Knowing how you can boost your immunity is so important for your health. As restrictions in the UK start to ease it is more important than ever to keep our immune system working well to help us in preventing catching viruses such as Covid-19 or supporting our bodies in coping should we catch it. Keeping our immunity working optimally is not only important for Covid-19 prevention and protection but for other viruses too such as the common cold or flu especially as children go back to schools and more and more people start heading back to work, the shops and pubs and restaurants.
What is our immune system?
Our immune system is our defence against foreign invaders trying to enter the body. These invaders, known as pathogens, may be things like viruses, bacteria or parasites but also other toxins from our surrounding environment. It is the immune systems role to identify the foreign organisms within the body, neutralise the threat and then remember them so our body can act quickly in the future when it is exposed to the same pathogens again.
There are 2 arms of the immune system. The innate immune system and the adaptive or acquired immune system.
The innate system is our defence system that we have from birth or inherit and tends to be less specific as to what it targets. It is made up of our first line of defence which includes physical barriers such as the skin and chemical barriers like sweat, tears or stomach acid. The innate system also includes our second line of defence which includes things like fever and inflammation but also certain cells known as phagocytes as well as natural killer cells and others.
The adaptive or acquired immune system develops over time and will be more specific in its targeting and has a memory enabling it to target the same invaders again in the future. This system is know as our third line of defence which is made up of our T and B cells
A balanced immune system
Keeping our immune system balanced is key for optimal effectiveness because if the immune system is under reacting we become susceptible to infections and illness but if it over reacting it can lead to allergic reactions and autoimmune problems.
Signs you may have a lowered immune system
- You are often unwell and find you always seem to pick up infections and illnesses really easily
- When you do get ill you find it quite hard to get over. It always seems to take you longer to get over a cold than everyone else
- When you get ill your lymph nodes or tonsils become swollen. The lymph nodes you tend to notice when swollen are in your neck or under your arms
- You have taken antibiotics an many occasions for various illnesses over the years
- You work indoors a lot or don’t have much exposure to the sun and if you are out in the sun you always cover up or use very high factor sunscreens
- You work in places where infections occur regularly or are highly transmissible such as a hospital or school
- You’ve suffered from severe infections in the past. Things like glandular fever or chicken pox.
Just because any, or all of the above apply to you doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a lowered immune system but they just mean you should be aware and perhaps take precautions to try and protect yourself going forward.
We will always be exposed to pathogens in our environment whether that’s at work, home or school or on public transport but it’s how our immune system deals with them that determines how ill we get. Factors such as stress, being overweight, poor digestion or poor sleep can all contribute to a lowered immune system so how we counteract these with lifestyle and dietary changes will help us boost our defences.
Foods to boost your immunity
Eat the rainbow
Eating a wide variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables helps ensure you get diverse intake of nutrients including key vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients as well as fibre that will help to boost your immunity. Particularly try and increase the amount of foods rich in vitamins A, C, D and Zinc.
Good sources of vitamin A: carrots, sweet potato, squash and pumpkin, broccoli, peppers, mangoes, and papayas
Good sources of vitamin C: Vitamin C is found in all fresh fruit vegetables but some of the best sources are acerola cherries, all citrus fruits, pineapple, cantaloupe melon, kiwi fruit, strawberries, blackcurrants, peppers, sweet potatoes, papaya, broccoli, kale
Good sources of vitamin D: oily fish, some soy products, shiitake mushroom (and other mushrooms). To give the mushrooms a boost place them on a windowsill to absorb sunshine before eating them
Good sources of Zinc: sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, oats, sprouted seeds, ginger
Eat for your microbiome
The microbiome is the collection of bacteria living in the gut which are beneficial to our health. They help to act as a line of defence against pathogens as part of our immune system and so it is vital to keep a happy and healthy gut microbiome. You may have heard of prebiotics and probiotics which people often think of in terms of supplements or shot style drinks but their are foods and drinks you can have which have pre and probiotic properties. To protect your microbiome you also need to minimise them amount of sugar, alcohol and processed foods you eat as these can help feed the ‘bad bacteria’.
