‘Boosting’ your immune system sounds enticing. Who wouldn’t want to protect themselves from disease, colds and flu? However, the immune system is precisely that — a system, not a single entity.
To work at its best, it requires balance and harmony. There is no single food or even supplement that can act as a magic bullet to ‘boost your immune system’. There are however several evidence based dietary and lifestyle changes may strengthen your body’s natural defenses and help you fight harmful pathogens, or disease-causing organisms.
1. Sleep, and plenty of it
Your general health and wellbeing is tied up with your sleep. Simply put, poor quality of sleep means you’re more likely to get sick. A study showed that those who had fewer than six hours of sleep a night were more susceptible to catching a cold than those who had the recommended amount of sleep. Lack of sleep is also linked to weight gain, depression, and a range of other poor health outcomes.
Most adults should be aiming for seven hours of sleep each night. Teenagers need up to ten hours, and young children even more- up to 14 hours is ideal.
If you struggle to sleep properly, try to set up good sleep habits. Go to bed at the same time each day. Sleep in a quiet, dark and cool room. Avoid gadget/ computer use for at least an hour before bedtime. Keep your bedroom a sleep-only space; don’t watch TV in the room, eat on the bed, or use it as an office space. Also, exercise during the day to help with sleep too. If none of this helps, a study showed that sleeplessness is commonly caused by psychological problems—it’s not physical at all. In which case, CBT or counselling may help.
2. Eat plants
We know that eating our 5+ of fruit and vege each day is really important; but it’s actually vital for your immunity. Whole foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes and packed full of antioxidants, nutrients and other goodies.
Antioxidants work by combatting the free radicals that exist in our environment. These compounds can cause inflammation, which contributes to disease. Inflammation is linked to a wide range of health problems, from Alzheimers to heart disease.
Fibre in these whole foods work to feed your gut microbiome. These ‘healthy bacteria’ are being implicated in a wide variety of positive treatments for varying health issues. It plays an essential part in improving your immunity, keeping harmful pathogens from entering your body.
3. Eat healthy fats
For years, it was believed that all fats were bad and the world converted to low-fat diets. However, we now know that while some fats are bad, some are actually exceptionally good for you. For instance, olive oil, avocados and omega-3 fatty acids that you find in things like salmon and chia seeds, help to drive inflammation down.
4. Fermented foods or probiotics
The latest fad food craze might have some value to it. Things like kefir, sauerkraut, yoghurt and natto all have something in common – they are full of probiotics, which are positive bacteria that help with a variety of functions in the body.
As well as helping with digestion, it’s been suggested that it helps with your immune system. It does this by helping immune cells differentiate between invading germs and virus organisms, and healthy, normal cells. In a study, children who drank 70ml of fermented milk each day had 20% less childhood infectious diseases. Unlike sanitising or hand washing, this is teaching the immune system what’s good and what’s not, and helping the body defend itself naturally.
If you can’t include fermented foods in your diet a probiotic supplement is ideal. A study in adults showed that those that supplemented with a probiotic had a better immune response to rhinovirus, and milder symptoms.
5. Stop eating sugar
We all know that loads of sugar isn’t exactly a health food. But there’s new research showing that added sugars and refined carbs is a disproportionate factor in developing obesity. We also know that obesity and the linked poor cardio fitness can increase the risk of sickness. A study showed that 1,000 obese people that were given the flu vaccine were twice as likely to get the flu as people of a normal weight who got the vaccine.
Decreasing your sugar intake will lessen the likelihood of weight gain, minimising your risk of health conditions associated with obesity. You want to aim for your sugar intake being less than 5% of your total calories. For an average 2000 calorie diet, that’s about 25 grams.
This doesn’t mean you have to start crossfit or doing burpees in your spare time. You want to be exercising moderately. This could be a brisk walk, cycling instead of driving somewhere, swimming, or jogging. You want to aim for at least two and a half hours of exercise a week.
Exercise helps the immune system in two ways. It can decrease inflammation and help your immune cells to renew themselves as needed. Even in those with compromised immune systems, exercise can increase effectiveness of vaccines.
7. Drink plenty of water
While being hydrated doesn’t protect you from invading viruses or germs, being dehydrated can negatively affect your overall health. Dehydration can cause headaches, impair digestion, heart and kidney function, and impact your ability to focus.
You should aim to drink enough water that your urine is a pale yellow colour. Water is calorie-free with no additives or sugar, but if you don’t like the taste, consider adding lemon juice, mint leaves, or something else that makes it palatable to you.
Other fluids such as tea or fruit juice are hydrating, but often have added sugars, tannins, or other ingredients that are less than ideal. If you are elderly or have older people in your life, note that the urge to drink dissipates as we age, as our bodies no longer signal thirst as effectively. Make sure you drink enough water, even if you don’t feel like it.
8. Stop stressing
This is difficult to do—there’s no magic wand to wave that makes you stop feeling stress. But the impact that stress has on our bodies can be really harmful, particularly to our immune systems.
While we can’t control the stressors, and our reactions to stress can be difficult to manage, we can counteract the effects. Find an activity that helps you de-stress- meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling, or could be as simple as talking about your worries with someone you trust.
9. Try supplements
In New Zealand, the supplement market is largely unregulated and there are many claims made that are false. Learn to understand what benefits things offer and what is best for you.
Vitamin C: According to a review in over 11,000 people, taking 1,000–2,000 mg of vitamin C per day reduced the duration of colds by 8% in adults and 14% in children. Yet, supplementing did not prevent the cold to begin with (Trusted Source).
Zinc: Studies consistently show that zinc supplements help to reduce the duration of a cold by 33%.
Vitamin D: A deficiency in vitamin D can weaken the immune system. But there’s no point in taking vitamin D if you’re getting sufficient amounts already. Go for a walk in the sun each day. Around 5% of adults in NZ are vitamin D deficient, if you suspect you are, get a blood test done.
Garlic: A study found that garlic supplements reduced the likelihood of catching a cold by around 30%. More research is needed, but don’t let that stop you piling it into your meals.Elderberry. One small review found that elderberry could reduce the symptoms of viral upper respiratory infections, but more research is needed (Trusted Source).
Echinacea. A study in over 700 people found that those who took echinacea recovered from colds slightly more quickly than those who received a placebo or no treatment, but the difference was insignificant (Trusted Source).
Elderberry. One small review found that elderberry could reduce the symptoms of viral upper respiratory infections, but more research is needed (Trusted Source).
You can increase your immunity naturallyIf you are wanting to make some lifestyle changes to improve your health, the advice is simple. Drink water, get enough sleep, and eat loads of fresh fruit and vegetables. It’ll help your immune system to fight off those winter colds and viruses, and minimise the longevity of the illness if you do get sick. Not only that, but these simple changes to your life will also make your skin look great, give you loads more energy, and help you live your best life.
Though some supplements may fight viral infections, none have been proven to be effective against COVID-19. If you decide to supplement, make sure to purchase products that have been tested by a third party.
The bottom line
You can make several lifestyle and dietary changes today to strengthen your immune system.
These include reducing your sugar intake, staying hydrated, working out regularly, getting adequate sleep, and managing your stress levels.
Although none of these suggestions can prevent COVID-19, they may reinforce your body’s defenses against harmful pathogens.