Marc S. Schneider, M.D.
You probably are wondering what “Fit Sick” means. It sounds like a paradox such as “jumbo shrimp” or “government efficiency.” The unfortunate truth is that Fit Sick is a more apt description for many athletes and individuals who work hard at being healthy and fit. Sometimes you can look great, but feel bad.
Let me explain.
People’s interest in being healthy in this country is greater than it has ever been. Information constantly bombards us on why we need to change our eating habits, and exercise more.
Everyone can pretty much agree that getting fit and being healthy is important. Some do ignore the message, while others search online for proper information on how to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Those that embark on such a quest take the task on by different degrees. Some want to lose, and keep off, five pounds while increasing their physical activity. Others start training for a triathlon. The great majority fall somewhere in between, and mindfully work on their diet and exercise, but they have no illusion that the Olympics will come calling for them.
Table of Contents
Original Photo by Averie Woodard
What is Fit Sick?
Diet (what you put in the body) and exercise (physical activity) certainly lead to losing weight, toning muscles, and an overall healthier body when done properly. However, even college and pro athletes can look great on the outside, but actually be sick on the inside.
That surprises many people; even those who are very conscientious about their health regime. Unfortunately, Fit Sick can occur in a number of ways and can affect us all. From intense exercise, to poor nutrition, to a combination of both, our body is sometimes sapped of key nutrients necessary for health.
As we will see, there are many vitamins and minerals necessary to keep the body healthy. We are finely-tuned machines, and it doesn’t take much to knock our systems out of whack.
You might be surprised how many healthy and fit people qualify as Fit Sick. We were!
Causes of Fit Sick?
Being Fit Sick may be silent, meaning you really have no symptoms of the condition. Or, Fit Sick can be symptomatic, meaning that you don’t necessarily feel great, certainly not as great as you could. You can even feel pretty lousy. Something is going wrong inside your body.
The causes of being Fit Sick are usually multifactorial and are typically caused by a combination of unbalanced nutrition, and the physical stress of large volumes of exercise.
Role of Micronutrients
Macronutrients consist of the things we are always hearing about: protein, carbs, and fat. Micronutrients aren’t talked about, but they play a massive role in how we feel, and the level that we can perform.
Micronutrients are important in energy production, hemoglobin synthesis, maintenance of bone health, adequate immune function, and protection of the body against oxidative damage. They assist with synthesis, and the repair of muscle tissue when a person is recovering from exercise and injury.
Not having sufficient quantities of these nutrients will negate or slow down the fitness goals of an athlete. It is part of the reason that the supplement industry has grown so much in the last few years.
But do you know what you need?
A variety of conditions can develop as a result of chronically reduced micronutrients and amino acids. I have had athletes come into my office, and I have seen the physical and emotional manifestation of all of these ailments. Most of the time, their cause can be traced back to not enough of some mineral or vitamin in their body.
These micronutrient deficiencies usually stem from intense exercise and poor nutrition. Let’s explore these causes, and how we can prevent this unfortunate state of being Fit Sick.
Exercise Can Lead to Fit Sick
Exercise has numerous proven health benefits. These are physiologic, and obviously have an impact on how we look, how we feel, and our health. Exercise does produce damage to the body. Large volumes of exercise produce even more damage.
Does this mean that exercise is bad?
Heck no… But it produces significant strain on the body, and the individual needs to compensate. I can’t tell you how many of my patients who look like they are in great shape, come in with laboratory signs that are future setups for real health problems.
Anyone involved with intense athletics puts a significant strain on some micronutrients including calcium and vitamin D, the B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, as well as some antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, β-carotene, selenium and, numerous amino acids.
Exercise stresses many of the metabolic pathways that require micronutrients for optimal functions. Physical training can also result in biochemical adaptations within muscles that increase micronutrient needs.
The more intense the training, the more depleted a body can become. It is vital to rest and refuel properly in order to avoid slipping into Fit Sick. However, like a finely tuned sports car, you can’t fill your body with a low-quality fuel. Proper nutrition then becomes the key to recovery.
Malnutrition Leads to Fit Sick
Not only is what we are taking out of our bodies leading to Fit Sick, but it is also what we put into our bodies. Foods and supplements might not be making up for what we lose through whatever workout we do. Worse, what we consume could be messing up our internal chemistry in such a way that our internal systems are affected.
In my medical office, we often perform micronutrient testing, and we are shocked at the results. Collegiate and professional athletes who look to be in incredible condition are, in fact, malnourished!
Now, I need for you to get the usual picture of a malnourished body out of your mind. I admit that when we hear “malnourished”, we immediately think of all those photos of poor adults and children who live in an area struck by famine or natural disaster.
The thing is that you could be as big and buff as any NFL linebacker and still be malnourished. Malnourished means the body doesn’t get enough nutrients. Untreated malnutrition can cause physical and mental disability.
Untreated malnutrition can cause physical and mental disability.
This can easily happen to anybody reading this. I have seen it firsthand.
