With everything that’s going on at the moment, now is the perfect time to focus on your health and immunity. The immune system is the most amazing defence system; protecting our body against invaders such as viruses, bacteria and foreign bodies. It works away every second of the day, continuously fighting against pathogens, allergens, and irritants. In fact, it keeps a record of every single germ it has ever defeated so it can recognise and destroy quickly if any enter the body again.
“Involving cells, proteins, tissues and organs, the immune system is a vast, hardworking and complex system that keeps us away from the harm of the pathogens we encounter every day,” comments Keeley Berry, nutritional expert and product development executive at BetterYou. “Spread throughout the body, the immune system is tasked with distinguishing our tissue from foreign tissue whilst ensuring an effective attack to invading pathogens such as bacteria.
“The immune system is quite simply essential for our survival. Without it, we are vulnerable to harmful bacteria, viruses and diseases. Maintaining a healthy, strong immune system should be a priority all year round.”
Start with the basics
Before heading for specific immune health supplements and natural remedies, it’s important to start with the basics – a healthy diet, plenty of sleep and exercise.
Seema Vekaria, clinical nutrition advisor for BioCare, confirms: “We can support our immune system by eating a wide range of plants of a variety of different colours (including fruit, vegetables, pulses, legumes, herbs, spices, nuts and seeds), exercising regularly and getting seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night.”
She stresses the importance of a good night’s sleep for our health. “Poor quality or not enough sleep can increase the likelihood of getting sick after being exposed to a virus. Lack of sleep can also inhibit recovery if you do get sick – so listen to your body and ensure you rest when you need to.”
Vekaria also recommends watching your sugar and alcohol intake. “Be mindful of your sugar and alcohol intake as sugar can reduce the activity of your white blood cells, while alcohol can deplete the body of the very nutrients it needs for a strong immune system, such as vitamin C and zinc.”
Nutritionist Rose Holmes, education and training manager at Rio Health, agrees: “Eating a healthy diet is important, as is avoiding sugar, simple carbohydrates (white bread, white pasta, white rice) and alcohol, which are known to have a detrimental effect on immune health.”
Nutritional therapist Claire Barnes, technical advisor at ADM Protexin, suggests increasing your intake of protein too. “Low protein intake has been associated with a significant impairment of many immune cells and functions. Therefore, we should ensure we are eating good quality protein sources such as organic grass-fed meat, wild fish, eggs, beans, legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds.”
You can support your immune system further by minimising stress levels as much as possible. “Managing stress is essential, as this can impact the effectiveness of the immune system, reducing its ability to fight off antigens,” explains Berry. “Ever more apt in our 24-7 culture of endless to-do lists; the stress hormone corticosteroid can supress immune system efficiency, so taking care of your mental wellbeing and making time for fun and relaxation will work to reduce daily stressors and positively impact immune responses.”
To help keep stress levels low, Barnes recommends exercise, mindfulness and meditation. “Light exercise, such as brisk walks, yoga and Pilates, as well as massages can help support our mood whilst also assisting lymphatic drainage to remove dead cells, toxins, etc. from the body. Other stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and ensuring seven to nine hours of restorative sleep each night should also be encouraged.”
There are certain nutrients needed to help support the immune system. Vitamins A, C, D and zinc all contribute to the normal functioning of the immune system.
“Vitamin A enhances immune function and a deficiency is a risk factor for infection. Vitamin D exerts a balancing effect on the immune system, both enhancing natural immunity and inhibiting chronic inflammation and autoimmunity. Vitamin C may decrease the duration of cold symptoms by inhibiting virus replication and improving immune cell function. Zinc also inhibits viral replication and can increase the immune response, thereby shortening the duration of a cold,” explains Vekaria.
Siobhán Carroll, naturopath, herbalist and A.Vogel herbal medicine trainer, also recommends increasing your intake of vitamin E, iron and selenium in addition to the nutrients mentioned above to aid your immune system.
