This week our contributing writer Doctor Gifford-Jones talks about how athletes maintain their health under pressure.
How hard would be the disappointment? You’ve trained for years to acquire a medal at the Rio Olympics. And then the unthinkable happens. You develop a respiratory or intestinal infection just before the event. It’s an unmitigated disaster of unparalleled proportions, never to be forgotten. So, how do Olympic athletes avoid this catastrophe?
An article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine stresses it’s not just luck that prevents infection. Rather, according to Ida Svendsen, physiologist with the Norwegian Olympic Committee, it’s attention to detail. As Leonardo Da Vinci wrote centuries ago, “Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle”.
Svendsen reports that a study of 37 elite Norwegian skiers, over a nine year period, showed that those who had won medals had suffered either respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms 14 days of the year. The non-medalists reported these symptoms 22 days annually.
So why did superbly trained athletes still get ill? They were about five times more likely to complain of infection following a commercial flight. This is not surprising when so many passengers are seated in close quarters breathing and exhaling infected air.
The stress of racing also triggers infection. Who wouldn’t be stressed when an Olympic medal is on the line? We know that nervous tension negatively affects the immune system and lowers vitamin C.
Another factor is the time of year. Both skiers and swimmers were more likely to become ill during the winter. In this case, both climate and vitamin D played a role as the level of D is lowest in late winter and early spring.
Further advice comes from Dr. Charles Gerba at the University of Arizona, an expert on “fomites”, namely objects that are liable to carry germs. He says the first thing to remember is that bugs are everywhere on an airplane. So, never ask for an aisle seat as it’s the one most likely to be contaminated.
Just watch people going back and forth to the bathroom on a plane. They touch every aisle seat to steady themselves when walking back to their own seating. A study conducted by the Center for Disease Control showed the aisle seat was the one more likely to carry a virus.
The public toilet is ground zero for bugs everywhere. But in the air many people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. Besides, Gerba says, even the sink may be contaminated. So, what awaits you on the aisle seat may be fecal bacteria, norovirus, seasonal flu or the common cold.
I’d suggest that athletes, and everyone else, should clean the pull-down tray with Clorox wipes, and also use hand sanitizers. In one study, the deadly Staphylococcus, was found on 60 percent of trays.
Studies show that vitamin C is vitally important in building immunity to colds and preventing serious diseases such as pneumonia. So it’s important to have sufficient amounts of vitamin C in your blood at all times to energize the immune system.
Why? Because immune cells have vitamin C transporter molecules imbedded in their membranes and these pump C into cells when more is required.
Consequently, when infection occurs, these molecules increase their activity to ensure that cells have as much as 100 times more vitamin C than present in their blood. But this transfer is not possible unless the blood always has a reservoir of C. This means you must take vitamin C every day.
Vitamin C also has an effect on antibodies that attack invading bacteria. It does this by increasing the level of antibodies known as IgA, IgB and IgM which are the first ones to respond to infection.
But suppose you are not an Olympic athlete? Studies show that 23 percent of North Americans have low levels of vitamin C affecting their immune system. Researchers say this can cause unexplained fatigue and mind fog. That skin boils can be helped by as little as 1,000 milligrams a day. And that elderly people are at increased risk of cancer as the immune system ages.
High doses of vitamin C powder and pills are as close as your Health Food Store. And what is good for Olympic athletes is also good for you.