Your immune system is a gateway that either protects you, or leaves you vulnerable to illness. When your immune system is running well you won’t even notice it. If it weakens or you encounter an aggressive germ, then you can become ill. Most germs only make you feel ill the first time you meet them, as your body has a memory for fighting them afterwards.
The usual fear of flu season is currently greatly amplified by concern about coronavirus (COVID-19). You can control your own level of hygiene but not necessarily your chance of exposure – as your location, contacts and travel will determine this.
In a situation where everything feels largely out of control, is it possible to boost your immunity and lower your risk of infection? There is no guarantee against catching any virus and nothing substitutes following current Public Health England guidance regarding hand washing, social distancing and exposure control. However, there are a number of lifestyle changes you can start implementing now to give your immune system a fighting chance.
Dr Louise Wiseman shares her expert tips on how to boost your immunity to ward off nasty infections and get the very best from your health:
How does your immune system work?
Humans have a multi-layered defence thanks to a network formed by the lymphatic system, specifically designed organs (eg spleen and thymus gland) and circulating cells and proteins. The body is also cleverly designed to ‘stop bad things getting in’ in the following ways:
Skin: your skin provides a great barrier (unless you have cuts or abrasions).
Bugs: bugs that enter the nose trigger cells to make more protective mucus.
Sneezing: sneezes and coughs force invading microbes out.
Stomach acid: acid in your stomach destroys pathogens that you swallow.
Gut lining: your gut has a whole mucosal defence team onboard.
Tiny hairs: small hairs in the airways known as cilia keep mucus moving to remove infections.
Can you boost your immunity?
With all these processes in place, is it possible to strengthen your existing immunity and keep your health in tip-top shape?
’It’s never too late,’ says immunologist and author Dr Jenna Macciochi. ’Taking care of your lifestyle including any small benefits towards managing stress, daily movement, balanced diet and quality sleep are important.
’They may not shift the dial on your health in an immediate, noticeable way but over time, small things add up. In fact, your immunity is reflected in the consistency of these lifestyle practices.’
Lifestyle tips to boost your immunity
To give your immune system a leg-up, implement the following lifestyle tips into your routine:
✔️ Quit smoking
This is a no-brainer. Smoking affects many systems of the body and immunity is not spared. It reduces the function of cilia (delicate hairs that move mucus around the respiratory system). But why do smokers suffer more with viral infections?
’Some evidence suggests the antiviral responses in smokers is hyperreactive and overshoots causing more severe damage to the delicate airways and compromising the main function of the lung to get oxygen,’ says Dr Macciochi.
’There are other factors too: smoking may change the respiratory microbiome (healthy bugs protecting us) as well as the general airway barrier such as mucus,’ she adds. ’These are all part of our immune defences. Increased oxidative stress from smoking may provide the right environment for selection of more virulent species of a virus as it uses our own genetic machinery to replicate. It may also permit faster replication.’
If you’re struggling to quit smoking, ask your family for support and if needed a healthcare professional.
✔️ Cut down on drinking
A few cheeky drinks might help you forget your worries for the night, but too much too often can cause anxiety and trouble for your body in the future. Drinking dehydrates and stops the immune system working optimally. Keep hydrated by sipping water on the side while you are drinking.
Chronic heavy drinkers are predisposed to a range of health issues including infections and inflammation. Alcohol can badly affect the healthy microbes in your gut and literally disrupts their communication with your gut’s immune system. It can also damage the natural gut barrier and allow leakage of bugs into the circulation, potentially making you unwell. Changes in the lungs in heavy drinkers can mean worse chest infections or longer recovery from surgery.
Acute binge drinking can also affect recovery from trauma and it alters the immune response. Consider your drinking and see if cutting down or having at least four drink free days a week will help you. Read the government guidelines to ensure you remain within a healthy quota. Going teetotal is not the only route to being happy or healthy, but being mindful of how much and how often you drink can help.
✔️ Minimise stress
The mind-body connection is a powerful one, but both physical and mental stress is actually something the body is trained for. Like a well-oiled machine the ‘fight or flight’ response is supercharged to quickly react, sending powerful cells into the blood and provoking a physical response that enables you to recover from infection.
Change that to long-term stress and a chronic response promotes a distressed immune system and higher potential for disease and frailty. Reactivation of old viruses (eg chicken pox) can then become a new illness (eg shingles).
