy exertion (Nieman et al., 1997b, 2002b; Nieman, Peters, Henson, Nevines, & Thompson, 2000b), it should be clear that vitamin C must not be counted among the highly effective immune nutrients. 
Zinc + C, not protetive, but effective? While the evidence supplementing with a combination of vitamin C and zinc would protect you from upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) is scarce, there are studies like Maggini et al. (2012) which indicate that the provision of a combination of 1000 mg vitamin C plus 10 mg zinc in patients with the common cold will lead to a nonsignificant reduction of rhinorrhoea duration (range 9 – 27%) was seen. Moreover, a pooled analyses of the two studies Maggini et al. conducted shows that "vitamin C plus zinc was significantly more efficient than placebo at reducing rhinorrhoea over 5 days of treatment" (Maggini. 2012). Furthermore, symptom relief was quicker and the product was well tolerated. Despite the fact that the subjects in these experiments were ordinary people, upping your zinc and vitamin C intake, when you've already caught a cold may help you to recover faster and thus get back to the grind earlier.
  • Vitamin E: As Niemann et al. point out in their review of the efficacy of various immuno-nutrients, vitamin E functions primarily as a non-specific, chain-breaking antioxidant that prevents the propagation of lipid peroxidation. The vitamin is a peroxyl radical scavenger and protects polyunsaturated fatty acids within membrane phospholipids and in plasma lipoproteins.

    The effect of vitamin E supplementation on the inflammatory and immune response to intensive and prolonged exercise is largely unstudied and equivocal. Cannon et al. (1991) found that vitamin E supplementation of 800 IU/day for 48 days attenuated endotoxin-induced IL-6 secretion from mononuclear cells for 12 days after running downhill on an inclined treadmill. Singh et al. (1999) showed no effect of vitamin E supplementation (4 days, 800 IU/day) on the increase in plasma IL-6 following a 98 min treadmill run at 65 – 70% V_ O2max to exhaustion. Petersen et al. (2002) reported no influence of vitamin E and C supplementation (500 mg and 400 mg, respectively, for 14 days before and 7 days after) on the plasma cytokine response to a 5% downhill 90 min treadmill run at 75% VO2max.

    Figure 2: Chronic supplementation with 800 IU of vitamin E (as alpha-tocopherol) has significant negative effects on markers of lipid oxidation and inflammation in triathletes (Nieman. 2004).
    A 2004 study in the course of which triathletes competing in the Kona Triathlon World Championship race event received 800 IU/day of a-tocopherol for two months does even indicate that vitamin E can increase the degree of exercise induced lipid peroxidation and the amount of several cytokines in the blood following a triathlon.Against that background and in view of the previously cited ambiguous results, Niemann et al. (2006) rightly conclude that "vitamin E supplementation to counter immune suppression and oxidative stress in endurance athletes cannot be recommended" (Niemann. 2006).
  • Vitamin D: For vitamin D a slightly different image emerges. It appears to be indisputable that athletes with low vitamin D levels are at higher risk of upper-respiratory tract infections - specifically during winter times (He. 2013).

    The results of clinical trials investigating the benefits of vitamin D supplementation, however, are less unambiguous. In non-athletes, the monthly administration of 100 000 IU of vitamin D did not reduce the incidence or severity of URTIs; and that despite the fact that the supplement brought the 25OHD levels of the healthy subjects up, significantly (Murdoch. 2012). A meta analysis by Bergman et al. (2013), however indicates that "vitamin D has a protective effect against RTI, and dosing once-daily seems most effective".

