How to support your immune system?
The colder months are here! Autumn and winter are lovely seasons but exposure to cold weather can affect a person’s immune response, making it harder for the body to fight off infections.
Immunity is important all year round, but specifically this time of year.
If you suffer from the usual onslaught of feeling under the weather at this time of the year and are dreading picking up the usual sniffles and sore throats, then this blog is for you.
How does the immune system work?
Our immune system is our defence against intruders such as bacteria, viruses and toxins and protects us from getting ill from them. It is always ‘on’, scanning for foreign invaders and launching appropriate responses to them. The immune system is an incredibly complex network of organs, cells and proteins that defend the body against infection, whilst protecting the body’s own cells.
Can I ‘boost’ my immune system?
Post-Covid there’s an endless supply of supplements, juices and other products out in the market labelled as “immune boosting”.
As alluring as these might be, our immune system is programmed to work in a highly specific way and the concept of boosting your immune system is inaccurate. For a well-functioning system, you don’t want it to be stronger, you want it to be balanced.
How to balance your immune system?
A balanced diet in general is important for your immune system. A poor diet can contribute to a weakened immune response, as can gut health and antibiotic usage. Certain nutrients are key to its function, such as vitamin D, B6, B9 (folate), B12, iron and antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E, selenium, zinc).
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked with a reduced immune response. Often referred to as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ as it’s created by the body from direct sunlight on the skin when outdoors. However, it’s hard to get from the diet (foods like salmon and mushrooms do have some vitamin D). In the UK, the Government’s advice is that everyone should consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter. The recommended adult vitamin D dosage is 10 mcg (micrograms) per day.
Vitamin B6 may improve the immune response and support the production of antibodies. B9 (folate) and B12 are necessary for red blood cell function. Good sources include meat; fish; milk; cheese; eggs; and some fortified breakfast cereals.
Iron is necessary for immune cells, and research has shown iron deficiency anaemia can affect your immune system. Meat-derived iron is easier to absorb than plant-based iron from beans, nuts and tofu. Those on a plant-based diet should seek advice from a health practitioner.
Antioxidants help protect healthy cells from damage and can improve certain immune responses. Antioxidant nutrients include vitamins A, C, and E, zinc, and selenium. It’s best to get these from a nutrient-dense diet. The best sources are:
- Vitamin C foods: kiwi fruit, berries, tomatoes, kale, spinach, citrus fruit, broccoli, watercress
- Vitamin A foods: yellow/orange fruit and vegetables, egg yolk, kale, spinach
- Vitamin E foods: seeds like sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts
- Zinc foods: beef, lamb, cashews, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, pecans
- Selenium foods: 1-2 Brazil nuts per day are all you need!
There are then some foods to reduce in order to support the immune system. Sugar, alcohol, junk or processed foods may affect the gut and weaken the immune response. Where possible limit consumption.
With 70-80% of immune cells being present in the gut, there is a strong relationship between gut health and immunity. Moreover, a healthy gut helps the absorption of the lovely nutrients we talked about above (that’s a blog for another day!).
Help your gut by eating mindfully. Add in some probiotic food to support your gut bacteria such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir. Also, try to include prebiotic foods to feed the good bacteria such as leeks, onions, artichokes, cooked and garlic.
Stress can play a role in how well our immune system copes with the threat from invaders. When we’re stressed, our bodies release stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin, which may dampen our immune response. These hormones, along with inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines, can also affect the production of white blood cells, which play a key role in our immune function.
Make sure you’re practising some stress management techniques daily (that’s for another blog!) and also getting enough sleep as inadequate or poor-quality sleep is linked to a higher susceptibility to sickness.
Just like a healthy diet, exercise contributes to good health and a healthy immune system. Research shows that physically active adults are almost half as likely to succumb to minor infections in comparison to sedentary adults. But if you’re ill, then definitely rest up!
You can make several lifestyle and dietary changes today to support your immune system.
These include eating a balanced diet, rich in vegetables and fruits, to ensure you’re getting the nutrients needed for the immune system. Reducing sugar intake, alcohol and processed food. Looking after your gut health, managing your stress levels, staying active and getting adequate sleep.
Photo courtesy Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-wiping-her-nose-with-tissue-3961224/ www.piacquadio.com