Top Tips to protect your immune system
Prepare your immune system for Winter
As we find ourselves living in a post-pandemic world, taking responsibility for own health has never been more important. Given so many of us have spent long periods of time not social interacting with how we used to, it’s likely the flu’s and colds going around this Winter feel harsher and harder on our bodies than previous Winters.
Since it is our immune system that provides resistance against potentially harmful infections and toxins that threaten our health, supporting and strengthening our immune system is key to ensuring we have the best possible defence against this disease. It is especially important to focus on our immune health at this time of year as we head into a change of season as people are considered to be more susceptible to colds and flu and other infections as we move from summer to autumn and winter into spring for example. By understanding how our immune system is impacted by some of the elements of the environment we live in today, you can learn how to put strategies into place in order to optimise your health and protect yourself and others.
Many factors can affect how well our immune system functions. The immune system can only work as it should if cared for properly and this means getting all the necessary nutrients, providing the right environment and avoiding those things that tend to depress immunity.
Why is diet important for the Immune System?
Poor nutrition is considered to be the most common cause of a weakened immune response. As the saying goes ‘you are what you eat’ the foods we consume will have a significant impact on the way we feel and function. Unfortunately, in order to meet the demands of the fast- paced life most of us lead, convenience and packaged foods tend to form the staple diet, basically foods that are not in their natural wholefood state. Convenience foods tend to consist of highly refined and heavily processed ingredients which are often deplete of important nutrients. To make matters worse, the body has to work harder in order to break these foods down which in turn further depletes vital nutrients. These foods often contain added or unwanted ingredients such as hidden fats, sugar, salt & chemical additives which may be potentially harmful to health. There are also a number of potentially harmful substances that may be included in our diet on a daily basis such as saturated fat, caffeine and other stimulants such as alcohol and smoking, all of which have the ability to suppress the immune system and therefore, prevent it from working optimally.
Another significant factor in how well our immune system works is the health of our digestive system since it is a major part of our immune system. In fact, it is estimated that 80% of our immunity is found in the gut and therefore it is vital to ensure the digestive system is functioning optimally by creating the right environment, which means consuming foods which are going to encourage the right environment for healthy bacteria to grow which play important roles in many aspects of our health. Not only are beneficial gut bacteria needed for a healthy immune system, it has also been linked to mood, sleep and even obesity.
Can mental health impact our immune system?
Another consequence of modern life which has a significant impact on the health of our immune system is STRESS, now more so than ever as we face such uncertainty about our health, the health of loved ones, work and finances etc. When we are stressed, the normal activity of white blood cells which are needed to fight infection are suppressed. Stress also depletes the body of vital nutrients. Both of which result in impaired healing ability and increased susceptibility to infection.
Other factors which have an impact on our immune system and how it functions include the use of antibiotics and other drugs, pesticides, exposure to environmental pollutants and even the chemicals in the household cleaners we use!
Armed with this knowledge, there is no better time to take control of our own health in order to protect ourselves with the very best defence against COVID19 and other infections we may be at risk of with the change of season fast approaching. Even making a few small changes to your diet and lifestyle can set you on the right path to optimising your health and immune system. Here are some recommended diet and lifestyle interventions to help you achieve this;
Top Tips to support your body and immune system this Winter
Ditch the sugar!
Sugar interferes with immune function. Research on human subjects is scant, but animal studies have shown that sugar suppresses immune response. More research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms; however, we do know that bacteria and yeast feed on sugar and that, when these organisms get out of balance in the body, infections and illness are more likely. Unfortunately, sugar is found in many foods these days, it is not just the food that we consider ‘junk food’ that contains it. Quite commonly, it is found in sweetened fruit juices, bottles of flavoured water, low-fat foods for example low-fat yogurt, salad dressing, tomato ketchup, fizzy carbonated drinks, tinned soups and sports drinks etc. Working out how much sugar is in your food or drink can be confusing, as it appears in many different guises, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose and honey. It is important to be aware of quantities in food by checking food labels for anything ending in ‘ose’ for example.
Minimise caffeine and alcohol
Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants which activate an internal stress response. Consuming regular stimulants can result in dysfunction and ultimately fatigue of the glands (adrenal) which are responsible for producing stress hormones. Adrenal fatigue is associated with suppressed immunity, increasing susceptibility to illness and infections. Caffeine is also a diuretic and depletes the body of vital nutrients needed for a healthy immune system. It is recommended to limit tea and coffee to just one to two cups per day. Herbal and fruit teas are good alternatives and count towards water intake. Consume alcohol in moderation and in line with current government guidelines.
Eliminate refined carbohydrates and processed foods
Foods which are highly refined or processed cause the body to work harder in order to break them down which in turn depletes vital nutrients. Often, these foods contain added or unwanted ingredients such as hidden fats, sugar, salt & chemical additives which may be potentially harmful to health. Aim to base your diet around whole foods, foods which are in their natural state and minimally processed. An example would be to switch from white bread or pasta to wholemeal varieties.
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Look after your digestion system!
Beneficial gut bacteria (bifidobacteria and acidophilus) are considered to be one of the first lines of defence against bacteria, viruses and fungi. Specific strains such as Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus reuteri have been scientifically shown to prevent colds and to improve the immune response. Beneficial bacteria can be found in food sources such as yogurts and kefir which can be included on a daily basis in the diet however taking a good quality probiotic supplement is also a good option to ensure you are getting good levels.
Every single bodily process relies on water. It helps the body absorb nutrients and maintains hydration. Herbal and fruit teas also contribute to water intake, as do fresh fruits and vegetables as they consist mainly of water. Carbonated and other fizzy drinks should be eliminated as they deplete important nutrients needed for immunity and can sometimes be high in sugar / artificial sweeteners and chemical additives.
The importance of adequate protein intake to proper immune function has been extensively studied. Adequate protein is essential for optimum immune function as many aspects of immune function are affected if the body lacks sufficient amounts, deficiency is associated with a compromised immune system and poor resistance to infection. Protein helps to form antibodies to attack viruses which are required when we are exposed to a potential threat of infection or disease. Protein should form the basis of every meal and snack and should account for one third of your dinner plate. Good sources of protein include lean white meat such as turkey and chicken, fish, eggs, legumes, lentils, beans and pulses and nuts and seeds. Tofu, quinoa and all of the above plant- based sources are good options for vegetarians.
Decrease saturated fat
One of the main action areas of the immune system is the Lymphatic System. The lymphatic system also transports fat round the body to the liver. So, if it gets too clogged up with fat the immune system is weakened. When lymph nodes are over working they become lumpy and swollen as in the neck which is often painful on touching. Practicing deep breathing, exercise and ensuring you get enough sleep can all help to ensure the lymphatic system works optimally too. Avoid foods high in saturated fat such as red meat and dairy. Opt for polyunsaturated fats instead, particularly essential fats such as omega 3 which has shown to play an important role in immune health. Sources of omega 3 include oily fish, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed and seed oils.