    Figure 3: Length of time to viral infection related to initial serum concentration of 25-hydroxyvitamin D.
    Shown are the results of the pharmacodynamic model relating 25-hydroxyvitamin D to length of time before a viral respiratory tract infection (Bergman. 2013)
    Bergamn et al. do yet also point out that "[d]ue to heterogeneity of included studies and possible publication bias in the field, these results should be interpreted with caution" (Bergman. 2013). Against that background it may be a good idea to at least make sure that you are in the "normal range" for vitamin D - irrespective of the fact that low levels may rather be a marker than a trigger of an increased susceptibility to infections that results from uncontrolled inflammation (vitamin D as a negative acute phase reactant | cf. Waldron. 2013).
Next to vitamins, many studies have described the use of proteins, such as whey for supplements or isolated amino acids like glutamine (Kreider. 2008; Cury-Boaventura. 2008).
Simply eating enough: It may sound funny, but in the end it's not surprising that a lack of readily usable energy makes you more susceptible to infections. Firstly, a general calorie restriction is often related to an insufficient intake of important micronutrients (Pendergast. 2002). And even if the intake of all micronutrients is adequate. Important immune factors such as glutamine are (ab-)used as a substrate to produce glucose in the liver and are thus no longer available to "feed" your immune cells. Accordingly it should not surprise you that Niemann and Bishop highlight in their review of "nutritional strategies to counter stress on the immune system in athletes" that the existing data indicates that "physiological stress to some aspects of the immune system is reduced when athletes use carbohydrate during intense exertion lasting 90 min or more" and their own experiments suggest that this means "that athletes using carbohydrate beverages during competitive events will lower their risk of sickness afterwards" (Nieman. 2006).
Figure 4: Mechanisms involving whey proteins as a source of different immunonutrients. (Cruzat. 2014).
In their previously cited review, Cruzat et al. included a nice graphical overview (Figure 4) of the mechanisms by which complete proteins and peptides and their individual amino acids effect the immune system of hard training athletes.

As you can see in Figure 4, Cruzat et al. put a particular emphasis on whey protein - for good reasons.

Firstly, whey contains all the "good" amino acids of which previous studies indicate that they may have direct beneficial effects on the immune system:
  • Glutamine: As Cruzat et al. point out, "L-glutamine is probably the most widely recognized immuno-nutrient since it can be used as an oxidizable fuel, a substrate for nucleotide synthesis, a modulator of intermediary metabolism of amino acids, HSP expression and a component of GSH-mediated antioxidant defense" (see Figure 5 | Cruzat. 2014).

    Put simply glutamine is the food your immune cells thrive on. Accordingly scientists, athletes and coaches have speculated ever since the early 1990s that supplemental glutamine should be able to prevent the exercise induced immune impairments.

    Figure 6: 5g of glutamine per day led to significant reductions in the occurrance of infections in marathon, ultra-marathon, mid distance runners and rowers (Castell. 1996a).
    Why? Well, exercise depletes the amount of circulating glutamine and will thus "steal" the fodder your immune cells need to survive and function (Wernerman. 2008).

    And in fact, there are studies that support the logical conclusion that the repletion of the glutamine that has been burned as alternative fuel during a workout with 0.1 g/kg body weight ameliorates the exercise induced reduction of lymphocytes, and could thus eventually reduce the risk of URTI’s (Castell. 1997).

    In that, I deliberately used the conditional, because subsequent studies with fixed (20–30 g/day) or variable (0.3 - 0.5 g/kg body wt) doses of glutamine did not report similar outcomes (Castell. 1996b; Krzywkowski. 2001; Hiscock. 2002). Accordingly, Castell et al. write in their contribution to the BMJ A-Z Supplement review (ed. Newsholme. 2011):
    "Overall, there is no consensus or unifying concept to explain the efficacy of exogenous provision of glutamine alone on performance in athletes, although in combination with carbohydrate or other amino acids, significant improvements have been reported." (Newsholme. 2011)
    In other words: Benefits can't be guaranteed, but specifically when glutamine is ingested in amounts of at least 20g/day in addition to carbohydrates and protein supplements it appears as if it could be a useful dietary supplement for hard-training athletes.
Where are all the other supplements gone? As I wrote in the introduction, this list is not supposed to be comprehensive. Furthermore, agents like quercetin, beta-glucan, curcumin or astragalus may be backed by animal studies, their efficacy in human beings does yet warrant further testing - specifically in athletes (Nieman. 2006). Other supplements such as the often-used herb Echinacea purpurea have been shown to fail to stimulate the nonspecific immune response and may be useful only when you are already sick or if the preperations are administered intravenously (Schwarz. 2002).
  • Arginine: No, this is not a mistake. L-arginine is in fact the #2 on the list of supplemental immune modulators for hard-training athletes. Needless to say that it's not arginine itself, but rather Nitric Oxide (NO) which acts as a mediator of inflammation and immune system activation in the human body (Krause. 2011 & 2012).

