The importance of vitamins and minerals cannot be overplayed, we would simply cease to exist if they were inaccessible to us. Although vitamins and minerals are distinct from one another, they are often looked upon as one and the same thing, this is because they are both needed in very small amounts compared to protein, carbs and fats, BUT are by no means any less important!
Basically, vitamins and minerals are known as micronutrients (micro meaning small) and protein, carbs and fat are called macronutrients (macro meaning large), hence the reason we need more total grammage (is that even a word) of protein compared to vitamin c for example. This article is looking specifically at vitamins because this integral group of nutrients is key to some pretty important bodily functions such as growth and cell replication, chemical reactions, metabolism, and vision. If this isn’t enough then consider their role in immunity (your body’s ability to avoid or fight disease) and the formation of red blood cells, and you begin to get an appreciation as to just how important these little nutrients are.
Main causes of infection
We live in an overpopulated world, 7 billion of us move have to occupy dwindling space, the consequence of this is a greater risk of coming into contact with pathogens (germs). Everyday things such as going to the toilet, speaking to a colleague, kissing a loved one or going to the gym passes on bacteria. Now consider an athlete that also trains hard every day, competes in competitions, satisfies family and friend commitments, be there for fans, spends a lot of time on the road, and fails to get adequate sleep… and you’ve got a recipe for infection!
Professor Gleeson, (2015) from Loughborough University explains how athletes are exposed to more pathogens than the general public, intense exercise in itself increases lung ventilation meaning they breath in more potential pathogens per unit of time. Then you’ve got skin abrasions which open up an avenue in to the body, all of the foreign travel many athletes have to endure (recycled air in aeroplanes etc), and being around large crowds. Add to this the physiological stress of training and competing, psychological stress and lethargy due to lack of sleep, and the impact all of the above may ultimately have on your diet…and you can see why infection is such a risk.
A vitamins role in disease prevention
Clearly a humble vitamins ability to prevent disease is limited in the sense that our bodies are not resistant to all of the various types of disease we are exposed to. Vitamins such as vitamin C and vitamin D are integral to the proper function of our immune system, but they don’t directly fight infection etc. However, let your vitamin levels run low through some (or all) of the factors above, and you run the risk of becoming unwell.
Vitamin D has a newly recognised role in immunity, it was previously understood that it only really effected bone mineral density, however more recent research now believes that vitamin D upregulates anti-microbial peptides and has direct effects on white blood cell activity (Kamen & Tangpricha, 2010). Insufficient levels of Vitamin D serum levels of less than 30nmol/L is common in athletes, particularly if their sport means they have to train indoors, in winter months or in countries with limited sunlight (sunlight being a key source of vitamin D).
The consequence of all this is an impaired immune response. It is worth noting that adequate vitamin D recommendations of more than 50nmol/L and around 120nmol/L can be achieved through the diet and sunlight, but these recommendations are only based on bone requirements, and do not factor for immunological needs… so there’s a real chance we may still be deficient despite a good diet and plenty of sunlight. Therefore consider a vitamin D supplement such as Reflex Nutrition Vitamin D3 in order to get 2000iu per serving, which will help you to reach the above mentioned recommended amounts.
Vitamin C is also key to immune response, especially in athletes who place their bodies under a lot of strain. Vitamin C’s antioxidant properties make it useful in reducing precursors to injury and infection. Research has shown that post race vitamin C consumption reduced the risk of developing an upper respiratory tract infection by two thirds i.e. only 33% of athletes suffered with a chest infection after consuming a vitamin C supplement, compared to 68% of the athletes who had nothing (Peters et al, 1993). A research paper by Nieman et al. (2011) found that plenty of fruit and vegetables (natural sources of antioxidants) increased the vitamin C intake, resulting in a lower risk of chest infections. The paper goes on to say that fruit extract or vitamin C capsules are an alternative if fruit and veg intake is low.