As winter approaches, your immune system is going to have to work harder than usual to keep you protected. Here are five simple ways to keep it strong.
Your immune system works hard to protect you from the millions of germs that could cause harm to the body. It’s under particular strain in winter – we’re 80 percent more likely to get a cold in winter according to the NHS. So keep it in tip-top condition.
Start by getting enough sleep. ‘A lack of good quality sleep is a form of stress,’ says immunologist Dr Tariq El-Shanawany. ‘It can affect your immune function, leaving you more susceptible to infections, and may also mean that you take longer to recover.’
When students at the University of Chicago were limited to only four hours of sleep for six nights and then given a flu vaccine, their immune systems made only half the normal number of antibodies.
We’re all different but, in general, aim for a solid 7-8 hours a night. However it’s not an excuse for long lie-ins as Dr El-Shanawany adds that sleeping beyond that doesn’t give any extra benefits.
SUPERCHARGE YOUR DIET
There really is no quick food fix for a good immune system – you simply need a well-balanced diet. Aim for a wide variety of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, all rich in super-immune nutrients like vitamins C and E, plus beta-carotene and zinc. Choose warm superfood salads, vibrant smoothies, zingy soups.
Bee Propolis mounts a hive of activity against bacteria; it’s high in zinc and is also a rich source of caffeic acid and apigenin, two phytonutrients (natural chemicals found in plants) that boost the immune response. Sprinkle it over your morning porridge, your lunchtime salads, or swish into smoothies. Maitake and shitake mushrooms are also immune superfoods – they bind to white blood cells and kickstart them into scavenging for invading organisms. Time for mushroom super-soup.
BALANCE YOUR EXERCISE
Our bodies are made to move and keeping a good level of overall fitness will boost your immune system as well as your muscles. Not only is exercise a superlative stress-reliever but it seems to speed up the activity of white blood cells (the body’s defence cells) so they can detect and react to threats more swiftly.
However not all exercise is equal and, if your immune system is less than optimal it might be worth holding back on the marathons. ‘Balance is the key here,’ says Dr El-Shanawany. ‘Moderate exercise may well help keep your immune system healthy but prolonged high intensity exercise undertaken on a frequent basis can actually cause depression of the immune system.’
If you are wedded to tough training, then it’s even more vital you get the optimum diet – and add in supplements – to protect yourself.
POWER UP WITH HERBS
Certain herbs have a serious reputation as immune-enhancers: elderberry, oregano, olive leaf, garlic and astragalus top the bill. Astragalus helps increase interferon and white blood cell counts and has been used in China for thousands of years as an immune booster. Friendly probiotics such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium can also contribute. ‘They have a powerful effect on your gut’s immune system and aid in the production of antibodies,’ says pharmacist Shabir Dyer.
He recommends Daily Immunity by Food Science of Vermont (£25; victoriahealth.com) which includes all the above herbs and probiotics along with vitamins D3 and C, zinc and other nutrients. ‘Take it from autumn right through to spring – it can help protect against infections.’
A JOKE A DAY…
‘Laughter is the best medicine’ is an old adage but, when it comes to boosting your immune system, it seems a belly laugh could be just the job. Laughing curbs the levels of stress hormones in your body and boosts the white blood cells that fight infection.* Even anticipating something funny can have a positive effect on your immune system. In one study, men were told three days in advance that they were going to watch a funny video. Their levels of stress hormones dropped. ‘I’d certainly recommend trying to laugh more,’ says Dr El-Shanawany. ‘After all, even if it doesn’t work at least you’ve been enjoying yourself!’
Dr Tariq El-Shanawany is Consultant Clinical Immunologist at the Cardiff & Vale NHS Trust.
*American Physiological Society. “Anticipating A Laugh Reduces Our Stress Hormones, Study Shows.” ScienceDaily, 10 April 2008.
A version of this feature first appeared in Top Sante magazine.