How to support your immune system
Wondering how to support your immune system? From taking regular exercise to eating the right foods, there are many things we can do to help ourselves stay well.
Now more than ever during the Covid-19 crisis, you may be giving your health more attention. While it can be tempting to ‘boost’ our immune system at the moment, we need to take a more structured approach.
“There is, quite understandably, a strong focus on immunity in the media at the moment, so it’s not surprising to see lots of articles claiming that we should all be ‘boosting’ our immune systems as a way of helping ensure we stay fit and healthy,” says Nicola Moore, a Nutritional Therapist.
“I’d argue that boosting is a red herring, and that we’re maybe focussing on the wrong thing. Instead, it might be more useful to consider how we can find ways to optimise an appropriate immune response to infection, or just ensure we’re resilient.
“The fact is that the immune system’s response to an infection may well require a degree of ‘boosting’ as part of its initial response, but careful management of this is needed, and ultimately, resolution is what’s required following a cycle of different processes. I prefer to talk about ‘balancing’ the immune system, rather than boosting it.”
Here, we take a look at what can lower our immune system, what the science says and the easy lifestyle changes you can do to support your health.
What can lower our immune system?
We may not have listened when our mothers told us to put on another layer, lest we ‘catch a cold’, but it seems that colder weather can bring with it illness and fatigue.
The winter flu becomes much more prevalent in winter months and it seems that the tends to favour cold conditions for transmission, as concluded by researchers from the Texas Tech University concluded in 2017. Coupled with this is the fact that we’re more likely to be indoors during the chillier months. This makes transmission from person to person more likely.
Busy or stressful times can also have an effect on our immune system. More than just making you tired, this kind of stress can actually make you more susceptible to falling ill.
“Too much cortisol, which we produce more of under stress, has been shown to interfere with the crucial resolution phase of an immune response,” says Nicola.
Our stress response evolved to keep us safe from fierce lions and predators back when we were living in caves. Nowadays, while the threat from lions may be gone, our stress response acts to different stimuli – from pressures at work to problems at home. This chronic stress can impact our immune system. A 2004 meta-analysis of 300 studies revealed stress that last longer than a few minutes (days, months or even years) causes our immune system to decline, meaning we’re not so able to fight off infection.
You may find a lack of sleep is also making you feel weak in the face of infection. And you’d be right. A review paper in 2012 concluded that long-term reductions in sleep, coupled with the stress of not sleeping, can cause poorer immune function. During these times, the body’s immune system produces chronic low-grade inflammation and immunodeficiency, both of which can have detrimental effects on our health.
What can I do about it?
The good news is there are lots of ways to combat these affronts on your immune system.
Our lifestyle habits are one surefire way to keep our bodies protected. Ensuring we get as close to eight hours of sleep a night can help with immune protection and recovery.
“Making sleep a priority is incredibly helpful for supporting a balanced immune system,” says Nicola. “This is most notably because of its impact on melatonin production; an important immune modulator.”
Etablishing good bedtime habits can be effective in helping you to relax and drift off. Swap late-night TV and scrolling through social media for a good book and a warming de-caffeinated drink to promote calm. Long soothing soaks in the bath help us to wind down, as can a gentle yoga practice, or meditation and breathing exercises.
Making time to exercise regularly is also beneficial for supporting your immune system and making you feel better. Just be careful not to overdo it. While there’s some debate in the scientific community, there is a line of thinking that suggests intense exercise (for example training for or running a marathon) can have a negative impact on our immune system.
This doesn’t mean you can chill out on the couch though! Being fit and enjoying moderate exercise has been found to improve immune responses and lower the risk of illness. Enjoying exercise like walking, jogging and dancing each day can help to keep us well. It’ll also keep stress levels low, providing your immune system with additional support.
“Managing stress by adopting healthy lifestyle practices, such as regular, sensible exercise or meditation, helps keep levels of the hormone cortisol at appropriate levels,” explains Nicola.
