Your immune system: It's the bouncer on the door to our body, ensuring everyone who enters is on the guestlist, while collaring any riff-raff who try to sneak by. But this year the stakes seem higher than ever and, aside from the inevitable onslaught of coughs and colds brought on as we head for winter, there’s another virus we need to stave off. Here, three experts in food and nutrition share simple and effective ways to keep our immune system fighting fit.
Healthy guts equal happy immune systems
We’ve only just begun to understand the superpowers of our gut and the importance of keeping it healthy. Natalie Lamb, nutritional therapist at Bio-Kult, says: “Many people aren’t aware that up to 70 percent of our immune cells are located in the gut and that our gut bacteria plays an essential role in supporting a strong immune system.”
Gut bacteria plays an essential role in supporting a strong immune system
Tips for keeping your gut on top form include lowering stress, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep. But Natalie also recommends taking “multi-strain probiotics which have been shown to significantly shorten common colds and reduce the severity of symptoms”.
Step away from the sugar
Although our bodies can crave more sugar and carbs as the days get shorter, Natalie advises against giving into your seasonal urges.“Simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, like white breads, pasta, biscuits and cakes, are known to feed unwanted bacteria and yeast in the gut,” she says, “which encourages their growth over beneficial immune supporting strains”.
After a summer of quenching thirst throughout the day, it’s easy to take our eye off the ball when it comes to keeping hydrated in the colder months. But regardless of the temperature outside, drinking regularly is essential to a well-functioning immune system. Clarissa Lenherr, nutritionist at Bioniq, explains: “Staying hydrated supports your body’s ability to eliminate toxins and waste materials, which is vital for a strong immune system.
“Aim for one-and-a-half to two litres of water every day and, if you’re craving something warm, reach for a herbal tea like lemon and ginger. Not only will these help to ease any discomfort you might be feeling, but they can also reduce the inflammation that causes cold symptoms.”
Exercise mobilises antibodies and white blood cells
It might not feel as charming to get your body moving on a crisp October morning as it was at the start of spring but immunity is significantly boosted by this simple healthful habit. “Exercise promotes blood circulation, and mobilises antibodies and white blood cells which are responsible for detecting and attacking bacteria and viruses,” says Clarissa.
Following NHS guidelines, she advises a form of physical activity every day with at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity clocked-up. “This could include gardening, brisk walking, swimming or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, like running, dancing, spinning. If you don’t want to leave the house, I would recommend checking out some online classes that you can do in the comfort of your own home.”
Give alcohol the elbow
Alcohol’s received quite a lot of unwanted attention in recent months, as we intensely scrutinise the immunity-compromising qualities of every habit we have. Jane Clarke, dietician and founder of Nourish, says the occasional glass isn’t too problematic but heavy drinking can be and it affects immune cells in two ways. “It can make macrophages, our first line of defence, less effective,” says Jane. And remember those infection-fighting white blood cells we were trying to promote through exercise? “If bugs do pass through that barrier, we need our white blood cells to continue the battle. Unfortunately, excess alcohol seems to reduce the number of them in our bodies.” Maybe we’ll save the Irish Cream for Christmas then.
Vitamin D contributes to immune system strength
Nutritionists are passionate crusaders for plant power, which isn't surprising given the key role they play in keeping our immune system in top shape. “Fruit and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals that are essential for the body’s immune system to function effectively,” Jane says.
The key antioxidant when we talk about immunity is vitamin C. “It’s a well known cold and flu fighter but, because it’s water-soluble, it can’t be stored in the body.” This means we should be getting our doses daily, which is 40mg if you’re between the ages of 19 and 64.
While our ambition should be to score all the vitamins and minerals we need from food alone, it isn’t always possible. Clarissa recommends: “Supplementing alongside a healthy diet to give your immune system a helping hand. Vitamin D contributes to immune system strength and through the darker, colder months our levels can be at risk of depletion.” That's no surprise: Given that our main source of vitamin D is sunlight, we won’t bet on tremendous amounts of that appearing in the near future.
A good night's sleep can be crucial
“Evidence suggests that lack of sleep can make us more vulnerable to bugs, so a good night’s rest can be crucial to boosting immunity,” says Jane. In order to give yourself the best chance of sleeping soundly, she recommends that you bring your diet into the equation and “try to eat regular smaller meals for sustained energy throughout the day.”
“A starchy evening meal also seems to help the body wind down in the evening, so you’re more likely to fall asleep at a reasonable time. Or you can try a glass of warmed milk and our recipe for lavender milk.”
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