We all know that winter season sees an increase in colds, flu, various stomach bugs, and now COVID-19. What underpins our health is our immune system. So what can we do to make sure our immune system is as strong and robust as it can be?
The immune system is precisely that – a system, not a single entity. To function well it requires balance and harmony in our whole mind and body and the best way to achieve this is to have a healthy lifestyle.
Here are our top tips:
1. Get enough sleep.
Sleep and immunity are closely tied. In fact, inadequate or poor quality sleep is linked to a higher susceptibility to sickness.
Whilst you sleep, your immune system produces proteins called cytokines, which target infection and inflammation.
Adults should aim to get 7 or more hours of sleep each night, while teens need 8–10 hours and younger children and infants up to 14 hours.
If you regularly feel tired throughout the day, you probably aren’t getting enough sleep.
Many people treat sleep as a luxury, but it is truly a necessity. Make a conscious effort to sleep more as it could really boost your immunity.
2. Have a good diet.
Like any fighting force, the immune system army marches on its stomach so needs good, regular nourishment:
Fruits and Vegetables – antioxidants in these foods help decrease inflammation by combatting unstable compounds called free radicals, which can cause inflammation when they build up in your body in high levels
Chronic inflammation is linked to numerous health conditions, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers.
Meanwhile, the fibre in plant foods feeds your gut microbiome, or the community of healthy bacteria in your gut. A robust gut microbiome can improve your immunity and help keep harmful pathogens from entering your body via your digestive tract
Healthy fats – like those found in olive oil and salmon, may boost your body’s immune response to pathogens by decreasing inflammation.
Eat more fermented foods or take a probiotic supplement – a healthy gut microbiome encourages healthy defences. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria called probiotics, which populate your digestive tract.
These foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and natto.
Limit added sugars
Emerging research suggests that added sugars and refined carbs may contribute disproportionately to overweight and obesity. Obesity may likewise increase your risk of getting sick.
3. Take regular moderate exercise.
Regular exercise can strengthen your immune system, as well as helping you sleep better and reducing your stress levels – two things that have an impact on immunity.
Regular exercise has been shown to improve immune response even in those with weakened immune systems.
Examples of moderate exercise include brisk walking, steady bicycling, jogging, swimming, and light hiking.
Most people should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
4. Stay hydrated
Hydration doesn’t necessarily protect you from germs and viruses, but preventing dehydration is important to your overall health.To prevent dehydration, you should drink enough fluid daily to make your urine pale yellow.
Water is recommended because it’s free of calories, additives, and sugar.
It’s important to note that older adults begin to lose the urge to drink, as their bodies do not signal thirst adequately. Older adults need to drink regularly even if they do not feel thirsty.
5. Manage your stress levels
Relieving stress and anxiety is key to immune health. Stress and anxiety can have a physical effect on our bodies, including a negative impact on our natural defences. This is particularly true if you are stressed over a long period of time.
One study even found a link between chronic stress-related conditions and autoimmune diseases.
Activities that may help you manage your stress include meditation, exercise, journaling, yoga, and other mindfulness practices. You may also benefit from seeing a licensed counsellor or therapist, whether virtually or in person.
6. Get the nutrients your immune system needs
Certain nutrients are essential to the good running of your immune system. These are found in fresh produce, but you may also want to use supplements.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that fights free radicals in the body. This vital nutrient is found in many foods, not just citrus fruits. It’s also in leafy green vegetables, bell peppers, strawberries, carrots and many more fruits and vegetables.
- Vitamin E is another powerful antioxidant that helps your body fight infection. Find it in spinach, broccoli, almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts.
- Vitamin B6 is essential to your immune system. Bananas, lean poultry, tuna and chickpeas are all high in this nutrient.
- Vitamin D helps the body regulate immune responses. Eating fatty fish (or fortified cereals and spreads) and being exposed to sunlight is needed.
- Vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant, can be found in brightly coloured foods. Carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and squash are all high in this nutrient.
- Folate – also known as folic acid – helps our body create cells, meaning a deficiency can lead to a weakened immune system. Get yours from beans and peas or leafy green vegetables. You’ll also find it in certain fortified foods.
- Iron helps your body carry oxygen to cells, including the white blood cells that are central to the immune system. Find it in lean poultry or in dark, leafy greens.
- Selenium is thought to play a crucial role in the functioning of our body’s defences. Find it in garlic, broccoli, sardines, tuna and mushrooms, among many other foods.
- Zinc is thought to help control inflammation. Zinc is found in oysters, crabs, poultry, beans and chickpeas.
7. Don’t smoke
Smoking causes damage to many of the body’s organs and systems, thereby affecting overall health and well being. Nicotine suppresses the immune system.
8. Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight has many health implications and can weaken the immune system. Obesity is characterised by a state of low-grade, chronic inflammation in addition to disturbed levels of circulating nutrients and metabolic hormones.
9. If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
Alcohol has diverse adverse effects throughout the body including the immune system. In the lungs, for example, alcohol damages the immune cells and fine hairs that have the important job of clearing pathogens out of our airway. Similarly, alcohol can trigger inflammation in the gut and destroy the microorganisms that live in the intestine and maintain immune system health.
The government recommends that we should not drink more that 14 units a week on a regular basis, but ideally this should be less – around 5-6 units.
This article was written by Karen Robinson, formerly a Registered Osteopath.