Are you dreading the upcoming lurgy season? Ditch those quick-fix solutions and take an expert-backed slow and steady approach instead.
Forget what you think you know about “boosting” your immune system because when it comes to your body’s infection-fighting functions, quick hacks aren’t really the best approach.
We’re far better off thinking in terms of “supporting” them with balanced healthy habits across the whole of our lifestyles.
“Basic hygiene is the first precaution to limit the chances of getting sick – washing hands and steering clear of anyone with a cold,” says immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi .
Here are six science-backed steps for helping to support your immune system…
Short-term stress is designed to enhance survival and can actually help activate immune processes – but, as Dr Macciochi explains, chronic stress is “generally harmful to the immune system”.
“Chronic stress exacerbates unruly inflammation and drives ageing of immune cells. It can also start to reduce the number of circulating immune cells,” says Macciochi.
“To stay healthy, one needs to minimise chronic stress, maximise the resting zone of low/no stress, and optimise the short-term stress response so that it’s mounted rapidly and robustly when needed and shutdown immediately after.”
■ How to do it: Nightmare day? Remind yourself a stress response
is your body’s way of helping you through, then find a way to decompress – whether that’s a swim, natter with a friend or curling up with a mug of tea.
You can eat all the greens and power smoothies in the world but if your sleep is poor, you’re going to get run-down and suffer more colds.
“Sleep duration and quality are important predictors for susceptibility to colds and flu,” says Dr Macciochi.
When we sleep, profound changes to immune cell number, function and distribution take place. Our immune system relies on sleep to generate a robust number of healthy immune cells and weed out older and potentially dysfunctional ones.
■ How to do it: Stick to regular bedtimes and get a steady six to eight hours of shut-eye. Stress and anxiety are sleep’s worst enemy so manage these during the day. Have a chat with your GP if the problem is ongoing.
“A huge number of immune cells reside in the gut and are thought to make up almost 70% of the entire immune system,” says Rob Hobson, head of nutrition for Healthspan .
“It therefore makes sense that our gut is inextricably linked to immunity.”
What’s more, a healthy gut means we’re better able to absorb the full nutritional benefits from the foods we consume.
■ How to do it: A balanced, varied diet is key with plenty of fibre, which Hobson says is “important in helping gut bacteria flourish”.
He adds: “Probiotics have been shown to be useful in supporting your microbiomes and as such your immune system.”
Yoghurt without added sugar, fermented foods such as sauerkraut, and high-quality probiotic supplements could all help boost those good bacteria.
Winter doesn’t have to mean full-on hibernation mode – keep up your exercise regime and your immune system will thank you.
“Moderate regular physical activity benefits the immune system by augmenting resistance to infections and reducing duration,” explains Dr Macciochi.
“Regular exercise is thought to act like a short-term stressor, keeping the immune system well-oiled and ready for action.”
■ How to do it: Set a realistic goal of exercising a few times a week. Can’t afford a gym? It’s easy to find a 20-minute YouTube workout to do at home. Job done.
It’s no coincidence that you end up with a never-ending cold after all those Christmas parties.
“Alcohol is a sleep-disturbing factor,” says Dr Macciochi. “While we may get a similar amount of sleep after drinking alcohol, the quality will be impacted as we don’t get into the really deep restorative sleep phases.
“Directly, it has long been noted that overdoing alcohol negatively impacts susceptibility to infection.”
■ How to do it: Master the art of pacing. Alternate alcoholic drinks with glasses of water and reduce your booze intake overall.
Most of our vitamin D comes from skin exposure from sunlight, but we can easily become deficient during the winter months.
In the long-term, a lack of vitamin D can make you more susceptible to infections – so try and top up.
■ How to do it: While oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals can help, Rob Hobson says, “It’s not possible to get enough vitamin D from diet alone,” and a daily supplement during winter is recommended. Hobson says opt for D3 – the most useable form.
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