How to take care of your immune system
How to take care of your immune system
Supporting immunity has never felt as important as it does right now. Our immune system can be adversely affected by a number of different factors, including diet, lifestyle, and environment. The good news is that there are plenty of simple things you can do to help keep it functioning effectively. I've put together some easy life-hacks to help you - and your immune system - feel better equipped to face life's challenges.
This year, we've all had to deal with new and unprecedented challenges. On top of this, for those of us living in colder climates, chilly temperatures mean more nasty bugs doing the rounds. Is it possible to strengthen your immune system to fight off infections? Is it helpful to make changes to your diet? Will making lifestyle changes result in a stronger immune response? Read my guide so you know which factors affect your immune system and what you can do to help your defences against nasty bugs and viruses. At times like this we all need a plan!
10 tips to help boost your immune system
- Keep your distance!
- Limit stress
- Improve your diet
- Cut down on alcohol
- Consider giving up smoking
- Get more sleep
- Be more active!
- Stay connected
- Cut off unhealthy relationships
- Try some new supplements
There is a very good reason for keeping your distance when trying to stay bug-free, firstly because coming into close contact with people who are ill puts your immune system under pressure. Secondly, many viral illnesses are infectious and spread easily from person-to-person via many forms of contact, such as hugging, kissing, or even sitting near each other (remember that?). So keeping your distance can be a key consideration for your immune support plan.
On the other hand, there is some evidence that suggests exposure to different types of pathogens, such as those in soil, can improve our immunity1. Experts have termed this effect the ‘hygiene hypothesis’. There's mixed feelings about this but vaccines actually work in a similar way – they expose our bodies to an inert or weakened form of a virus so our body can build natural immunity towards it.
However, this principle does not apply when encountering those suffering from colds and viruses. Exposure to COVID-19 will not build immunity towards it and it is imperative that you actively avoid contact with others especially if you, or somebody you have been in contact with, display symptoms.
Stress is cumulative; it can affect immunity and might eventually develop into more serious health issues. Therefore, it’s important to be conscious of the simple day-to-day influences that cause you stress, especially as research indicates that being happy is great for the immune system.
It may be difficult not to feel stressed with everything that’s going on, but there are a few things you can try to help.
Relaxing activities such as yoga, reading, or taking a bath can often work to relieve stress. Practising mindfulness and meditation can also help to keep you grounded in the present moment, and ease anxiety about the future. Finding some good things in each day can encourage a positive attitude, too. Research has shown that people who practice positive thinking have a stronger immune response, compared to those who tend to be more negative2.
We do understand, though, that it’s not always that simple. Accept that a little stress is normal at the moment, and find things that work for you to help calm your worries.
We all have our super-healthy days, and our not-so-healthy days, but if your bad diet days outnumber your good, then this might affect your immune function. Maintaining a good structured healthy diet may be challenging, but if you are someone who finds themselves picking up every bug going around, it is time to take a good look at the food you are putting into your body. A high sugar intake, and consumption of processed and fast foods, can unfortunately weaken the immune system. These types of foods feed bad bacteria in the gut and this makes for an unhealthy gut environment. Many of our immune cells are found in the gut, and so an imbalance could possibly affect immune responses resulting in inflammation in the body.
We can still have the odd yummy cake, but it is all about striking a balance. Aim for lots of colour and variety in your diet – these are your #DietGoals! Make sure you eat enough protein, e.g. meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and dairy products, and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables which contain vitamin C, E and beta-carotene. All of these nourishing vitamins and minerals will boost and strengthen your immune system3. Now that we all have a little more time on our hands, why not try out some healthy new recipes?
Whilst it’s understandable that you might feel more like a drink to destress than usual, be mindful that alcohol misuse may result in lowered immunity. It has been found that alcohol triggers complex disruptions to the immune pathways4. These disruptions can impair the body’s ability to defend against infection, contribute to organ damage associated with alcohol consumption, and can actually impede recovery from tissue injury5.
So, I would advise limiting the amount of alcohol you consume. If you feel like having a drink after a long day, consider having a glass of red wine instead of other types of alcohol, as this contains antioxidants known to support health and relax the body6. Keep track of how much alcohol you consume each week – those units can mount up without you realising!