I have had athletes, and those who just try to live a healthy lifestyle, come in for micronutrient testing. Even those eating mostly non-GMO, organic foods can look great on the outside, but come to us because they feel like something is wrong.
They may have decreased energy, depression, and can’t focus – all symptoms of malnourishment. When we test them, low and behold, they are malnourished and are perfect examples of Fit Sick. Most think they just need a pill for their anxiety or depression. The truth is, if they correct many of their nutritional deficiencies, they will get better.
To make it even more personal, I saw this in my daughter. She trained daily and played D1 collegiate hockey. Between her sport and her studies, she exerted a ton of energy on a daily basis.
But, she noticed that she was gaining weight. How could this be possible with all energy she was expending? So on a holiday break, we tested her.
Her test results showed a deficiency in several vitamins including biotin, zinc, insulin, niacin, B6, folate, D3, choline, serine, and glutamine. Also, her immunity scores were borderline low. She worked her butt off every day in her sport, but was not nearly as healthy as she looked.
This is the classic look of fit sick.
I also noticed that athletes who had to keep their weight within certain ranges so that they could compete in their class in sports like wrestling, boxing, and bodybuilding often fell into the Fit Sick range. They compound the issue because these athletes often have to cut their weight in a very short time. This puts severe stress on their micronutrients, amino acid, and essential fatty acid stores.
Understanding the proper nutrition needed to live an active lifestyle is crucial for looking good on the outside and feeling excellent on the inside. Moreover, an athlete must refuel with premium fuel and must refuel at the right time in order to maintain top-level performance.
Low Testosterone and Fit Sick
Testosterone does not cause Fit Sick. But low testosterone certainly can. No, I am not talking about taking testosterone to improve your exercise performance. Though for individuals with low T, this is something we recommend.
Consistently performing high-intensity exercise can decrease testosterone, and increase cortisol levels. Athletes who consistently exert tremendous energy outputs can suffer from this.
It is not uncommon for me to see athletes after they completed a long season in their sport to have unusually low T levels. This factor can affect their energy, mental state, sexuality, libido, muscle mass, and ability to recover from workouts or injury.
Glutamine Deficiency and Fit Sick
When my children and I first started buying protein powder, the salesman tried to upsell us glutamine. I shy away from upsells and I figured that glutamine, which is commonly found in our foods, was unnecessary.
But glutamine is probably the most common deficiency I find in athletes. My son and daughter were both deficient. One played pro hockey and the other, college hockey.
How can this be so if glutamine is a non-essential amino acid?
Again, intense physical exercise will use up vital stores of nutrients. When intense exercise depletes glutamine to low levels, Fit Sick can be manifested as decreased immunity, negative changes in your gut health, digestion, and physical recovery, and as chronic inflammation, which will discuss shortly.
Altered digestion, feeling rundown, lack of energy, and poor recovery can all be signs that an athlete is fit sick. Remember when I first said my daughters measured immunity was decreased?
Other Fit Sick issues that can rack a body are insomnia and chronic pain. If you suffer from either of these, you are not only going to have difficulty keeping up with your exercise regime but accomplishing your everyday activities is not going to be easy either.
Let’s explore all of the problems of Fit Sick.
Medical Symptoms of Fit Sick
OK, I know what you’re thinking. “If I eat properly, I won’t have this problem.”
What is eating properly? It is not just having a salad for lunch, and a piece of chicken with rice and broccoli for dinner.
Have you heard of a young athlete suddenly having cardiac arrest?
The culprit very well could have been magnesium deficiency. Sufficient amounts of magnesium, in addition to being important for heart health, are important for bone health, calcium absorption, offsetting the risk of diabetes, migraine headaches, premenstrual syndrome, and relieving anxiety. It’s incredible how one small factor can be so important to your health.Magnesium is key for ATP cellular production. ATP is the energy source for all cells. Low magnesium has been associated with cardiac issues in athletes and older adults.Click To Tweet
A young athlete suffering from cardiac arrest is, of course, an extreme example, but all of these potential problems stemmed from being Fit Sick.
Fit Sick Leads to Chronic Fatigue
One thing a person who exercises regularly does not want to experience is chronic fatigue. This is where you feel so tired that you have trouble doing regular daily activities, let alone intense workouts. I was just approached by the agent of world-class distance runner from the United Kingdom who suffered from this.
It can happen to any athlete.
Chronic fatigue is not something you can get over by taking a nap or trying to sleep longer for a few nights. It can result from a deficiency of a number micronutrients such as vitamin A, B, C, D, and/or E. A lack of chromium, zinc, and biotin can also lead to chronic fatigue, as well as an amino acid deficiency of asparagine, glutamine, or serine.
Athletes looking to perform at their best day in and day out must watch their diet carefully to avoid slipping into a state of chronic fatigue. Otherwise, game performance and training regimens will suffer.
