Our immune system is a complex and amazing creation. It is our first line of defence when exposed to pathogens beginning a sophisticated communication system that protects our body. It is constantly adapting to our internal landscape ready to work against infectious agents that are trying to gain control. Keeping your immune system healthy is key in preventing infection and disease. Getting enough sleep, nutritious food and getting the body moving every day are the top three ways to ensure your immunity is functioning at its best.
The three parts of the immune system:
The first part is the protective physical barrier, most obviously your skin. It forms an effective barrier that most pathogens cannot penetrate. The surface of the skin also protects through its acidity and bacteria that fiercely protect their home from unwelcome visitors.
Our innate immunity is the system that we are born with. Our tissues contain many white blood cells that patrol our system looking for damaged tissue and unwelcome invaders. One of these main types of cell is called macrophage. They are larger, star player cells that engulf pathogens whilst sending messages to nerve and other immune cells.
We also have adaptive or learned immunity. Simply put, once infected by a pathogen the immune system understands how to tackle it again. This is antibody controlled with the adaptive system making and releasing proteins into circulation that recognise a returning virus, sending the message and instruction to the immune system of how to deal with it.
There are many reasons why our immune system may not be functioning as it should. Underlying health conditions can compromise the functioning of the whole system. The ageing process itself effects its efficiency. Interestingly, your Thymus gland where your white blood cells fight infection starts to atrophy in your 20’s.
Activating our natural powers of healing and self-defence is a great life strategy but it is important to note that no supplement or lifestyle choice will prevent you from contracting Corona Virus. It is vital that you distance yourself from others at this time and carry out appropriate hygiene measures to ensure the best possible chance of protection.
That said, your health is very much in your hands. There is much we can do with food and lifestyle choices that support our natural immunity. The NHS is ordinarily under strain from disease that can be prevented with good diet and lifestyle choices.
Sensible advice - hand washing
We have all received the message loud and clear to wash our hands regularly. The key is to rub hands well covering all parts of the skin and under/around nails. If you are away from home and using a hand sanitiser look for one that contains 65% alcohol or more to kill any virus on the skin.
Eat the rainbow
When it comes to overall dietary choice opting for a Mediterranean diet rich in fruit, vegetable and healthy oils will provide the antioxidants and phytonutrients your body needs to fight infection. Think colour in your diet. See our article on eating the rainbow here. Eating a diverse array of fresh fruit and vegetables (skin on if you can) will contribute to a healthy gut biome and the fibre needed in the digestive tract to fight infection.
Our immune cells need vitamin C when working hard to fight infection. If you find you have symptoms of cold or flu dosing with vitamin C would be a good idea. Oranges are an obvious choice but increasing consumption of red peppers, spinach, kiwi fruit, cauliflower, brussel’s sprouts and grapefruit will ensure your immune cells have the vitamin C they need.
We can only get our zinc intake from food. It is very important to the immune system with its infection fighting properties. It’s always a good idea to increase zinc consumption during winter months and sources include red meat, seeds, legumes, shellfish and dark chocolate.
Allicin a compound released in garlic when crushed is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. Think of garlic as natures antibiotic that bacteria and microbes do not develop resistance to. Crush and set aside for 15 minutes at room temperature before using for maximum immune support. Eating the garlic raw will give you the immune boost needed.
Drink 2 litres of water a day. A hydrated body is functioning at its best as many metabolic functions rely it. Dehydration also changes the mucus layer in both the digestive and respiratory tract and inhibits the effectiveness of germ busting antibodies.
Watch alcohol intake.
Its hard at this time not to relax with a glass or two. Suppressing the nervous system can feel like welcome relief when we are all worrying about health, finances and safety of those we love. The issue is that alcohol suppresses immunity at a time when we will be relying on our body’s defence system the most. We would recommend having alcohol free days and setting limits on the amount you drink.
Anxiety and stress suppress the nervous system as the adrenal glands secrete higher levels of cortisol. Acute stress with high adrenaline levels decrease T helper cells and increase T suppressor cell activity leading to the degeneration of lymphoid tissue. It is really important to manage stress even when outside circumstances prove difficult. It forms an important part of preventative health care and effects the bodies ability to fight infection.
We all have times when stress is higher than we would like and sometimes worry can feel an inevitable part of life.
Stress management is really just taking good care of ourselves. Prioritising rest and engaging in activities that engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Some ideas: Crafting, reading, writing, drawing, walking in nature, meditation, mindful practice such as Tai Chi, yoga, gardening, deep breathing exercises, anything you can get absorbed in and enjoy.
Black Elderberry has long been used to treat infections is being researched for its effects on immune health. In studies Elderberry extract has proved to be anti-bacterial and anti-viral as well as enhance immune response.
Gut Health (Probiotic and Prebiotic)
Did you know that 70% of the immune system resides in the gut as lymphoid tissue? This tissue houses your immune cells that act as the destroyer of microbes. It also secretes essential antibodies to help fight off infection. The large intestine hosts around 100 trillion microbes whose job includes protecting us against pathogens. To maintain a healthy gut, eat a variety of fruit, vegetables, good quality protein, whole grains and healthy fats. You can supplement with a good probiotic such as our belly balance. indulge in some raw cacao drinks as it works as a great prebiotic.
Combined results of 16 studies involving 7,400 people showed that supplementing with vitamin D reduced their chance of respiratory infection by a third. A paper in the peer reviewed journal of Nature Immunology found that vitamin D is involved in the activation of the T Cells of the immune system. T cells are white blood cells that are key to the immune system and adaptive immunity. This adaptive system tailors the bodies immune response when exposed to pathogens. Whilst further study is needed, a daily dose of vitamin D is clearly important to our overall health. You can take a supplement, expose skin to sunlight (take care not to burn the skin) and eat foods such as eggs, oily fish and fortified cereals. Good vegan sources of vitamin D are broccoli, cabbage, fortified plant milks, sesame seeds or tahini, raisins, dried apricots and figs.
Getting enough sleep is the foundation to a strong immune system. While we sleep Melatonin stimulates new immune cells. Get to bed a bit earlier and avoid sleep disruptors such as wine right up to bedtime.
Daily exercise is a supporter of immune health. Stimulating your lymphatic system through movement helps the immune system police your entire system, fighting any germs attempting to infiltrate body tissue. Building muscle is also important to immunity (particularly as we age).
It is also worth considering strength training in the long term. Muscle produces chemicals that support thymus gland functioning, where immune cells are made. This is particularly important as we age.