Prebiotic foods: Onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, chicory
Probiotic foods: Sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, kefir, tofu, tempeh
Protein to strengthen immunity
Increasing protein intake or at least ensuring an adequate source which should be equivalent to 1g to 1.5g of protein per kg of body weight will help in creating more immunoglobulins and antibodies
Good sources of protein: organic raw nuts, seeds, chicken, fish, turkey, non GMO tofu
A number of the vitamins we need are fat soluble and so need fat to be absorbed. If we don’t digest fat properly this reduces the absorption of these vitamins like vitamins A and D as well as other essential fats such as omega-3.
Foods to boost fat absorption: bitter foods to stimulate digestion such as rocket and chicory. Try having a salad before dinner high in rocket and chicory with a dressing made from extra virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar.
Other foods to help by stimulating bile are artichoke, turmeric and you can try dandelion teas.
Foods to reduce
As mentioned before you should try and avoid or minimise foods which increase inflammation within the body.
Inflammatory foods: processed foods, sugar, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, dairy, gluten
A diet rich in wholefoods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and oily fish can help in protecting again inflammation.
Supplements to consider
These are some of the supplements you could consider to help boost your immune system but you should always speak to a nutritional therapist first and if you are on any medications always speak to your doctor before starting to take anything.
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Herbs such as oregano or echinacea plus also lemon, ginger, manuka honey and turmeric can all help
Lifestyle factors to boost your immunity
Sleep is when our body gets an chance to rest and repair so the less we sleep the less time their is for our body to do that. Research shows the importance of sleep on immunity with those getting less than 7 hours sleep a night being 3 times more likely to get an infection.
Tips for better sleep:
- create a bedtime routine and stick to it
- limit the amount of time spent on screen before bed. Try and turn off your phone, tablet laptop etc. at least 1 hour before going to bed
- Make sure your bedroom is really dark. Use black out curtains or an eye mask
- Remove electronic devices from the bedroom while you sleep
- Avoid drinking caffeine after midday
- Increase the amount of natural light you get during the day. Try and expose yourself to natural light first thing in the morning
These days we are bombarded by constant stressors in our lives, sometimes they may only seem small but they all add up and keep our body in a permanently stressed state, often referred to as ‘fight or flight’ mode. This constant stress can lower our immune response and make us more likely to pick up infections. It is also know to deplete levels of vitamin C, zinc and magnesium which are all needed for a healthy immune system. By reducing stress levels it can help boost you immunity.
Tips to reduce stress:
- Try writing in a journal or at least writing down things you are you are grateful for every day to focus on that rather than the stressful situations
- Try meditation. There are meditation apps that can help such as Headspace or Calm and even 10 minutes can make such a difference to your day
- Be creative. In your spare time try creative activities such as painting or drawing, jigsaws, or knitting that can help bring down stress
- Try mindful exercise such as yoga or Tai Chi
- Try breathing techniques such as the breathing in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 5 and repeating. There are many others you can find on the internet
- Have a relaxing bath or even a shower if a bath isn’t for you but di it to relax not just to wash
- Talk to friends or family. Pick up the phone, text someone or connect in some way
- Get outside. Being in nature has been shown to improve stress levels and wellbeing so try going for at least a 15 minute walk and try to go where there’s a but more nature like a park rather than busy streets
Regular physical exercise is known to lower stress levels, help with weight management and support the lymphatic system. By incorporating exercise into your life you will help you boost your immunity and support maintaining a balanced immune system going forward.
Tips for exercise:
- Move everyday. That doesn’t have to be intense exercise like a HIIT or running but try going for a 30 minute walk at lunchtime
- try incorporating exercise that will also help with stress such as yoga. A good place to start is yoga with Adriene
- If new to exercise maybe start with Pilates or yoga to get the body moving
- Use apps like couch to 5k to start building up cardio exercise through running or jogging
- Try and add in strength exercises which are also great for muscles and bone density. Try doing HIIT workouts 3 times a week, there are a lot of free workouts on Youtube