Fit Sick Causes Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation refers to long-term inflammation in the body that can last for several months, and even years. Of course, inflammation will occur naturally from intense exercise. It can also arise from injury as the body repairs itself. Unfortunately, inflammation in the body can also potentially occur because of low vitamin A, B2, B6, C, D, and E, as well as low magnesium, glutathione, glutamine.
If left untreated, chronic inflammation can lead to numerous diseases and conditions, including some cancers and rheumatoid arthritis.
From an athletic standpoint, chronic inflammation can reverse your strength and size gains. It will also lead to diminished athletic performance by causing you to experience more soreness, as well as more aches and pains. Moreover, the inflammation can cause your muscles to break down, and you may be more susceptible to illness or injury.
Are you beginning to see the impact of micronutrient deficiency? There are others.
Anxiety From Being Fit Sick
People who are Fit Sick may experience high degrees of anxiety. This feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease can reach levels that are debilitating for an individual.
Anxiety can make simple tasks or trying to think through a problem extremely difficult. Those with this condition often show low levels of vitamin D and E, as well as low magnesium. Anxiety can also stem from an Omega-3 deficiency, as we discuss in our Omega-3 Superfood article.
Athletically, stress and anxiety can lead to poor performance. It can directly affect an athlete’s mental state, and it can hinder muscle performance.
Fit Sick and Hypertension
Hypertension, another name for high blood pressure, the “silent killer”, can lead to severe medical complications for an individual, and it can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and death. This issue is not usually associated with an athlete, but if he or she is not keeping their micronutrient levels where they need to be, high blood pressure can become a problem.
Athletes tend to eat large quantities of protein foods. Anyone who is working out hard needs higher than normal levels of protein consumption to keep their muscles working efficiently.
Though most of us should consume 1 to 1.2 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight, athletes need at least twice that. Many protein sources are higher in saturated fats like beef, pork, and eggs.
This can lead to:
- High cholesterol levels
- High LDL levels
- Increased chance of coronary artery disease
- Increased risk of stroke or heart attack
Chronic consumption of a diet heavy in animal meats may be associated with:
- Increased risks of cancer
- Shorter lifespan
I can’t tell you how many of my patients who look like they are in great shape, come in with high cholesterol levels and lipid problems.
Original Photo by samuel owoyemi
Avoid Fit Sick
The way to avoid Fit Sick has several components.
First, the obvious remedy to avoid being Fit Sick is to make sure that you consume enough real foods and supplements to maintain your level of micronutrients.
Do I really need supplements?
That is a great question and again, you might look good on the outside, but how are you doing on the inside? The first question to ask is how do you feel? Because certain diseases like elevated cholesterol and pre-diabetes is so prevalent, it is wise for everyone to get baseline bloodwork to check.
Even if you are young. My kids were diagnosed when each was in their early 20’s.
You should also do some research. Reading this article is a good first step as you might not have been aware of what your workouts do to your body. Athletes and exercise enthusiasts know protein is necessary for fueling their muscles, but for many, that is where their knowledge ends.
As you have read, there is a great deal more than just taking a ultra high quality grass-fed protein powder or omega-3 to make our bodies to operate like a finely tuned machine. I have only touched on some of the leading results of being Fit Sick, and a little bit of how the lack of certain micronutrients come into play.
This article is by no means an exhaustive look at the subject, but an overview of being Fit Sick and its dangers.
I do recommend the following resource from Spectracell. It lists various ailments that can hit the body and their underlying causes. For many of them, the lack of certain micronutrients is the main culprit.
Research also extends to what you put in your body. There are volumes of books and articles on food and nutrition. You can become lost in all the claims, data, and information on different foods and the impact of them on your body.
To complicate matters, you will discover contradictory evidence on the same food. If you can, seek out a qualified nutritionist to work with you or to at least give you some good general knowledge applicable to your lifestyle.
I can say all the same things on supplements that I did with food. There are good ones and bad ones, and some that don’t work at all. Look for a company that only uses the highest quality ingredients at the correct dose.
It is why we started Dioxyme. Because we could not find the QSE (quality, safety and efficacy) that we were searching for.
When it comes to food and supplements, don’t get sucked up into any fads without studying what the claims and actual results are. Any food or product that goes through scientific testing usually has more concrete data attached to it.
You are only going to know what to put in your body by knowing what your body needs. Every person is different, as is their diet and exercise routine.
Different athletic regimens create different metabolic stresses. What a long distance runner needs is different than what a bodybuilder needs.
Also, you and your workout partner might do the same exact workout every day. Due to diet, metabolism, genetics and other factors, the list of micronutrients your partner loses might be way different than yours.
The point is that you cannot adequately plan your diet without knowing what your body needs. There is no way of determining that without having yourself tested periodically.
As I mentioned, I do this type of testing in my office. You can find places where you live that do similar services. If you need assistance, don’t hesitate to contact us.
Also, share this article with a friend. It will help them with their health. Think of the battle against Fit Sick as a trip. When you plan a trip, you have to know where you are going to get there. To successfully make sure that you are healthy inside and out, you need to know what you are lacking in order to replenish what you are missing.