Before a worldwide pandemic tore through our lives in early 2020, most people didn’t give their immune system a second thought. During the winter months, we may stock up on Vitamin C, but we usually trust our body to support us should we become sick. Over the last twelve months, health consciousness has skyrocketed and supporting our immune system has never felt more important. Yet, there is still a significant lack of understanding about the immune system, how it works, and the ways in which factors such as sleep, stress and nutrition all play a part in the body’s ability to fight sickness.
Nothing will make you invincible, and we are all immunologically unique, but there are various ways we can help strengthen our body’s resistance to infection. Here are my top tips to boost your immunity.
Adopt a food-first approach
Our digestive system plays a vital role in metabolising the body’s toxins. In fact, over 70% of the immune system’s cells are located in our gut walls, showing just how important diet is for warding off illness.
An immune-strengthening eating plan goes far beyond turmeric, blueberries and ginger shots. Rather than focusing on so-called superfoods, aim for a diet filled with a broad and colourful amount of ingredients. Fibre, in particular, has a direct impact on improving the microbiome located within the digestive system’s walls. Many people associate fibre with bland foods such as dry bran cereal, but it can actually be found in a huge variety of places, from fruit and veg to nuts, beans and pulses.
Protein is also essential to heal and build antibodies. If you avoid meat, it can be trickier to get ‘complete proteins’ – foods that contain all nine amino acids. Quinoa is the best plant-based complete protein. It’s essential to think about how you can incorporate a wide variety of ingredients into your diet to ensure you’re nourishing your body with all of the nutrients that it needs.
Keep the body hydrated by drinking two to three litres of water every day. If you’re trying to avoid getting sick, drinking lots of water will help to flush virus particles through your pharynx and into your digestive system where the stomach acid will kill it – if they linger for too long in a dry mouth they are more likely to travel into your respiratory tract.
It may also be wise to incorporate a good quality probiotic supplement into your diet. Probiotics boost the good bacteria in your digestive tract, but their benefits go well beyond the gut. They also boost the immune function, improve resistance to infections, reduce bloating and improve symptoms of IBS.
No matter how well-thought-out your diet is, it can be tough to get all the nutrients your body needs through food alone. Over the last fifty years, soil has been depleted of nutrients, and our food no longer delivers the levels of vitamins and minerals that it once used to. So, taking some good quality nutritional supplements is just as important as eating well. But choose your supplements carefully, as you don’t need to supplement everything, and ‘overdosing’ on vitamins and minerals can cause side effects such as diarrhoea and nausea.
Generally, we should prioritise Vitamin D supplements – a crucial component of a healthy immune system, but most of the UK population are deficient. Take at least 2000iu per day, particularly in the winter months when we’re not getting much sun (our primary source of Vitamin D).
It comes as no revelation that Vitamin C plays a vital role in supporting our immune system. It boosts macrophage activity and lymphocyte levels while helping to decrease the symptoms and longevity of viruses. Not only that, but it also actively protects your cells as well as boosts collagen and helps keep our bones and organs healthy. Zinc is key for increasing protein levels and helps in the production of our B cells, but is often left behind in the topic of supplementation. Maintaining healthy levels of this mineral can also help to shorten the lifespan of colds and flu.
Whether a brisk walk or something a little more strenuous, exercise can have a powerful effect on our immunity by reducing infection and inflammation within the body. Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly may develop more or healthier white blood cells even just by brisk walking. It also helps moderate cortisol levels, which can lead to harmful levels of inflammation when raised for long periods. That said, I do firmly believe that overtraining can have the opposite effect and inhibit immunity. So, stay active and keep moving, but don’t overdo it.
Clean up your sleep hygiene
The health of our sleep routine is probably the most important factor when it comes to maintaining a healthy immune system. Most of us need at least seven hours a night, and that’s when the body undergoes its essential repairs and cell replenishment. Unsurprisingly, a lack of sleep almost immediately tips your immune system into imbalance. Studies show that those not getting enough are four times more likely to catch a cold than those getting at least seven hours.
I do my best to put my phone down at least one hour before I go to bed. The blue light emitted from our devices tricks our brains into thinking it’s daytime, causing it to create less melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. If you struggle drifting off at night, snacking on foods such as walnuts, almonds, goji berries, pineapples and bananas can give a little pre-bedtime melatonin boost and also make a delicious dessert.
Prioritise your mental health
Stress makes our immune systems function at a sub-optimal level because cortisol – the primary stress hormone – is one of the biggest immunosuppressants. Taking just ten minutes every day to practice mindfulness and deep breathing can help to anchor the mind, declutter daily stress and increase the supply of oxygen to the brain to stimulate the nervous system. I love to use my Muse headband, which tracks your brainwaves to help you take control of your mind and emotions and understand what a calm state feels like.
Going back to the importance of exercise, research shows that being outside in nature, even for just 20 minutes a day, can increase immunity, improve mood and happiness and decrease anxiety by lowering cortisol levels in the body.
If you’d like to find out more about how you can optimise your health, click here to book a consultation at my Kent or London clinic.