Give your immune system a chance to fight back with simple changes to your diet and lifestyle.
Our immune system is our body’s natural defence. It’s a network of cells, tissues and organs, such as our spleen, appendix and bone marrow, which work together to fight infection or disease.
‘It’s the most complicated system in the body and it’s not just one thing,’ says immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi from the University of Sussex. ‘It’s like a football team working together.’
They’re activated when a germ, such as a virus, enters our body. If we’ve come into contact with the germ before – through infection or vaccination – our body uses stored information to fight it. If it hasn’t, like with Covid-19, it uses a group of general killer cells to fight off the infection. That can take time and also damage healthy tissue, like cells in our lungs, which will need repairing after we recover.
‘There are ways to balance your immune system and help it to work well,’ says Dr Macciochi, author of Immunity: The Science of Staying Well (£7.99, HarperCollins).
How can we help to boost our bodies immune system?
Keep on the move
Physical activity is one of the best ways to prime your immune system. ‘Any kind of movement will get your lymphatic system moving – the super-highway of your immune system,’ says Dr Macciochi. Active muscles release interleukin 7 (IL-7) into your bloodstream, a chemical responsible for a healthy thymus gland, crucial to good immune-system function.
- Move around regularly. Try a brisk walk or cycle. A recent British study of long-term cyclists aged 55-79 found they had better immune systems than people in their 20s who didn’t exercise.
- Do resistance training. Lifting weights or your own body weight through squats, lunges and
press-ups is easy to do at home and triggers the release of IL-7.
- Try this: Yoga or tai chi – or any stretching routines. The movement will support good immunity and they’re great stress relievers. ‘The stress hormone cortisol suppresses immune function,’ says Dr Macciochi.
Eat as well as possible
Diet, particularly vitamins and minerals, is crucial for the health of our immune system.
- Feed your gut. Your microbiome (gut bugs) plays a key role in your immune system. ‘If there ever was an immune-boosting food, it would be fibre,’ says Dr Macciochi. Fibre acts as a ‘fertiliser’, encouraging your good gut bugs to thrive, so eat plenty of fruit, veg, legumes and wholegrains.
- Eat vitamin C-rich foods. Red and green peppers, citrus fruits, broccoli, sprouts and potatoes are all good sources. ‘The vitamin plays a key role in immunity,’ says Dr Macciochi. ‘When we’re fighting an infection, our needs increase dramatically because our immune cells use a lot of it.’
- Think zinc. ‘It contributes to normal immune function, helping to defend the body against bacteria and viruses,’ says LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Pareena Patel. You’ll find it in plenty of everyday foods – milk, eggs, fish, Brazil nuts, chickpeas and baked beans.
- Not getting enough? Try this: Taking a supplement. ‘Vitamin C and zinc supplements may shorten the length of a cold,’ says Dr Macciochi. But generally they’re only beneficial if you have an actual deficiency. It’s best to get nutrients from your food.
Lifestyle choices that can also have an impact on your immunity
‘It compromises the barriers in your lungs, leaving you more prone to infection,’ says Dr Macciochi. Smoking is a form of oxidative stress on your body, which dampens down your immune-system response.
Consider vitamin D supplements
‘Vitamin D plays a key role in regulating your immune system,’ says Dr Macciochi. If you’re worried you’re not getting 15-30 minutes daily sun exposure on your face and arms, think about taking a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement, as recommended by Public Health England.
Sing along to the radio
London scientists have found that it won’t just keep your spirits up, it can boost your immune system through the release of immune protein cytokines. A good sing-song encourages you to breathe deeply, keeping lungs healthy, and suppress stress hormones.
Getting enough sleep
Getting enough sleep is important for a healthy immune system, says Woman’s Weekly GP Dr Gill Jenkins. ‘Sleep deprivation decreases production of protective immune proteins called cytokines and infection-fighting antibodies and cells.’
- Aim for seven to eight hours a night. It’s what our bodies need to refresh and recharge to stay in optimum health. We all have individual needs, though, so this is a rough guide – if you’ve always slept less and wake-up feeling refreshed, don’t worry.
- Get plenty of sunlight. It helps regulate your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle. If time outside or in the garden isn’t possible, make sure you get enough natural light into your home. Keep blinds and curtains fully open during the day, and windows unblocked, or opened if warm enough. Read your favourite mag with a cup of coffee by the window or in your brightest room, such as the conservatory.
- Cutting back on alcohol. It can disrupt sleep, your immunity-supporting gut microbiome and organs, such as your liver – a crucial part of your immune system.