Vitamin D: Better Performance, Better Recovery and a Strong Immune System

Vitamin D: Better Performance, Better Recovery and a Strong Immune System

Vitamin D: Better Performance, Better Recovery and a Strong Immune System

0 comments 📅17 August 2015, 07:22
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By Chris Michalk / translated by Chris Michalk (see original German article here)

Recovery is a vital part for performance increases. For many athletes though, this is not an obvious point. But what stands to reason is the integral role of an optimal immune function: Illness and disease of any kind means “training deficiency” and suboptimal recovery from exercise.

Today’s article wants to answer the question: How does vitamin D influence our immunocompetence?

The Most Important Part of Recovery: Supercompensation

Often times ignored, yet fundamental: The workout recovery. Not the ones who train hard but those who also learn to recover hard, profit in the long run. The general aim of recovery processes is to re-establish homeostasis.

Supercompensation principle

Supercompensation is the term that describes the fact that the trained parameter has a higher performance capacity than it did prior to the training period (e.g. more muscle mass). To fully super-compensate, one requires enough building blocks (e.g. energy in form of calories and protein) and enough time for recovery. (Picture by: Kilgore/Hartman/Lascek, 2011, S.14.)

The term and the meaning of supercompensation plays a huge role in sport science. The term supercompensation describes the way, our bodies response to (exogenous) stimuli of any kind – e.g. psychologically and physically. The supercompensation processes lead to adaptations. This results in an efficient and better capacity to deal with (exogenous) stressors. In order to establish these adaptations, the body must be able to do that.

And that’s the crucial point: Many of you guys train hard and expect performance increases to happen. Yet you first have to make sure that your recovery time is sufficient – that’s something many folks simply tend to ignore!

For a strength athlete, this means that the body first has to improve the nerve-muscle communication, repair damaged muscle filaments and compensate bio-energetic resources like mitochondrial mass, glycogen stores, the pH value, intramuscular triglycerides and so on.

Vitamin D: Better Performance, Better Recovery and a Strong Immune System

The Immune System as the Key for an Optimal Muscle Recovery

Protein Helix Structure

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, just like a word is a building block of a sentence – these building blocks are not just essential for body structures (e.g. muscle, bone, collagen) but also for hormone production and immune functioning. (Picture by: / PublicDomainPictures ; Public Domain Licence)

What happens if you get a cold on a regular basis? As someone who is practicing competitive sports for years, I know this phenomenon very well: Hard training increases the susceptibility to infections. But the resulting immune response costs lots of vital resources, the body would otherwise invest in adapting to strength stimuli – for example.

At university I was being taught by a world-renown biologist. One key sentence every serious athlete should keep in my mind is as follows: The key substance of a competent immune system is the amino acid. The professor wanted us to understand that dietary protein strongly influences the immunocompetence – dietary protein actually regulates the body’s resistance to pathogen invasion.

You’ll find a lot of scientific research that emphasizes the value of the “key sentence” above, for example:

“Findings from recent studies indicate an important role for amino acids in immune responses by regulating: (1) the activation of T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes, natural killer cells and macrophages; (2) cellular redox state, gene expression and lymphocyte proliferation; and (3) the production of antibodies, cytokines and other cytotoxic substances.” – [6]

Now, this is something that should be interesting for us because if you don’t eat enough protein, the immune system “steals” the needed amino acids away from the muscle.

I teach many clients. An infection with the Eppstein Barr Virus can weaken the body for weeks and months. The host complains about tiredness and chronic fatigue. As a matter of fact, those guys sometimes cannot even handle a 5 minute walk. We usually find a reason for that by analyzing the blood: the total protein content of the blood decreases too much. So, to handle this problem, we then try to fix that.

As a result of more blood total protein, the body copes better with the virus and the client improves (and feels) tremendously better. Sometimes, only few amino acids are decreased. But this also shows the amino acids dependency of the immune system.

Lack of the Mineral Zinc Weakens the Body

Zinc Deficiency and Common Cold

Like vitamin D, zinc has a huge impact on the body’s ability to cope with infections. In fact, plasma zinc values dramatically decrease during infections. Often times this leads to a zinc deficiency. (Bildquelle: / ANTARES42 ; CC Licence)

Another example is your blood zinc value. I’ve measured it myself: My good blood zinc value decreases more than 80%, just by having a runny nose. What does that mean for your muscle recovery?