    As a SuppVersity reader, you know that arginine has little ergogenic effect. It has beneficial effects in diabetics and may offer benefits for people who want to control their blood pressure. As a immuno-modulator, however it is similarly ineffective as it is as an ergogenic. Benefits can only be expected if the blood levels of arginine are depleted and that is - even with heavy exercise - usually not the case.
Whey protein, however, is more than the sum of its amino acid parts. Yes, whey can contain up to 26% of BCAA, plus L-arginine, L-lysine, L-glutamine.
Figure 7: Effect of maltodextrin (filled square) and maltodextrin plus hydrolyzed whey protein enriched with glutamine dipeptide (filled triangle) supplementation on exercise-induced loss of membrane integrity and depolarized mitochondria in lymphocytes and neutrophils, which are essential for the response against viral infections, such as upper respiratory tract infections (URTI), in athletes after intense training (Cury-Boaventura. 2008).
Whey does yet also contain a range of powerful proteins / peptides, namely betalactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, bovine serum albumin, lactoferrin, immunoglobulins (e.g. IgA), lactoperoxidase enzymes, glycomacropeptides, as well as vitamins such as vitamin D, and minerals such as Ca2+, of these...
  • lactoferrin and lactoferricin, demonstrate direct anti-microbial activity and may thus protect you from infections,
  • lysosome, lactoperoxidase and diverse globulins and peptides in whey provide a synergistic protective “cocktail” activity against viral and bacterial organisms (Ha. 2003), and
  • sulphur-containing amino acids, such cysteine and taurine attenuate the reduction of intracellular GSH concentration induced by intensive exercise (Lands. 1999). 
For all three of them, it is yet not fully established to which extend they contribute to the proven immune-modulating effects of whey (note: the levels of these agents will be higher in concentrates compared to isolates, due to the increased number of processing steps). It is in fact likely that Cruzat et al. (2014) are right, when they say that its the cocktail of amino acids, proteins, peptides and other micro- and macronutrients, vitamins and minerals in whey protein that acts via direct and indirect pathways (e.g. via optimizing the redox status / GSH) on the immune function of athletes.
Bottom line: While there is good evidence for vitamin D supplementation (1,000-2,000IU/day in individuals with low levels and / or hard-working athletes during the winter months) and high doses of glutamine in hard working athletes. There is little doubt that the amino acid + protein + peptide coctail in whey proteins is the "goto supplement" you would choose if you wanted to use only one of the supplements discussed in this article.

Whey Beyond Brawn: 10+ Things You Probably Didn't Know Whey & Peptides That Form During its Digestion Can Do | learn more.
In that, a reasonable dosage suggestion would be similar to that for maximal muscle hypetrophy and range from 20-60g per day - with the higher dosage being consumed in 2-3 servings evenly spread accross the day. Furthermore, studies like the one by Cury-Boaventura et al. (2008) indicate that, during periods of intense training, it may be useful to add glutamine. Either in large amounts of 10-20g per day (5-10g on top of each serving of whey) or, as it was the case in said study, as a dipeptide which has a higher chance of making it past the splachnic bed and not ending up as "fuel" for your organs and or glyconeogenic substrate in the liver.

And yes, if you've already caught a cold, 1 gram (in divided doses) of the the good old vitamin C (if you want to along with 5-15mg of zinc) is useful, as well - along with plenty of rest and sleep, of course ;-) Comment on Facebook!
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Disclaimer:The information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. It is by no means intended as professional medical advice. Do not use any of the agents or freely available dietary supplements mentioned on this website without further consultation with your medical practitioner.