Diet has a really important role to play. Vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits and chillis, may reduce the duration of your colds and even help stop you getting them in the first place. We also recommend eating garlic, as the bulbs have germ-fighting properties.
“Enjoy a wide array of local, seasonal foods, rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, nuts, olive oil, herbs and spices,” says Nicola. “This has been demonstrated as having a positive effect on balancing inflammatory processes. This is good news for the immune system as a whole.”
Probiotics are also key to keeping a healthy gut and biome, which can in turn help fight against infection. Liz’s Good Gut Guide has lots of recipes and advice to make sure you’re supporting your immune system.
Will vitamins help immunity?
If you want to make sure you’re pampering your immune system, we recommend getting enough of the crucial vitamins.
Maintaining a healthy gut is key to keeping well. A well-balanced and varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables will help to top up vitamins and minerals. Looking after the good bacteria in your gut is also key for good gut health. Enjoy probiotics, or live drinks and snacks such as kefir, kombucha and kimchi to increase the number of good bacteria.
A good probiotic is BioKult. This multi-strain formula can help to diversify your gut bacteria and the capsules are useful for on-the-go illness prevention at this hectic time of year.
Some vitamins can be a little more challenging to get from our diet – one of them being vitamin D. Vitamin D plays a role in the healthy function of our immune system.
One of the easiest ways to top up your vitamin D intake is through sunshine on the skin, but this isn’t always practical. Whether it’s the winter, through working in an office or concerns around the impact of sun on skin health, not getting outdoors in the sunlight enough means that you may not be getting enough vitamin D.
Supplementation is one way to top up for vitamin D intake. Better You is one brand that offers an easy way to get your vitamin D through an oral spray. It also makes its packaging out of ocean waste as an added bonus.
If you’re feeling a bit snowed under and are looking for something to help with your sleep and mood, Saffrosun is an effective natural supplement for improving psychological balance, which we love here at Liz Earle Wellbeing. (You may have heard Liz talking about this on her Friday Five podcast).
Vitamin C and immunity
Vitamin C is a vital nutrient for your health, with a severe deficiency resulting in scurvy. Although scurvy is rare, as our bodies are unable to produce our own or store Vitamin C for future use, it remains important to consume plenty of Vitamin C-rich fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is essential for the repair of our cells, making it necessary to support our immune function. Vitamin C has also been identified as a potential treatment for colds, reducing its duration and, for some, it has been found to prevent a cold taking hold in the first place.
But as the success of these research trials involved large doses, and the laxative effects of taking too much Vitamin C may result in stomach pain and diarrhoea, there remains no consistent agreement about how much we need to consume to gain these benefits.
However research has provided good evidence that taking Vitamin C supplements when suffering from a cold or flu can reduce the risk of developing complications, such as pneumonia or infections.
The NHS recommends that adults aged 19 to 64 need to consume 40mg of Vitamin C per day as part of a healthy diet, while a single orange contains 70mg. But they also state that taking supplements up to 1000mg a day is unlikely to cause any harm.
High dose intravenous Vitamin C treatments for viruses have also been tested, with positive results. Three intravenous Vitamin C studies have been approved in China for treating COVID-19. These studies are planning to give up to 12,000mg per day via IV to severe cases. However approval of high dose intravenous Vitamin C treatment is not expected to be approved as the first approach for treatment against virus for some time.
Dr. Thomas Levy M.D, J.D. is a cardiologist who has written 8 books about health issues including Curing the Incurable: Vitamin C, Infectious Diseases, and Toxins and Primal Panacea, also about Vitamin C. He believes that by ensuring our bodies have as much Vitamin C as we can absorb will help us maintain our immune function as we fight off illness. He assures that Vitamin C taken orally in the form of sodium ascorbate will not cause stomach upsets, and recommends taking 1000mg of sodium ascorbate several times a day, until you need to empty your bowel, to ensure you have absorbed as much Vitamin C as your body needs.