Barnes agrees: “Minerals such as zinc, selenium, iron and copper and vitamins A, C, E, B6, folate and vitamin D have important influences on immune responses. To support our immune system, we should eat a balanced whole food diet, high in colourful fruit and vegetables, to provide a variety of nutrients to support our immune function.”
Carroll reveals some food sources to add to your diet regularly to get these essential immune-boosting nutrients: “Whole grains, nuts, beans, lentils and chickpeas are all good sources of zinc. If you get most of your iron from meat sources, it is important to also get the non-haem, plant-based iron into your diet too. This can be found in green leafy vegetables, white beans, soybeans, lentils and dark chocolate! Three Brazil nuts a day will give you a nice boost of selenium.
“Vitamin E can be found in sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados, squash and broccoli. We all know vitamin C is found in oranges, but did you know that kiwis contain nearly twice as much vitamin C per 100g as an orange?”
Known as the sunshine vitamin, our body produces vitamin D as a response to sun exposure. As our sunlight hours are reduced in the winter months and it is difficult to obtain adequate amounts of this vitamin from food, many of us are deficient in this essential nutrient. To ensure an adequate amount we need to ensure we are getting outside as much as possible in the summer months and supplementing with vitamin D in the winter.
“Many studies have found links between vitamin D deficiency and poor immunity, with Danish scientists discovering that the sunshine vitamin is crucial in activating the body’s immune defences,” comments Berry. “Without sufficient intake, the killer cells of the immune system – the T cells – will not be able to react and fight off serious infections in the body.”
Carroll also recommends using the herb echinacea: “Echinacea is a herbal remedy which has traditional use in supporting the immune system. It enhances the immune system, making it very helpful as a preventative measure for avoiding colds and flus. It also has very strong antiviral and antibacterial properties.”
We all know the role our gut bacteria play in terms of our digestive health, but many are unaware that it also has an impact on our immune system. In fact, around 70 to 80 percent of the immune system is located in the gut, so a healthy gut flora is key. “The majority of our immune system is located in the gut, approximately 70 percent of our immune cells are located there,” confirms Barnes. “Our digestive system is vital in supporting our immune system, through serving two key roles: allowing nutrients from our diet to cross over into the body, whilst also operating as a barrier to stop harmful microbes and substances from entering.”
To help support a healthy and diverse balance of gut bacteria, experts recommend supplementing with probiotics. “Probiotics can be really beneficial for the immune system. A sluggish, unhappy gut will result in ineffective immune function – that means more colds, flu and other infections,” explains Carroll. “Many people know that it is important to take probiotics after a course of antibiotics, but not many people know that a population of healthy gut bacteria is also really important for keeping colds and flu at bay.”
It’s also a good idea to increase your consumption of probiotic foods. Barnes agrees: “It is important to nourish and improve the diversity of our gut microbes. As well as feeding our gut microbes a variety of healthy fibres, such as onions, garlic, slightly green bananas, oats and chicory, we can also consume healthy bacteria through traditionally fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, miso and live yoghurt.”
“If we are eating a diet high in processed foods and refined sugar it can be very difficult for these beneficial bacteria to establish themselves in our digestive tract, meaning we need to consistently take probiotics,” comments Carroll. “A better tactic is to stock our diets up with prebiotic food, which is basically food for the good bacteria that lives in our gut. Examples of prebiotics foods are onions, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichoke, bananas, asparagus, barley and oats.
“Some more helpful foods you may not be used to are chicory root, burdock root, jicama root and dandelion greens. Chamomile tea also contains some good prebiotic properties, as well as being good for soothing the digestive system in general.” Carroll adds: “Having a strong digestive system and microbiome with a healthy balance of good bacteria, as well as a diet rich in prebiotics to keep the population of your microbiome thriving, can in turn keep your immune system strong.”
When it comes to choosing which probiotic supplement to take, Barnes recommends looking for a multi-strain product. “Different bacterial strains have individual beneficial effects, so multi-strain products may have more positive benefits overall, supporting the immune system in a variety of ways.”