How to Boost Your Immune System
Having a well-functioning immune system is key to fighting off illnesses. Here are some ways to give your immune system a boost.
Not only is regular exercise beneficial for your general fitness, it can also help you fight illnesses and infections. Exercising raises your body temperature, which may prevent bacteria from growing and therefore help the body fight infection better. Exercise may also help flush bacteria out of the lungs and the airways. Regular exercise reduces the level of stress and lower levels of stress hormones may protect against illness.
There have been some scientific studies which have shown that cold showers increase the amount of white blood cells. These are the cells that protect us against diseases. Scientists relate this to an increased metabolic rate, which stimulates the immune response. Cold showers, whilst not a magical cure, can boost your resistance to illnesses such as cold and flu. If you have not tried cold showers before, start gradually and build up the duration and intensity.
When you sleep, your immune system releases cytokines, some of which promote sleep. When you have an infection, the level of cytokines needs to increase to fight the illness and sleep deprivation can reduce the production of cytokines. Sleep deprivation also reduces the levels of infection-fighting antibodies and cells. When you do not get enough sleep, you are more likely to get sick when exposed to a virus. It can also slow down your recovery. Whilst having enough sleep might not prevent you from getting sick, lack of it can affect your immune system and leave you susceptible to colds and flu. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night will help to keep your immune system in a better shape.
When you are experiencing high levels of stress, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced. This will leave you more vulnerable to infections. When you feel under pressure, your brain triggers the release of cortisol, which is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands. When the cortisol levels remain high for a long time, it can suppress your immune system. Reducing your stress levels will also boost your mood, which in turn will make it easier to cope with illness.
Drinking Less Alcohol
Alcohol consumption can damage the immune system and therefore increase your risk of infections. There are various ways alcohol impairs the immune system; one them is that it alters the balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in your gut and affects the way the healthy bacteria interacts with your immune system. Alcohol can disrupt the gut barrier, which allows more bacteria to pass into the blood. Drinking alcohol also affects the respiratory system and may impair the function of immune cells in the lungs and the upper respiratory system, which increases the risk of pneumonia. So whilst it might be tempting to reach for the bottle of wine more often than usual when practising social distancing, try to limit your alcohol intake to the recommended amounts.
Studies have shown the link between your overall health and the balance (or imbalance) of bacteria in your digestive system. The good bacteria in your gut may help inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. The good bacteria might also promote the production of natural antibodies in the body. Although the evidence is still scant, a review has found that taking probiotics reduced the likelihood and duration of respiratory infections.
Our immune system benefits from exposure to sunlight. It has long been known that UV light from the sun triggers the production of vitamin D. This vitamin can signal to immune cells when they need to fight an infection. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to an increased rate of infections and cancer. There is another way the immune system benefits from sunlight linked to blue light (a light with a short wavelength). Researchers from Georgetown University found that this blue light helps the circulation of some immune cells in our skin. When exposed to the blue light from the sun, these cells, called T-cells, move around faster and reach new infections quicker, therefore stopping them before they can cause harm.
There is evidence that nutrition can influence the strength of your immune system and susceptibility to infections. Your immune system relies on white blood cells to produce antibodies which combat bacteria and viruses. Studies have shown that people who have a diet high in plant-based foods and low in fat, have more effective white blood cells because of higher intake of vitamins and lower intake of fat. When you limit your dietary fat intake, you help your immune system strengthen its defences. This is because food high in fat may alter the gut microbe balance and impair white cell function. Another way a healthy diet supports the immune system is that it will help you maintain a healthy weight. Research has linked obesity to an increased risk of infections such as pneumonia.
Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants
Giving your body the vitamins it needs will support your immune function. You will be able to get key vitamins, minerals and antioxidants from foods or supplements. Here are some foods to eat to boost the immune system:
- sweet potatoes, carrots and green, leafy vegetables are brilliant sources of betacarotine. This is an antioxidant that can boost the immune system and reduce inflammation;
- nuts, pumpkin seeds, beans and lentils are an excellent source of zinc. This mineral can give white blood cells a boost;
- vitamin D is harder to get from your diet; generally you can get it from fortified cereals or plant-based milks, but you can get it from sunlight. During the dark winter months you can also get vitamin D from supplements. Vitamin D may reduce your risk of viral infections as it reduces the production of proinflammatory compounds;
- vitamins C and E are both easy to obtain from foods. Sources of vitamin E include nuts and seeds and vitamin C-rich foods include lemons, mangoes, oranges as well as other fruits and vegetables.
Whilst none of the above immune boosters can be guaranteed to protect you from infections and diseases (including Covid-19), it is definitely worth doing what you can to help your body to fight illnesses. Especially at uncertain times like this.
Feel free to share the link to anyone you think would like to read about ways to boost the immune system and check back for tips to stay sane during social distancing, ideas to reduce stress and more benefits of cold showers. Coming soon.