How to support your immune system

It seems that there’s one word which is quite literally on everyone’s lips at the moment. The coronavirus or Covid-19 has instilled new meaning to the term “going viral” and the World Health Organisation has finally classified the global spread of this new kid on the block as a pandemic.

Remove the middle three letters from this word and ironically, you’re left with “panic” which is perhaps the most immediate and obvious side-effect of the outbreak so far. Uncertainty is the oxygen that fuels this. Which is why we want to make sure that we provide our members with accurate up to date advice and guidance. And what we’re hearing is that you want to know how best to protect yourselves and your loved ones.

We spoke with Dr. Sarah Hattam, who has supported us over the years in creating evidence backed content about wellbeing and health. Dr. Sarah has 25 years’ experience and is on a mission to fight the pseudo-science in the industry. She is passionate about sharing information that is backed by the latest science and research about how our human bodies and brains really thrive. This is what she had to say:

First and foremost, it’s critical that we all follow the government’s advice which you can find here if you’re living in the UK. Please make sure to follow the guidelines to help reduce the spread of the virus and help to flatten the curve.

The most crucial advice is to wash hands frequently with soap and hot water for 30 seconds or 60% alcohol hand sanitiser if this isn’t available.

To always wash hands thoroughly before eating.  But we were doing this before anyway right? To avoid touching the face, mouth and eyes and to treat your mobile phone like a third hand, wiping it over with alcohol wipes regularly.

As with any infection, our bodies have an army of immune cells ready to be deployed to wage war against such bugs. Our immune response is an incredible, but also complex system – that can become suppressed (weakened) as a result of some of our day to day habits. It is important to note is that there is no magic pill or solution to ‘boost’ your immune system, and because of the way our immune system is designed to work you really don’t want it to be ‘boosted’. But there are some simple steps you can take to help support your immune response – giving your immune system the best chance to fight coronavirus quickly and effectively.

SLEEP ON IT

A lack of sleep is one of the main contributors that can reduce the effectiveness of your immune system.

Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus [1].

Not enough sleep can also affect how quickly you recover if you do get sick, as our white blood cells (also known as the body’s natural killer cells) become less effective when we are sleep deprived. But we understand that it’s not quite as easy as just saying ‘get more sleep’. Some simple tips to improve sleep quality are to ditch the devices before bed, avoid caffeine after mid-afternoon and remember to give yourself time to unwind from the day. A clear mind not only can help you drift off into dream land quicker, but also helps you reach the deep phase of sleep which is where the most restorative sleep happens.

KEEP MOVING

Just like a healthy diet, exercise contributes to good health, and subsequently a healthy immune system.

Research shows that adults who are physically active are almost half as likely to succumb to minor infections in comparison to sedentary adults [2].

One reason for this is thought to be because exercise promotes good circulation. Good Circulation allows immune cells to move through your bloodstream and do their job more efficiently, meaning more effective scanning and action to deal with disease-causing bugs.

DON’T FORGET VITAMIN D

Generally, a lot of emphasis is put on Vitamin A, C and E and their role in immune function. But it’s important to not forget Vitamin D. Not only does it play an essential role in supporting healthy bones but has also been recognised as supporting our immune system. Specifically, the immune response to viral infections. However, unsurprisingly 29% of adults have insufficient levels of vitamin D in the winter months [3]. This so-called sunshine vitamin is only manufactured in our body when sunlight hits our skin, making it common for us to be under the recommended 10ug per day.

Therefore, it’s recommended that you include vitamin D rich food sources within your diet.

Foods such as oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals can help to increase vitamin D levels. But vitamin D supplements are also a good, cost-effective option which have even been shown to reduce respiratory infections and improve asthma control [4].

DIAL DOWN STRESS

Easy for us to say, right?  21st century life is full on; we’re juggling competing demands and the incessant news chatter about the current pandemic isn’t exactly helping the situation. But we know that persistent stress and the subsequent release of stress hormones in our blood stream can damp down our immune system’s ability to respond effectively to infections [5].

So, don’t forget to keep doing the things that bring you joy, and remember to take a mindful moment or two during a busy day.

All of these things allow our “tend and mend” system to be switched on which has many beneficial effects for health”

BE SENSIBLE ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS

Lots of dietary supplements claim to have immune boosting properties. But what does the science actually say? The NHS website says that there is little evidence that supplements such as vitamin C, echinacea or garlic either prevent viral infections or speed up recovery. It’s important to remember that most of us can meet our RDA nutrient needs with a varied, balanced diet. So, when it comes to supplements, you could be wasting your money if expensive products make extravagant claims. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is!

EAT SMART

Like any effective army, our immune system fights on its stomach. So, the best and most effective way to fuel a healthy immune system is by eating an abundant variety of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Eating a rainbow of different coloured fruit and veg will give your body a range of phytonutrients and micronutrients to improve its defences.

And the good guys in your gut, the health-giving bacteria that make up our microbiome will thank you for ever because you’ll be feeding them too.

WHEN TO EAT

As we get older, our immune system becomes less effective at fighting off potentially harmful invaders. Allowing your digestive system to have a whole 12-hour break from food overnight can keep our digestive system healthy, allow cells to repair themselves and keep our immune system strong.

WATCH THE BOOZE

Studies show that alcohol weakens our immune system [6] and can also disrupt quality sleep and tends to drive us towards unhealthier food decisions. So, there are lots of reasons why it could be sensible to cut right back or even avoid it altogether.

So, keep on making healthy lifestyle choices because they will help you to keep your immune system tip-top and aid your recovery if you do get sick.

Disclaimer: None of the above is intended to be medical advice. Please consult your GP as usual if you have ongoing medical conditions or take regular medication before making any significant changes.

References:

  1. Cohen, S., Doyle, W., Alpher, C., Deverts, D., & Turner, R. (2009) Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169, (1) pp. 62 – 67.
  2. Shephard, R., Shek, P. & DiNubile, N. (1999) Exercise, immunity and susceptibility to infection. The Physician and Sports Medicine. 27, (6). pp. 47 – 71.
  3. National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Years 1 to 9 of the Rolling Programme (2008/2009 – 2016/2017): Time trend and income analyses. Public Health England. Published January 2019
  4. Ginde, A., Mansbach, J & Camargo, C. (2009) Vitamin D, respiratory infections, and asthma. Currently Allergy & Asthma Report. 9, (1). pp. 81 – 87.
  5. Cohen, S., Tyrrell, D. & Smith, A. (1991) Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. The New England Journal of Medicine, 325, (9). pp. 606 – 612.
  6. Sarkar, D., Jung, K. & Wang, H. (2015) Alcohol and the immune system. Alcohol Research, 37, (2). pp. 153 – 155.

Share your thoughts