How to take care of your immune system

Kerry Beeson BSc (Nut. Med.) Nutritional Therapist

There's never a good time to be unwell, but there’s always a good time to look after your immune health. Particularly in light of the difficulties we are currently facing together, it’s more important now than ever to make sure you’re keeping healthy.

woman blowing nose
Immunity is key - make sure you keep your immune system well-supported

Picture those pathogens invading your body, making you feel tired, sluggish and pretty rotten. Sound familiar? We have all had days like these, and may unfortunately be beginning to experience more. But is it possible to intervene and strengthen your immune system to fight off infection? Will it help if you make changes to your diet? Make lifestyle changes to support a stronger immune response? Read our guide so you know which factors you can influence to prepare your immune system as much as possible against nasty viruses.

immunity infographic

Any of these small lifestyle factors could be weakening your immune system...

10 tips to help boost your immune system

  1. Avoid contact with unwell individuals
  2. Limit stress
  3. Improve your diet
  4. Cut down on alcohol
  5. Consider giving up smoking
  6. Get more sleep
  7. Be more active!
  8. Stay connected
  9. Cut off unhealthy relationships
  10. Try some new supplements

1. Avoid contact with unwell individuals

This probably comes as no surprise to you, but coming into close contact with people who are ill puts your immune system under pressure. Many viral illnesses are infectious, meaning they will spread easily from person-to-person. This can occur through many forms of contact, such as hugging, kissing, or even sitting near each other. If someone is coughing or sneezing in your vicinity, you are at risk of catching their illness.

There is evidence that suggests exposure to pathogens in a less dangerous form, such as through dirt, can improve our immunity1. Experts have termed this effect the ‘hygiene hypothesis’. 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 for the issues the world faces at the moment. Exposure to COVID-19 will not build immunity towards it and it is imperative that you actively avoid contact with others where possible. This is particularly important if you, or somebody you have been in contact with, display symptoms. 

2. Limit stress

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.

3. Improve your diet

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?

red wine

4. Cut down on alcohol

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!

5. Consider giving up smoking

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.

6. Get more sleep

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.

Woman running

Exercise: good for the body, mind and immune system!

7. Be more active!

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.

If you don’t have access to your usual equipment, there are easy ways to substitute with things you have at home. For example, if you need some weights, try canned goods, drinks bottles filled with water (or sand if you need them heavier), or washing detergent. Chairs and stairs make a great alternative for toning exercises like tricep dips and step-ups. 

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.

8. Stay connected

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.

There are also various organisations available online which can help you reconnect or meet new people13.

9. Cut off unhealthy relationships

Whether this be 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.

10. Try some new supplements

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!

 

If you're a mum, you may like to check out these quick & easy tips from insta mums!

Or take a look at some of our other articles: 

Zanna van Dijk takes 'For daily immunity'!

Self-care Ideas – Our Team’s Top 21 Tips

 

References:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Sarkar, D., Jung, M. K., & Wang, H. J., 2015. Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 37(2), 153–155.

5. 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

6. 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).

7. 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].

8. 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].

9. NHS, 2018. Alcohol support. [Online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calculating-alcohol-units/ [Accessed 05 09 2018].

10. Ozdemir, K. K., 2012. The Effect of Nutritional Elements on the Immune System. Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy, 2(9), pp. 1-6.

11. Pickersgill, H., 2013. Lighting Up Immunity. Science Signaling, 6(301).

12. 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.

13. Segerstrom, S. C., 2007. Optimism and immunity: Do positive thoughts always lead to positive effects?. HHS Author Manscripts, 19(3), pp. 195-200.

14. 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.