In: Health, Nutrition

How to boost your immune system

Firstly, nothing I write below should detract from following official guidance on Coronavirus.  What follows are suggestions to help you ensure your immune system is in the best condition possible, just in case it needs to jump into action.  The suggestions fall in to two categories:

  • Things to do to encourage your immune system to work better; and
  • Things to stop doing which unnecessarily aggravate your immune system.
How to boost your immune system

You may feel that some of these suggestions are too difficult or take the fun out of your life, and that may be the case.  However, how much fun is it to self-isolate if you have symptoms, or worse, to have to be treated for something you could have done more to avoid?

Our immune system is incredibly clever and complicated, and most people don’t give it a second thought.  Now it’s time to show it some love.

Get more sleep

We need 7-9 hours of quality sleep each and every night for our bodies to be completed rested and ready to tackle whatever the day throws at us.  Low sleep increases our susceptibility to colds and the flu as it messes with your immune system.

If you’re not getting your 7-9 hours, then try the following:

  • Prioritise sleep over almost everything else.
  • Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark and quiet.
  • We’re creatures of habit – go to bed at the same time each evening, and set the alarm for the same time each morning.
  • Give yourself 1-2 hours without using any screens before bed.
  • Have a hot bath before bed. As your body cools, it should be easier to drop off.

Reduce stress

Short bursts of stress are natural but being regularly stressed for extended periods (even if you feel you are dealing with it well), is not.

Our bodies release a hormone called cortisol when we’re stressed, which has the effect of turning down our immune system.  The idea is that we need to be focussed on dealing with the stressor in front of us, so don’t want our body to say “oh, I feel a little off colour, so need to rest”.

The best way to avoid this happening is to reduce your exposure to stress in the first place.  Part of that is recognising when you are stressed (remember, it’s not just when you can’t cope) and either avoiding it or choosing to react to it in a different way.

Other undesirable stressors include lack of sleep, poor diet and excessive exercise, which are covered elsewhere.

Look after your gut

A few things you can do to support your gut are:

  • Eat a nutritious diet, minimising highly processed foods and diet drinks
  • Add prebiotic foods such as leeks, asparagus, bananas, oats, onions
  • Include fermented foods in your diet, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha
  • Reduce stress
  • Exercise regularly
  • Sleep well

Love your skin

Your skin is a major part of your body’s protection against environmental nasties as it forms a physical barrier.  If it’s neglected, it can get dry and cracked, not least because we’re all taking more time to wash our hands.

As with any cracks in defences, its effectiveness is weakened, so up your self-care routine and look after your skin.  We’re not saying that Coronavirus can be absorbed through the skin, but we all know how broken skin can get infected by other nasties, forcing your immune system into action when it needn’t be.

Improve your nutrition

Just about every person I’ve worked with since becoming a personal trainer admits their diet could be better.  What’s interesting is that most also know exactly what changes they need to make to be fitter and healthier.

Being willing to make those changes is more challenging, but if the threat of Coronavirus is what it takes, then happy days!

Foods to eat more of:

  • Fruit and vegetables.
  • Lean protein, ideally from organic sources

Foods to eat less of:

  • Anything which causes you gastric distress (e.g. bloating, burping, indigestion, etc.)
  • Highly processed foods
  • Sugar
  • Vegetable oils
  • Foods cooked with high, direct heat (e.g. fried foods)
  • Refined flour products
  • Processed meats
  • Artificially sweetened foods

Consider nutritional supplements

Even the best diets struggle to provide all the nutrients we need for optimal living.  If you want to give your immune system a helping hand, then consider the following supplements:

  • Vitamin D3. This time of year, it’s hard to produce as much D3 as is optimal.  As it has been associated with immune health and a reduction in upper respiratory infections, consider taking 5,000 IUs per day.
  • I believe most people should take daily multivitamins as they provide more of what we need for our bodies to work as intended.
  • If your gut has not been at its best recently, then you may benefit from a surge of good bacteria from probiotics.  VSL3 is a personal favourite.
  • Vitamin C. Whilst it’s not effective at helping you avoid colds or flu, vitamin C is good for reducing symptom duration, meaning your immune system can return to normal sooner.

Reduce caffeine intake

Caffeine has been shown to dampen down the immune system.  Now, whilst we’re trying to help your immune system calm down so it’s ready to jump into action when a serious threat hits you, it’s not a great idea to do this artificially in case it misses something it should be dealing with.

The solution is to reduce caffeine consumption, but also tackle anything else which may be triggering an immune response (e.g. eating foods which really don’t agree with you).

Stop drinking alcohol

There is no physiological need to drink alcohol (unless you’re addicted); pretty much all of the previous touted benefits of drinking a glass of red wine a day have been debunked.  With the aim of boosting our immune system, the reasons not to drink alcohol increase.

Both regular and binge drinking have been shown to negatively impact the immune system.  It affects the structure and integrity of the gastrointestinal tract, mean that leaky gut is more likely to occur, ramping up our immune system.

Just as the symptoms of Coronavirus include shortness of breath and breathing difficulties, alcohol consumption has been shown to impact our airways too.  It affects the function of cilia, tiny hairs lining our lungs and respiratory tract which help keep airways clear of mucus and dirt.  I’m guessing we’d want these to be in tip-top condition just in case…

Stop smoking and vaping

Tobacco smoking weakens our immunity against infections.  There’s not much more to say really.

Vaping is widely regarded as a safer option to smoking, but that does not remove it of all health risks.  The body of research on vaping is still growing, but it is believed that vaping can damage immune system cells in the lungs and boosts inflammation.

Basically, you’re better off not smoking tobacco or vaping.

Prioritise moderate exercise

I’ve saved this for last as it interacts with so many of the other suggestions.  It’s also a bit of an odd one as exercise creates inflammation and we’re trying to minimise it.  However, exercise (done properly and not to excess) only creates short term inflammation which our bodies use to improve and develop.  It also helps us sleep better, manage stress more effectively and we are more inclined to eat more nutritiously than if we don’t exercise.

The best exercise is the one you’ll actually do.  That may be brisk walking, running, swimming, hitting the weights in the gym, group classes, HIIT, or any manner of things – to get immune function benefits, it really doesn’t matter.  However, if you don’t recover well from exercise, get too many aches and pains or are fatigued all the time, then you should pull back a little.

Are you ready to thrive?