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  • Writer's pictureMollie Maxwell

How to boost your immune system

In 2019 when we first heard about the Covid -19 pandemic, little did we know what was coming our way and there was a fear of the unknown, the last pandemic being the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic which killed 21 million people in the USA alone, that is more people than the Americans lost in WW1, WW2, the Korean and Vietnam wars put together. Several years on and Covid is still amongst us and people are still dying from it, although mainstream media does not mention it very often unless there is a new strain of interest or someone famous dies from complications of Covid. The interesting thing is that a large majority of the population that became very sick from Covid or died from it were those with poor immunity and underlying health conditions such as Obesity, Diabetes, Chronic lung disease, heart disease and more. These are the big four killers that can to some degree be prevented or at least the effects can be lessened by healthy diet, exercise and lifestyle. If we could go back in time and tell the World that a serious illness was coming our way in a few years time and that we could prepare for it by boosting our immune systems, many of us might have heeded the warning and thought about how we could look after ourselves better to mitigate the risks. A bit like being prepared for an earthquake that could leave us sick, thirsty, hungry and needing to look after ourselves for a period of time. What could we do to prepare ?

A strong immune system can help us avoid the health risks associated with viruses (which are around us all the time) and this is our front-line defence, so we want it to be a robust as possible. There are several things you can do to support your immune system right now .

Immunity boosting foods

1. Immunity boosting foods. Vitamin C-rich foods can boost the body’s defence system and help with preventing seasonal colds and flu. Most green leafy vegetables are great sources of Vitamin C as are citrus fruits, berries and kiwi fruit. Potatoes also are high in Vitamin C and the resistant starch in yesterday’s cooked cooled potatoes has less glycemic load than if you eat them hot from the pan. Eating foods that boost your gut bacteria can reduce inflammation and support the immune system. Onions, leeks, garlic and shallots help feed the gut bacteria, as do fermented foods such as sauerkraut, live yoghurt and blue cheese. Highly insoluble fibre found in these fresh vegetables also increase the production of short chain fatty acids which help when we are under stress. A sprinkle of fresh or dried turmeric into savoury dishes or cinnamon onto live yoghurt is another great anti inflammatory boost. Fat soluble vitamins A,D,E,K, founds in eggs, butter, leafy greens, seeds and nuts, along with sunlight are vitally essential.

2. Sleep. Having a good night’s sleep is essential for keeping our body healthy and allowing our brains to repair and refresh after the day’s activities. The deep sleep that comes from going to bed physically tired allows the brain’s “cleaning cycle” to occur, memory formation and information storage. This deep sleep is important also for the removal of beta-amyloid plaques that are implicated in the formation of Alzheimer’s disease. Having a plan for good sleep (or sleep hygiene as it is called) encourages the Circadian rhythm hormones responsible for allowing sleep to work effectively. This plan would include getting enough physical exercise during the day including some time in sunlight, reducing intense light as the evening progresses, avoiding the use of blue light and LED screens preferably at least a couple of hours before bedtime. Avoiding caffeine later in the day and encouraging quiet time before sleep especially for children is beneficial. Reading or listening to gentle music, low light levels and being warm all assist with the natural Melatonin production to assist good sleep.

3. Exercise enough to feel tired, preferably in fresh air and sunlight to assist with Vitamin D production. Excessive intensive exercising can stress the adrenals and have a detrimental effect on the immune system, so have enough to feel tired but don’t overdo it. Small bursts of exercise may be just as effective as one longer period of exercise.

4. Connect socially by whatever means you can. Social interaction is a basic need and creates a feeling of belonging. Picking up the phone and talking to a friend or neighbour increases our sense of purpose and meaning. Random acts of kindness enhance the lives of the giver and the recipient. Cherish your friends, have empathy and be kind. Keep smiling, even when things seem a little bleak. Smiling activates the release of brain chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin that help to fight off stress.

5. De-stress. When things are going well for us, we tick along quite nicely. However, when we are under stress our mid brain (Amygdala) kicks in and our threat response is heightened. We become emotional, pessimistic over-generalise and it impacts negatively on our memory. There are strategies to employ to overcome this response. The first is belly breathing, slowly and deeply, with more emphasis on a long breath out. This initiates the Baroreflex, which takes power away from the Amygdala and invokes the Bohr effect, lowering the blood pressure and allowing oxygen to flow to the parts of the body that require it. This is a highly effective way of becoming grounded and helps you take control of a difficult situation. Secondly, self-time is really important for de- stressing and might take the form of a few minutes on your own, just doing nothing, not looking at a screen or interacting, simply being alone. This is particularly useful for parents who need time away from their children and also for children having time away from their parents. It is time to allow the mind to come still and not to be overstimulated. Creativity and thinking also come from this time out, as well as being an opportunity to look for the good stuff. Thirdly, focus on the positives and focus on this. Practice gratitude and count at least three blessings. This is a powerful tool for creating a positive feeling.

Dr Jenna Macciochi Ph.D Immunologist and lecturer at Sussex University discusses these and other suggestions in her new book entitled “Immunity- the science of staying well” She talks about our immune system as being like our sixth sense and uses military analogies to describe the body as a fortress and our immune system as the army that defends us, being made up of a constellation of white blood cells, our barrier tissues (skin, the lining of our airways and gastrointestinal tract) and the gut microbiome.

She describes the two types of immune systems: the innate and the adaptive. The first being the cells in our barrier tissues that recognise patterns of damage or injury and the “red flag” of non specific threats. This innate system then calls upon the adaptive immune system to fight in a highly targeted way by producing T-cells that are the master controllers of the immune system and the B-cells that produce antibodies.

How we live our lives can upset the balance of the immune system and we all respond differently to the threat of infection depending upon how our genes are designed. Jenna recommends that balancing our immune system is not a quick fix and we need to look at the long game. She points to five main influencers:

Sleep: Quality and quantity really matter. Good sleep is restorative to the immune cells by way of Melatonin production which is anti inflammatory and helps to clear out old and defunct immune cells.

Stress: Sort your stress and find ways to manage it. Cortisol, the main stress hormone causes dampening down of the immune system.

Balance: Find things that give your pleasure, look for joy to increase moments of positive emotions .

Exercise: Not for aesthetics or for getting a specific body shape, but for retaining muscle mass. As we age, building muscle mass is really the key here as it plays an important role in keeping our immune system young. The Thymus gland that produces T-Cells starts to decline in our twenties, but if we try to build muscle mass in addition to cardio vascular exercise we can assist our immune system to be strong.

Diet: The gut microbiome are the key educators of our immune system as by eating fibre they help heal the immune system. Diversity of fibre leads to a diversity of gut bugs. Plant fibre, seeds, nuts, pulses and legumes are great sources of fibre and the phytonutrients in brightly coloured vegetables and fruit have an antibacterial and anti inflammatory effect. Eat good quality protein especially seafood and fish containing Omega-3 fats.

Finally Jenna advises finding joy in our food. We should feel nourished, satisfied and enjoy the endorphins and positive emotions that come from sharing food.

You can read the interview with Dr Jenna Macciochi here:

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