Fight inflammation – and feel fabulous all year round – with our expert tips to super-boost immunity, says Melanie Whitehouse
Most of us feel our best once summer is well under way. It’s not always a definable ‘thing’ – but aches and pains seem to subside, stress levels lower, our mood is lifted and the cogs and wheels whirr in easy harmony.
And the latest research confirms that this is because our immune systems are stronger, so inflammation is lower, in the summer months.
But you don’t have to fly south when the temperature drops in the autumn – you can extend the benefits of nature’s midsummer blessing with a few simple good lifestyle habits. Here’s how.
Eat Your Way To Boost Immunity
We can boost our immune system year-round with the right diet.
‘Omega-3 fatty acids are naturally anti-inflammatory and are found in oily fish – eat as much as you like of the smaller ones like anchovies and sardines, which are lower down the food chain and have a lower risk of toxins such as mercury than their larger cousins,’ says Harley Street nutritional therapist Yvonne Bishop-Weston (optimumnutritionists.com).
Tuck into flax and hemp seeds and oils, chia seeds and walnuts too, which are also naturally rich in omega 3.
Keeping blood-sugar levels balanced also fights inflammation. ‘Always have breakfast within an hour of waking, eat every four hours if you can and have protein with every meal as it slows the release of carbohydrate sugars into the blood, which stops our blood- sugar levels yo-yoing.
When they swing, we overuse insulin, gain body fat and initiate inflammation,’ cautions Yvonne.
Too much insulin also triggers an inflammatory response that depletes the immune system and makes us more susceptible to winter illness.
Yvonne says we’d do better to eat eight or nine portions of fruit and veg a day than five.
Aim for a daily rainbow of colours, as the different hues bring different nutrients – and go for more veg than fruit to avoid a high sugar intake.
Include purple veg for powerful antioxidants and green leafy veg for the relaxing mineral magnesium, which also helps the body absorb calcium and strengthens bones.
Make simple switches, like using red cabbage for coleslaw and red onions when cooking.
Finally, we need whole grains and beans and pulses for inflammation-reducing B vitamins, antioxidants and minerals such as magnesium (good for the nervous, muscular and cardiovascular systems), potassium (essential for the heart, kidneys, muscles, nerves, and digestive system to operate normally, and for regulating fluid balance and blood pressure), and B vitamins.
‘Antioxidants are lost from white refined products,’ says Yvonne. ‘Stick to wholemeal bread, brown rice and wholewheat pasta, and try other carbohydrate choices, such as quinoa, spelt and rye.
When it comes to your ‘avoid’ list, remember that saturated fat is thought to contribute to inflammation.
‘Avoid, or eat only minimally, high-fat cheese and intensively reared meat. Free-range and organic meat, which has had room to roam and eat a natural plant-based diet, has a healthier fatty acid composition,’ says Yvonne.
‘Refined sugar – as used in sweets and cakes, colas and processed food – can spike blood-sugar levels and trigger the release of insulin, a hormone that may trigger inflammation.’
The Emerging Role Of Vitamin D
A pioneering Cambridge University study of more than 16,000 people worldwide released in May proved what many of us felt to be true: our immune system function varies with the seasons.
Almost a quarter of our genes are more active at some times of the year than others – and many of these seasonal genes are involved in the immune system and inflammation. Scientists have known for some time that various diseases (including cardiovascular, autoimmune and psychiatric disorders) display seasonal variation, as does vitamin D metabolism.
However, this is the first time researchers have shown the two may be linked. Following a Danish study in 2010 which found that vitamin D ‘triggers and arms’ the immune system and is part of a complex process in which white blood cells become primed and help to fight infection, Professor John Todd, director of the JDRF/Wellcome Trust Diabetes and Inflammation Laboratory, has now proven the link further.
‘Our immune systems appear to put us at greater risk of disease related to excessive inflammation in colder, darker months,’ he says.
To keep vitamin D levels topped up, most people need 10 to 15 minutes of daily sun exposure between 11am and 3pm, without sunscreen, from April to October – and even more if you are darker-skinned, as your extra pigmentation naturally blocks more rays.
To counter the effects of winter inflammation, exercise regularly. Your body reduces blood flow to your peripheral areas when it’s cold to conserve the flow of warm blood around the heart, meaning joints become inflexible and painful. Exercising keeps them supple.
Taking warm baths and wrapping up well is also important to reduce stiffness and pain caused by the same reason.
What To Watch For At Every Age
In Your Thirties
Your immune system is strong and inflammation should be at a minimum. You could try taking an age- and gender-appropriate multi-vitamin such as Vitabiotics, or Nutri Multi Essentials for Men or Women (newforesthealth.com).
In Your Forties
You may be entering the perimenopause, which could increase inflammation. Keep blood-sugar levels balanced and top up nutrients. Fish oils, such as UniCardio (£33.75, purefishoil.co.uk) are helpful, or try Opti3, an algae oil that’s naturally toxin-free (£16.10, newforesthealth.com).
In Your Fifties
As well as affecting mood and sleep, the menopause can hinder bone health. Top up on whole grains, beans, pulses, oily fish and magnesium-rich green leafy veg.
In Your Sixties And Beyond
A reduction in your digestive enzymes may slow down the release of nutrients from your food and lead to bloating.
Support digestion by chewing well and discuss taking a plant-based digestive enzyme with a registered nutritional therapist. Protect against degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis with a mineral supplement containing calcium, magnesium, vitamins K and D, plus an algae or fish oil.
‘If you have any health conditions or take any medications, please check with your GP before taking any supplements,’ adds Yvonne.
Eat 10 or more of these a week and give your immune system a fighting chance of beating the bugs and avoiding inflammation this winter
* Pulses (beans, peas and lentils, especially black beans)
* Whole grains (wholemeal bread, rye or spelt, oats, brown, red and black rice, brown pasta, oat and rye crackers)
* Whole non-grain carbs (quinoa, wild rice)
* Green veg (broccoli, spinach, kale)
* Orange and red veg (tomatoes, sweet potatoes, red cabbage, pumpkin and squash)
* Good fats (oily fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds)
* Organic meat, poultry and game
* Fermented foods such as sauerkraut
* Herbs and spices (black pepper, turmeric and ginger)
* Berries (strawberries, raspberries and blueberries)
* Goji berries
* Organic yogurt
*Porridge with cinnamon
* Prunes and plums
* Fresh fruit and veg smoothie
* Dark chocolate – just a couple of squares
*Walnuts and almonds
* Red pepper sticks
* Carrot sticks
* Sunflower seeds
* Chia seeds
* Pea and mint pâté
* Aubergine dip