Just so you know, here are some useful guidelines to help you monitor your alcohol consumption. It is highly advised that both men and women are not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week on a regular basis. This is achievable by spreading your consumption over a course of 3 or more days if you are someone who tends to drink more than 14 units per week. If you are determined to cut down on your alcohol consumption, try to have several drink-free days each week and you are guaranteed to notice a change7!
Alongside the multiple negative effects of smoking, research suggests that smoking also weakens your immune system8. There are harmful elements found in cigarettes which can lead to the formation of free radicals in the body, which can adversely affect immune function. It is believed that smoking may also affect the health of your gut microbiome. If you are a smoker, the best recommendation is to give up smoking! If this is too much of a challenge, try swapping cigarettes for a less harmful alternative, such as a vapour or e-cigarette. You can gradually work towards giving up smoking this way.
Whilst there may be lots of things currently keeping you up at night, it’s vital you get enough sleep. A number of studies have shown that sleep deprivation resorts in the number of T cells (immune cells) reducing and anti-inflammatory cytokines increasing, disrupting and weakening our immune response. This increases the likelihood of catching common colds and other infections9.
How can you improve your quality of sleep? Try reducing your caffeine consumption, and consider organising your evening tasks by creating a checklist. This can help to prevent you feeling overwhelmed by your commitments.
Having a positive pre-bed routine may help to promote a good night’s sleep: try a relaxing soak in a warm bath, listen to relaxing music, sip on a cup of chamomile tea, or read an absorbing book. It is also good to keep your bedroom tidy and organised, creating a pleasant environment for sleep. Lastly, try sleeping with an eye mask and earplugs, to block out distractions which may disturb your slumber10.
Whilst the types and amount of exercise we can engage in at the moment have been limited, it’s still important to stay active. Research suggests that incorporating as little as 20 minutes of daily exercise into your routine has been shown to support positive immune responses11. You may not be able to head down to the gym or your favourite exercise class, but there are lots of ways to make home workouts fun and rewarding.
Lots of professionals are running online sessions that you can tune into and follow from home. Plus, there are endless workout videos available on YouTube for whatever part of the body you want to focus on.
Don’t forget that housework is also great exercise. If you give some thought to making it a priority it is easy to add more exercise into your daily routine – be creative!
Here are some of our favourite fitness gurus offering online classes, live or on YouTube:
Joe Wicks (aka The Body Coach) – every weekday at 9am, Joe Wicks is running PE classes for children, so they don’t miss out while they’re not at school. We love this as it means the whole family can get involved. Head to his YouTube channel just before 9am to tune in.
Yoga with Adriene – everyone’s favourite yogi, Adriene has been uploading free yoga practises and full-length classes to YouTube for years. With hundreds of different practises to choose from for all abilities, and no need for any equipment, it couldn’t be easier.
Carly Rowena – the most fabulous fitness fanatic, and all-around superwoman, Carly uploads workouts to her Instagram and YouTube that you can easily do from home. Plus, she has lots of other great tips for general health and wellbeing too.
Isolation is something affecting people across the globe right now. Social distancing and self-isolation are incredibly important and necessary, but have left many experiencing loneliness, low mood and anxiety.
It’s hard to feel positive when you might be separated from loved ones, but staying connected is good not only for our mental wellbeing, but our immune health too. Studies have suggested that people who have a healthy connection to friends and/or family have a stronger immune system, compared to those who experience emotions linked with isolation12.
Whilst we can’t go out and meet our friends and family, we’re lucky to live in an age where staying connected is easier than ever. Here are a few ways we’re staying close to our loved ones, even from afar:
Lunch break chats – sync up your lunchtimes and call your friends and colleagues for a catch-up. It’ll be like you never left the office!
Video call ‘meetups’ – if you can’t go out to do fun stuff, bring the fun stuff to you! Try doing exercise classes with friends and family over video calls, or host a virtual dinner party.
Long-distance movie nights – there's a new Google Chrome extension called Netflix Party, which allows you to watch films and TV shows at the same time as others. It even has a chat feature so you can share in your horror at so-and-so kissing what’s-her-face.
