Keeping your immune system strong
By Amanda Whitford
It’s that time of year again, daylight saving has ended and winter is fast approaching. Colds and flu’s have started doing the rounds, sometimes taking down whole families at a time. So how do you reduce your chances of succumbing to these unpleasant and inconvenient illnesses? Aside from keeping well clear of anyone who is sick, which is often just not possible, taking the time to look after yourself and ensure that you are doing as much as you can to help strengthen your immune system is the best defence you’ve got against these seemingly seasonal germs.
Our immune system is a complex system that helps to protect us from illness and disease through various means. The first line of defence includes our skin and internal body linings which help to keep unwanted things from entering our bodies and causing us harm. Sometimes, these are not enough and things like viruses or bacteria make it through, so we have other systems in place to prevent or minimise the damage, or negative effect that these may have.
The strength of the immune system is not always stable as it is affected by many lifestyle factors that can either promote or reduce its optimal function. This means that there are several areas we can consciously work on to enhance our immune system function prior to winter.
What we eat can have a big effect on our immune system’s ability to do its job, as many vitamins and minerals are involved in its functioning. This means that consuming good dietary sources of these is important for our health. The simplest approach to dietary advice is to eat a wide variety of nutrient dense foods, including plenty of fruit and vegetables each day.
In addition to this, Zinc is a mineral that is particularly important for immune function, so including sources of zinc such as red meat, sunflower and pumpkin seeds and lentils into the diet can help to support the immune system. Food sources are a better option than supplements, because although zinc is beneficial at moderate doses, excessive intakes can actually have a negative effect on the immune system. Other nutrients shown to benefit immune function include Vitamin E, found in sunflower seeds, nuts (almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts), and dark leafy greens, also Vitamin A which is found in dairy foods, meat, eggs, and dark green and also orange vegetables.
Aside from providing functional components for the immune system, our dietary intakes also influence our gut bacteria composition. Our gut has a huge immune function and the composition of our gut bacteria has a huge influence on this. Factors known to promote the growth of ‘bad’ gut bacteria include high sugar and highly processed foods, so avoiding or limiting these is a simple way to strengthen your immunity.
It’s no secret that exercise can benefit our health, so it won’t come as a surprise that it can also help to strengthen our immune system. It can seem more difficult to exercise during winter, especially if you are used to getting outside rather than going to the gym, but finding a way to include regular exercise will help your immune system to keep you healthy over the cold months. The good news is you don’t have to completely exhaust yourself – the benefits seen are related to moderate exercise, with some indication that excessive exercise may actually weaken the immune system’s function. Some options might be to try a Zumba or salsa dancing class, or visit your local pools for a warm water swim. You might like to hire a piece of equipment like a stationary bike, or treadmill for the winter months so that you can work out in the privacy of your own home at a time that suits.
Maintaining a healthy body weight is important for so many factors relating to our health and well-being and the immune system is no exception. Research has shown that excess body weight can reduce the immune system’s ability to function well and can increase our susceptibility to illness and disease. Along with eating nutritious foods and exercising, portion control can play an important role in weight management over winter. In the season where it is so easy to curl up on the couch with a blanket and some comfort food, it is especially important to be aware of how much energy you are consuming.
While small amounts of stress in our lives tend to be unavoidable, and in the short term doesn’t appear to be particularly harmful, long term stress is another story. When our bodies are constantly on alert from continuous stress, this has detrimental effects on our immune system. These days stressors come from multiple angles and their effects are cumulative. A lot of small, contributing, factors can add up and be incredibly damaging. It is important to take the time to recognise the things in your life that contribute to the stress and to make changes, where possible, to minimise these. Taking time out to relax is also incredibly important, even if it is just a quick walk around the block, a chat with a friend, or some time alone with a good book.
Lack of sleep can lead to a response in the body that is similar to how we deal with stress and studies have shown that lack of sleep can negatively impact our immune system. While it is thought that most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per night for optimal health, the quality of sleep is also important. Our sleep occurs in a series of cyclic stages starting with light sleep then deeper sleep, then back to lighter sleep and so on. It is the deep sleep phase that appears to be particularly important for health. Several lifestyle factors can hinder our ability to reach this deep sleep stage, with two of the biggest culprits being caffeine and alcohol. While you may still get to sleep, particularly after alcohol, consuming these things later in the day may be robbing you of quality sleep and negatively impacting your immune function.
Making small changes in the above areas can benefit your immune function, reducing the chances of and recovery time from illness. Don’t spend winter surrounded by tissues – put your well-being first and provide your body with the things it needs to protect your health.