The following tips to minimise stress:
Exercise: mild to moderate exercise is a great stress reliever, will make you feel brighter and gives you some ‘emotional buoyancy’ when the hard times hit. Exercise also provides mental space to chill out – think a long distance run, cycle or swim or even just a quick workout - these provide the chemicals you need to fight stress and calm down. Moving outside is a triple bonus for the immunity thanks to vitamin D, sunlight and movement. Exercise also gets the good cells moving and the bad stuff out of the lungs.
Meditate: meditation and mindfulness are also potent stress relievers. Long-term studies of committed meditators show changes in the brain activity; there is less use of panic pathways and more preserving of judgment and cognition. If you meditate regularly you can also make decisions easier. Try a short meditation to start; you can build up gradually and will soon see the difference in your thought processes.
Keep a diary: don’t fancy closing your eyes? Try some journalling. Write out your worries, what makes you happy or sad and write a plan of how to make things better and happier for you. Pen on paper can make you feel more in control, so be selfish and keep this time for you. You deserve it.
Try talking therapy: talk over your problems - don’t ruminate – with a sympathetic partner or friend you might find a problem shared is a problem halved.
✔️ Get enough sleep
Getting sufficient shut-eye is the bedrock of good health. Cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation, are produced and released while you sleep. Even the response to vaccines is dulled if you don’t sleep enough. Try and get seven to eight hours a night as an adult. Naps can offset some of the immune effects but try and avoid snoozing up to four hours before bedtime as it may stop you nodding off.
To get your sleep hygiene in order try the following tips:
Switch screens off 90 minutes before your head hits the pillow.
Try not to eat late.
Soak in an Epsom salt bath (the magnesium salts are thought to be absorbed well through the skin and can relax you).
Invest in a lavender sleep spray.
Ensure your bedroom is not too warm.
✔️ Immunity can be sexy
There are proven links between sexual activity and a perceived sense of wellbeing but this could also be down to that common denominator: LOVE. Emotional support from partners or friends is important for your health.
A small study showed that regular sex increased levels of the illness fighting protein (Immunoglobulin A). Another study showed that regular sexual activity helped people cope with stressful situations easier, so safe sex in a loving relationship could help you more than you realise.
✔️ Laughter is the best medicine
Laughing may reduce stress chemicals, regulating the immune system and may raise cytokines. Research in this area is evolving, but there’s no harm in having a good giggle!
✔️ Gut health and eating a rainbow
Include colourful and antioxidant-rich fruit and veg, pulses, wholegrains and nutrient dense foods on your shopping list. Aim for at least five a day within a Mediterranean style diet to give your immunity a boost. Having a high polyphenol intake (from fruit and veg- these are the flavonoid antioxidant components) can reduce the number of colds people get.
Should you take vitamin supplements?
To supplement or not as an adult is a contentious subject, but there are some key nutrients that it’s worth adding to your shopping list if your immunity needs extra support. But which supplements should you take and which should you avoid?
★ Vitamin D
Ideally all the vitamins and minerals you need should come from your plate. However, in certain climes like Northern Europe residents don’t always get enough vitamin D from sunlight, and it is integral to helping the body produce antibodies to fight illness.
Foods fortified with vitamin D include:
Eggs (mainly the yolk)
To find out whether you should be taking a supplement read the government guidelines and discuss it with your healthcare professional. Excess vitamin D can be harmful (we can’t simply wee it out as it is a fat soluble vitamin) so it is important to follow dosage advice.
★ Vitamin C
Studies about vitamin C benefits are inconsistent – it does not prevent colds but may shorten a cold. If you consume over 400mg you will pee the excess out and very high doses can have tummy effects and alter blood sugar tests, so it is best to get vitamin C mainly from your diet.
There is mixed evidence about the benefits of echinacea and different preparations have different effects. Many believe it may help prevent colds or shorten them, but ultimately more research is needed.
Zinc supplements may shorten the duration of colds and in some studies the supplement has reduced the chance of getting ill, but zinc is best obtained from shellfish, meat, dairy products, fortified cereal, nuts and wholegrains.
Supplements can interact with medicines and excess consumption can lead to negative side-effects such as nausea and a bad taste in the mouth, so discuss this with your healthcare professional.