Zinc is essential for building own protein structures, a process called protein synthesis [4]. A zinc deficiency dramatically decreases the rate of protein synthesis. But that is only the smaller problem. The bigger issue is that a zinc deficiency dramatically decreases your testosterone levels [10].

By now it becomes clear why viral infections can influence your recovery, especially regarding the hormonal status, which in turn is so important for muscular development. Again: Your future exercise performance dramatically depends on your body’s ability to fully adapt to stressors and pressures. Everything that blocks these adaptation processes (called supercompensation), does alter your physical development.

It’s quite obvious that our perception regarding micronutrient consumption is not accurate. On the one hand, a part of the problem lies in the experienced supplement hype. On the other hand, our views are massively influenced by governmental decisions. A good example for these problems are discussions about fat soluble vitamins, like vitamin D. Today, we experience a dramatically improved reputation of vitamin D. Hundreds of books and scientific articles explain the importance of a sufficient vitamin D value. Not only for bone health but also for metabolic health, for we know today that vitamin D actually influences thousands of genes.

The importance of a vitamin D sufficiency is highlighted by the fact that vitamin D has its own nuclear receptors, called vitamin D receptors (VDR). Steroid hormones like Testosterone have their own nuclear receptors, too what definitely emphasizes the importance of vitamin D – especially because vitamin D is the precursor of the hormone Calcitriol (also called “active vitamin D”).

Key Substance: vitamin D

How does vitamin D influence the immune system?

Vitamin D Synthesis

Vitamin D actually belongs to the steroid hormone family. UV exposure to the skin is required for vitamin D synthesis. This cannot be achieved in winter month and far-nothern latitude countries. Some foods contain vitamin D (e.g. eggs and cheese) but generally, a vitamin D supplementation is recommended. (Picture by: Wikimedia / NEURO ; Public Domain Licence)

A person I know well became infected by a virus. The situation developed further into a chronic viral infection. The person and the attending physician never found the source of the virus – it took months before the doctors realized that her body was chronically infected with a virus. By that time she had already developed fungal infections all over her body. She also got strong allergies and experienced many secondary infections. At the end, her immune system actually attacked her own tissues, like the thyroid.

It’s obvious that a weak immune system probably lead to allergies and autoimmune reactions. Scientific literature suggests that exactly this happens – for example via a shift from a Th1 to a Th2 dominance by up-regulating a key enzyme called Arginase.

Immune cells express vitamin D receptors, too. So, immune cells are able to take up vitamin D and transport it to the cell nucleus. (Not) surprisingly, we find a strong correlation between the occurrence of autoimmune diseases and northern regions, where there’s less sun exposure year-round. In contrast, many animal studies suggest that vitamin D blocks the pathogenesis (initiation and progression) of autoimmune diseases. These observations are firmly connected to the actual immunocompetence.

The recognition and killing processes of pathogens depends on a molecular receptor called Toll-like receptor. Receptor binding leads to a dramatically increased expression of vitamin D receptors in immune cells. This regulates the cell entry of vitamin D. As you can see, a key component of a strong (or adequate) immune reaction, is the ability of the immune cell to increase the uptake of vitamin D.

The increased vitamin D uptake in turn leads to the cellular expression of anti-bacterial proteins, for example Cathelicidin. This might sound very scientific, but it simply means that the immune system cannot work efficiently without sufficient vitamin D [1]. Note that I described one aspect. There are many, many ways how vitamin D influences the immune function and the body’s way to deal with pathogen invasions.

Is vitamin D an Ergogenic Aid?

Strength increases in relation to the training months. As you can see, there’s a strong correlation between strength increases and late summer months and a strong negative correlation between strength increases and winter months in the context of average strength increases per day.

Strength increases in relation to the training months. As you can see, there’s a strong correlation between strength increases and late summer months and a strong negative correlation between strength increases and winter months in the context of average strength increases per day. (Source: Hettinger et al. (1956))

As we could see, vitamin D regulates your immune system. This in turn lead to a faster (muscular) recovery – potentially.

Vitamin D and Strength Increases

Far more interesting though is the observation made in the 60s. A researcher called Hettinger showed that athletes gained most of their strength in the late summer months. In relation to the whole year strength development, in the winter month the athletes would just have a 50% progression. In contrast, the athletes would have a 250% progression in the late summer months [3].

The problem with these observations is that Hettinger did not correlate the strength increases with the actual vitamin D values, he just analyzed them in relation to different months.

