When the weather changes, everyone seems to get sick with cold or flu, and since the coronavirus pandemic, there’s never a better time to understand how to bolster your immune system to protect against unwanted illness that can often bring with it a blocked-up nose, cough, sore throat, headache, and aches and pains making life more difficult! Prevention is always better than cure, so what can we do to make our immune system superpowered?
Jennie Edmondson, founder of Go Health & Fitness, says, “The immune system is a complex system in the body composed of white blood cells, skin, mucus, and bacteria. Its main role is to seek, recruit, attack, and destroy foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses that enter the body. The immune system is precisely that – a system, not a single entity. For it to function well, like all the other systems in the body, it requires balance and harmony.”
Ultimately, it comes down to healthy lifestyle habits every day, not just when you get a sniffle.
1. Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet containing key vitamins & minerals
“Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats,” says women’s health coach, Louise Barton, founder of Live Well With Lou. You’ll need a sufficient number of specific micronutrients to support a healthy immune system including vitamin D, vitamins B2, B6, and B12, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, selenium, magnesium, copper, folic acid, and beta carotene. “These nutrients are important as they work as antioxidants, protecting healthy cells from oxidative stress. They are also involved in the processes that take place in the body to produce immune cells and antibodies,” says nutritionist Emma Bullock-Lynch at Human Food.
If you struggle to maintain all the important nutrients through your diet (we get it – it’s not always easy), try supplements that contain all the vitamins and minerals you need.
2. Consume anti-inflammatories, adaptogens, & antioxidants
Inflammation is the often source of unwanted illnesses and diseases in the body. If you break your arm, you notice swelling. That’s your body’s immune system kicking in to protect you, but there’s lots of inflammation that we can’t see happening inside the body until we get sick. That’s why anti-inflammatory foods, herbs and spices, and supplements are so important for protection. “Turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon are packed with immune-boosting antioxidants and anti-inflammatories – and delicious made into a turmeric latte,” says Barton.
Adaptogens help your body to cope with stress. “Stress is a major contributor to poor immune function, so dose up on stress-relieving adaptogens like Reishi, Rhodiola, and ashwagandha,” advises Barton.
3. Fuel a healthy gut with fermented food, probiotics & prebiotics
“Think of your gut as a personal bodyguard. 70% of your immune system is in your gut. Keep your gut healthy to keep your immune system healthy. Your gut loves fermented foods like kimchi, miso, kefir, live yogurt, tempeh, and sauerkraut – they all boost the good bacteria in your gut. Then keep them happy with plenty of prebiotics (chicory, garlic, onion, leek, slightly unripe banana, asparagus).” says Barton.
The good bacteria keep you healthy and fight the bad bacteria that can make you sick. If you’re not a fan of fermented food, probiotic supplements are a great way to build up all the good bacteria and keep bad bacteria in its place.
4. Exercise regularly & maintain a healthy weight
“Exercise helps release ‘feel good’ hormones that help reduce your stress hormone, cortisol. That’s important because stress not only affects your emotional state but is a major contributor to the strength of your immune system. [It can create] chronic inflammation and suppress immune function needed to fight infection,” says Barton.
“Being underweight or overweight negatively impacts your immunity. This is because when you are underweight, your body lacks the nutrients to fuel the immune system, and when you are overweight, the body is in an elevated state of inflammation which disrupts the efficiency of your immune system. Eating adequate amounts of healthy foods, and frequently taking part in light exercise helps to boost self-esteem, maintain a healthy body weight and boost immunity,” says Bullock-Lynch.
Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise spread evenly over each week. Support your body to recover, increase muscle growth, and help to reduce any aches and pains with protein.
5. Explore nature & stock up on vitamin D
As well as increasing your energy and mood levels just by being surrounded by green space, your body needs vitamin D from sunlight. A walk outside can not only help you stock up, but it helps you to get more exercise, and naturally increases endorphins.Phil Knight, founder of Nike, and wellness guru and founder of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, conduct business meetings walking or running to boost productivity and creative inspiration.
Edmondson explains why vitamin D is so crucial to immunity. “Vitamin D may reduce the risk for viral infections, including respiratory tract infections, by reducing the production of pro-inflammatory compounds in the body.” If you struggle to get enough sunlight with regular time outside in nature, try a vitamin D supplement.
6. Enjoy plenty of sleep, rest & relaxation time
In the hectic world we live in, sleep, rest and relaxation are something we often forget to make time for, despite it having enormous health benefits.
Bullock-Lynch says, “Overloading yourself with work and commitments can increase stress levels and reduce the time you spend relaxing. Stress leads to elevated cortisol (a hormone released by the body in response to stressful situations), and this suppresses your immune system's ability to fight infections. Not taking the time to rest and destress can also lead to tiredness and fatigue, and this too can lead to a weakened immune system.”
Barton explains why this happens. “During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, and these are important for the immune system as they target infection and inflammation. Sleep deprivation may decrease not only the production of these protective cytokines but also their release, so it’s a double whammy. Plus, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don’t get enough sleep too.”
If you struggle to switch off, try a relaxing wind-down routine including yoga, calming music, or meditation, relax with a warm, frothy drink or bubble bath, journal your worries down on paper, and ban digital screens. You could also experiment with sleep apps and supplements.