The Diet Therapist
Easy ways to support your Immune System
Posted by The Diet Therapist, 16th February 2017
In the Winter, I often get asked about supplements to help prevent cold & flu bugs, and ways to support your immunity to help fend off the usual seasonal illnesses doing the rounds. You can read my thoughts on Vitamin C for colds here >
but there are lots of other things you can do to support your body as well as getting enough Vitamin C...
5 Top Tips to strengthen your natural defences
1. Look after your gut health:
It is estimated that between 70-80% of your immune tissue is located in the digestive system. Often the first point of exposure for pathogenic bacteria and viruses, your gut provides an important defense against illness; gastrointestinal immune cells work together to protect the digestive tract, but the various strains of “beneficial” gut flora are also critical for overall immunity.
Maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria can help boost your natural defences and support your immune response. Steer clear of sugar-laden yoghurt drinks though; incorporating a range of probiotic foods into your diet and taking a high quality multi-strain probiotic supplement can have a far greater impact. Unsweetened natural yoghurt, kefir, miso, fermented vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut) are great sources of beneficial bacteria that may help support an optimal balance of gut flora. Prebiotic foods (which “feed” the good bacteria), are equally important – helpful dietary sources include garlic, onion, artichokes, asparagus, leeks and bananas.
2. Get out in the daylight when you can!
Vitamin D a.k.a -“the sunshine vitamin” has hit the headlines again in recent months, with research uncovering additional health implications associated with deficiency. Vitamin D is technically not a vitamin at all, and actually functions as a hormone within the body, playing an important role in the maintenance of a healthy immune system. Clinical research has suggested that there may be a relationship between Vitamin D status and susceptibility to flu, as well as duration of infection.
Unlike other vitamins, the amount in food sources (oily fish, egg yolks, dairy products, mushrooms) is very small, and even the richest sources of Vitamin D (e.g. wild salmon) would require an adult to eat 2-4 servings/day to meet recommended requirements. Most Vitamin D (80-100%) is synthesised from the action of sunlight on skin. Unless you are getting approximately 20 – 30 minutes of direct sun exposure daily, you may need to consider taking a good quality supplement to counter the lack of sunshine in winter months.
3. Upgrade your plate:
Almost all nutrients play some role in maintaining an “optimal” immune response, and both insufficient and excessive intakes may have a negative effect on immune status. Eating a balanced diet with plenty of wholegrains, fatty fish, fruit and a rainbow of vegetables, (particularly yellow, orange, red and green leafy ones), nuts and seeds will help to ensure that you have adequate amounts of Vitamins A, C, E and B2/6 which have been linked to immune support. Also important are the minerals selenium (good sources are brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and seafood), and zinc (useful food sources include beef, sesame and pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, spinach and asparagus).
A range of plant-based compounds have been shown to have immune stimulating properties and are thought to help stimulate the body’s natural defense mechanisms by activating immune cells. A well-known one is the phytonutrient “allicin” in garlic, which has been found to support a healthy immune response. Including lots of fresh and dried herbs and spices such as cinnamon, ginger, parsley, rosemary, oregano, basil and thyme can also help to boost immunity via their antimicrobial properties and add flavour to food at the same time!
4. Reduce your stress and stop the all-nighters:
Various hormones released during periods of prolonged stress can reduce the ability of the immune system to resist viruses and infections, leaving you more vulnerable to a host of illnesses. Finding quick, simple ways to reduce your stress levels such as downloading a meditation app (Headspace is a good starter app), trying yoga or other light exercise, lighting candles, or even simple breathing exercises (whatever works for you) can make a big difference to your overall immunity. Sleep deprivation is often a consequence of stress and is also linked to suppressed immune function – so getting enough rest - as obvious as it sounds, is also critical to boosting your immunity.
Regular moderate exercise has been shown to have a variety of beneficial health effects, one of which is enhanced resistance to illness. Check out your local fitness centres for deals and mix it up – most places will run special offers so you can try out different options and find something you love, whether that’s yoga, pilates, spinning or dance. Or just get outside for a walk, run or bike ride…it’s free! Just don’t overdo it though…overtraining can have the opposite effect; clinical studies with elite athletes have shown that excessive intense exercise can actually lead to immunosuppression.