Your immune system – probably the best friend that you have. It stops you getting ill, it stops you getting cancer by recognising abnormal cells… the list goes on. Starting with the 5 “baddies” to avoid, the good news comes in points 6 and 7. Happy immune-boosting!
Exercise in general is great for the immune system, and people who regularly perform moderate intensity exercise for 40 minutes have on average half the number of coughs and colds that affect non-exercisers. However, more is not always better. Endurance athletes can start to suppress their immune systems with over 90 minutes of moderate to high intensity exercise (such as long-distance running, triathlon etc), due to the production of two adrenal hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, both of which suppress the immune system. The effect of this can last up to 3 days post-exercise. Fit-looking endurance athletes are not always the healthiest people! If you’re involved in endurance events, avoid suppressing the immune system by eating a diet rich in dark green leafy vegetables and dark-coloured berries, and make sure you well exceed the very basic “five a day” recommendation. Alternatively, switch your exercise type – high intensity “sprint-type” workouts with short rests boost the immune system. Exercise releases endorphins (happy hormones) in the brain, which help you to sleep better and improve your mood; both of which in turn help the immune system.
Finally, with obesity being at an all-time high, it’s vital to exercise to maintain ideal body weight. It’s also recently been discovered that obesity directly damages the immune system by reducing its antibody response.
Stress is an insidious killer. Whilst “eustress” (good stress) – that passion which sees you jumping out of bed in the morning to embrace the day – is good for you, chronic, long-term stress and anxiety severely degrade not just the immune system, but the whole body. It’s all because of cortisol and adrenaline again, and their negative effect on white blood cells. Stress also depletes magnesium, a mineral that is involved in over 50 biochemical reactions and is additionally vital to bone health.
Laughter is the perfect antidote to stress, and studies have shown that watching funny videos boosts the production of natural killer cells, a vital part of the immune system. Children laugh up to 400 times a day. How many times a day do you laugh? Make time for a good laugh with friends – it really is the best medicine.
3. Alcohol intake
Alcohol consumption is rising in women, and it brings with it many health challenges. In addition to interfering with the beneficial effects of vitamin C, alcohol disrupts the activity of white blood cells and natural killer cells. Binge drinking seems to put the immune system at most risk. Take a look at your alcohol consumption. There is no alleged “beneficial” effect of alcohol that cannot be found elsewhere. Want heart-healthy antioxidants, the type found in red wine? Eat red grapes or blueberries; these will also boost your immunity.
4. Antibiotic damage
A major proportion of your immune system actually lies in your gut, and antibiotics can wipe out these “friendly bacteria” and weaken your immune system. If you’ve been taking antibiotics, or if you suffer in general with poor immunity, it’s vital to restore the balance by using some probiotic capsules, or cultured/fermented foods such as fresh sauerkraut or kimchee. These are a healthier option than yogurt drinks. High sugar diets also adversely affect your natural probiotic levels – yet another reason to ditch the white stuff.
5. Low vitamin D levels are associated with poorer immunity, since vitamin D is essential for triggering and arming T-cells, which seek out and destroy bacterial invaders. In the UK between mid October and early March, it’s impossible to get vitamin D from the sun because even if it is out, it’s too low in the sky to trigger production in the skin. It’s been estimated that one in 6 people are severely depleted in vitamin D. There’s a lot of fear surrounding sun exposure, but 20 minutes outside every 2-3 days, without sunblock, has been shown to be beneficial for vitamin D production. Alternatively take a good, plant-based vitamin D supplement, ideally combined with vitamin K2, as I discuss in my book Love Your Bones.
6. A good diet, which includes essential protective antioxidants, is vital for immunity. Ensure that you get enough variety of brightly-coloured vegetables, including leafy greens, red peppers, sprouted green foods such as alfalfa, and a moderate amount of low-sugar fruits such as red and dark berries. High-sugar sweet fruits such as dried figs and dates can be detrimental to immunity because of the sugar content. Avoid processed cereals, white flour, white pasta and baked goods and focus on high quality wholefoods instead. Your immune system, and your whole body, will love you for it!
7. Other boosts for immunity
Garlic is really helpful for keeping coughs and colds at bay. Allicin, a chemical found in raw, freshly crushed garlic, inhibits bacteria and boosts immune function. Why not crush some on a salad?
Massage is a great de-stresser which lowers cortisol levels. It also boosts levels of oxytocin in the body, a hormone which regulates the stress hormones.
Walking in nature is great for immunity, as is, surprisingly, cold water immersion. Scientists have found that by jumping into water at a temperature of 14C, three times a week, 2 types of white blood cells which are associated with the immune response are stimulated. Cold showering has the same effect if you’re not feeling quite so brave. Finally, consider whole-food supplementation. Here’s a link to the one I have used for over 20 years, with scientifically proven results not just for the immune system but also many other whole-body benefits.