Reach out to your community - join one of the various 'kindness challenges' which have sprung up around the world. Loneliness is also becoming an epidemic, so it's never been more important for everyone to reach out to each other. One of the most rewarding things you can do for your own wellbeing is to help someone else. This can take many forms, from a phone call or video chat to an elderly neighbour, meeting up for a walk with a neighbour who lives alone, or helping those who can't get out and about by doing shopping, walking dogs, or writing a good old-fashioned letter to brighten their day. If you are one of those who needs support, then don't be afraid to ask for help. Helping others is a gift not a chore for many people, and they'll only be too happy to help out.
There are also various organisations available online which can help you reconnect or meet new people13.
2020 has been a year of reflection for many, and an opportunity to review our lives and relationships. Whether it's a romantic or a friendship relationship, listen to your ‘gut feeling’! Unhealthy or toxic relationships can weaken your immune health. Start by reflecting on the company that you keep in your life. Ask yourself: do they bring the best out of me? Do they add value to my life? Is it one sided or are both parties invested? It is really important to surround yourself with positive, like-minded people who genuinely want the best for you. A study showed that reciprocating positive emotions was associated with people suffering fewer colds and/or infections14.
We all know about vitamin C and its slime-fighting abilities, but there are other supplements you might want to consider to help support your immune system.
Vitamins A, B6 and B12 have also been shown to help maintain normal immune health, too, as well as iron.
Our ‘For daily immunity’ contains friendly bacteria, plus vitamin C to keep your immune system in tip-top shape.
Wishing you the best of health!
- Cowling BJ, Ip DK, Fang VJ, et al. Aerosol transmission is an important mode of influenza A virus spread. Nat Commun. 2013;4:1935. doi:10.1038/ncomms2922
- Olszak, T., An, D., Zeissig, S., Vera, M., Richter, J., Franke, A., Glickman, J., Siebert, R., Baron, R., Kasper, D. and Blumberg, R., 2012. Microbial Exposure During Early Life Has Persistent Effects on Natural Killer T Cell Function. Science, 336(6080), pp.489-493.
- Qiu, F., Liang, C., Liu, H., Zeng, Y., Hou, S., Huang, S., Lai, X. and Dai, Z., 2016. Impacts of cigarette smoking on immune responsiveness: Up and down or upside down?. Oncotarget, 8(1), pp.268-284.
- Hemilä, H., 1996. Vitamin C and Common Cold Incidence: A Review of Studies with Subjects Under Heavy Physical Stress. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 17(05), pp.379-383.
- Sarkar, D., Jung, M. K., & Wang, H. J., 2015. Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 37(2), 153–155.
- Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J., 2012. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv : European journal of physiology, 463(1), 121–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
- Micallef, M., Lexis, L. and Lewandowski, P., 2007. Red wine consumption increases antioxidant status and decreases oxidative stress in the circulation of both young and old humans. Nutrition Journal, 6(1).
- NHS, 2015. Loneliness 'may affect the immune system'. [Online]
- Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/loneliness-may-affect-the-immune-system/ [Accessed 06 09 2018].
- NHS, 2016. Sleep and tiredness. [Online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/how-to-get-to-sleep/ [Accessed 06 09 2018].
- NHS, 2018. Alcohol support. [Online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calculating-alcohol-units/ [Accessed 05 09 2018].
- Ozdemir, K. K., 2012. The Effect of Nutritional Elements on the Immune System. Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy, 2(9), pp. 1-6.
- Pickersgill, H., 2013. Lighting Up Immunity. Science Signaling, 6(301).
- Cole, S., Capitanio, J., Chun, K., Arevalo, J., Ma, J. and Cacioppo, J., 2015. Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(49), pp.15142-15147.
- Segerstrom, S. C., 2007. Optimism and immunity: Do positive thoughts always lead to positive effects?. HHS Author Manscripts, 19(3), pp. 195-200.
- Cohen, S., Doyle, W., Turner, R., Alper, C. and Skoner, D., 2003. Emotional Style and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), pp.652-657.