Vitamin D and Muscle Fibers

Three months old vitamin D receptor knockout mice show a 20% reduction in muscle fiber diameter. These mice experience a dramatic atrophy of type I and type II muscle fibers. This stands in contrast to the situation in hypervitaminotic humans: They lose more of the fast and glycolytic type II muscle fibers [2].

Vitamin D and Testosterone

The vitamin D receptor knockout mice express a hypogonadism phenotype. This is explained by the fact that (male) gonads also express vitamin D receptors [7]. Hypogonadism results in a massive reduction of plasma testosterone. This tremendously influences the reproductive capacity of the animal.

Pilz et al. (2011) showed that correcting a vitamin D deficiency leads to a 20% increase in plasma free testosterone [9]. Can this phenomenon be solely explained by the mentioned mechanisms?

Vitamin D and Aromatase

One further mechanism is vitamin D’s ability to down-regulate adipose tissue aromatase expression [5]. This leads to a reduction in testosterone aromatization (i.e. testosterone conversion to estrogens) and as a result, to higher plasma free testosterone values.

Vitamin D: Target Value

If you consider to supplement vitamin D, we recommend buying vitamin D at Please note that in this regards, myprotein delivers a high quality product, along with high dosages and a fairly good price (180 softgels with 2500 IU each, 10,49 €). Did you find a better source? Please let us know.

If you consider to supplement vitamin D, we recommend buying vitamin D at Please note that in this regards, Myprotein delivers a high quality product, along with high dosages and a fairly good price (180 softgels with 2500 IU each, 10,49 €). Did you find a better source? Please let us know.

There’s a vital controversy regarding optimal vitamin D values. Latest research suggests that you should aim for 40 to 80 ng/ml. This goes in hand with values of “free living” native humans like the Masai [8]. Just make sure that you’ve measured your vitamin D values before start taking it in high doses.

Final Thoughts

In order to experience performance increases, you need to make sure that you recovery optimally. Therefore you need to give your body enough time and especially resources to recuperate and supercompensate. Infections do have a significant negative impact on your ability to recover optimally.

Many micronutrients, especially vitamin D, improve the body’s immune response and as a result, you can train regularly. Furthermore, the resources are partitioned to the muscle instead of to a (chronically) stimulated immune system. You can kill two birds with one stone if you keep your levels in check, because vitamin D modulates not only the immune system but also your endocrine functioning which is essential for your muscular development.

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Picture sources: Flickr / Michael Hensmann ; CC Lizenz

About the Author – Chris Michalk

EdubilyChris is a biologist, who focuses his research on biochemistry, sports biology and evolutionary biology. He was a competitive triathlete (Ironman distances), handballer and sports student (university). Today, he’s a mentor of many clients and discusses current and latest research at his blog,



References (Click to Expand)

[1] Cantorna, MT. (2000): Vitamin D and autoimmunity: is vitamin D status an environmental factor affecting autoimmune disease prevalence? In: Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. URL:

[2] Ceglia, Lisa. (2009): Vitamin D and its role in skeletal muscle. In: Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care. URL:

[3] Hettinger, T. / Muller, EA. (1955): [Seasonal course of trainability of musculature.]. Internationale Zeitschrift fur angewandte Physiologie, einschliesslich Arbeitsphysiologie 16.2 (1955): 90-94. URL:

[4] Hicks, SE. / Wallwork, JC. (1987): Effect of dietary zinc deficiency on protein synthesis in cell-free systems isolated from rat liver. In: The Journal of nutrition. URL:

[5] Krishnan, AV., et al. (2010): Tissue-selective regulation of aromatase expression by calcitriol: implications for breast cancer therapy. In: Endocrinology. URL:

[6] Li, P., et al. (2007): Amino acids and immune function. In: British Journal of Nutrition. URL:

[7] Nimptsch, K., et al. (2012): Association between plasma 25‐OH vitamin D and testosterone levels in men. In: Clinical endocrinology. URL:

[8] Luxwolda, MF., et al. (2012): Traditionally living populations in East Africa have a mean serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration of 115 nmol/l. In: British Journal of Nutrition. URL:

[9] Pilz, S., et al. (2011): Effect of vitamin D supplementation on testosterone levels in men. In: Hormone and Metabolic Research. URL:

[10] Prasad, AS., et al. (1996): Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. In: Nutrition. URL:

Search terms for this article: Vitamin D value, vitamin d regeneration, vitamin d regeneration, vitamin d immune system, vitamin d immunity, vitamin d cold, vitamin d hormone, vitamin d strength, vitamin d aromatase, ergogenic acid vitamin d.

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