We are exposed to pathogens every day. We inhale, swallow or touch them and your body’s response can depend upon the strength of your immune system. Not everyone who is exposed to germs will develop a disease or become sick, and how sick you may become will depend on how strong a defense your body can launch. The winter months are particularly challenging, as many around us are coughing, blowing noses and generally sharing their germs. Remaining well in the face of this exposure is all about good overall health and immunity.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is a complex system of cells, lymphatic vessels and organs, and tissues that work together to protect the body from infection and disease. When our immune system is working properly it detects threats such as bacteria and viruses, then triggers an immune response to combat them. However sometimes it fails or is weakened, and we can become ill, either acutely, or with recurrent chronic infections that just won’t go away. Our immune system function involves the combination of both our innate (natural) and adaptive (acquired) immunity which work together to protect us. Innate describes the immunity we are born with, and is our first line of defense against infection, typically responding with symptoms such as fevers and excess mucous to try and flush out the infection, while adaptive is the immunity we acquire e.g. via exposure and vaccinations which will produce antibodies to fight the invader. While the adaptive system works out which antibodies to produce to fight a specific pathogen, the innate system tries to stop it progressing. The innate and adaptive systems work in harmony to defend us. There are many stressors that can affect immunity including poor nutrition, chronic illness, ageing, and lifestyle choices.
So how can we strengthen and support our immune system?
Improve your diet to include plenty of immune enhancing foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, quality protein, good fats, good carbs, and fibre to provide nutrients such as zinc, B vitamins, vitamins A, E and C, selenium and iron. It is vital that gut health and function are optimal so food is properly digested and nutrients are absorbed. Poor gut heath can lead to many associated issues that can negatively affect immune health.
Nutrient deficiencies can lower immunity, so include:
- Juices that support immune health- combine fruit, vegetables and spices into juices and smoothies: e.g. carrot, apple, celery, pineapple, papaya, lemon, horseradish, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric. The whole juice, do not strain. Also vegetable broths. These provide antioxidants, immune support, fibre, vitamins/minerals.
- Vegetables including brassica & salad vegetables in your meals daily e.g. cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts; kale; lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, and root vegetables such as carrots and beets. These are good for liver detox and inflammation, and provide soluble fibre, antioxidants, plus nutrients such as iron, vitamin C, non-dairy calcium, magnesium.
- Good carbs such as wholegrain breads, and vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and legumes.
- Protein, which is vital for immune system health and for energy. Sources include fresh fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines; organic skinless poultry; lean meats; tofu; eggs; plus seeds and nuts. Also vegetable proteins such as legumes and pulses e.g. beans, chickpeas, soybeans & lentils which also add fibre, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium.
- Iron rich foods as iron deficiency is common in women and the elderly, and leads to lowered immunity. Add in some iron rich foods for energy, including plant foods. Great plant sources of iron include beans, lentils, spinach, and sesame seeds. Eating them with vitamin C-rich foods can boost iron absorption.
Anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, onions, broccoli, blueberries, spinach & kale, green leafy vegetables; beets, celery, broccoli, berries, pineapple, salmon.
- Clear warming soups and broths e.g. those with chicken and vegetables will nourish the immune system.
- Good oils/fats to help reduce inflammation. Good fats such as those found in fish, seeds and non-allergenic nuts e.g. chia, sesame, linseeds (flax), and their oils, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil are beneficial for both immune support and avoiding fatigue. You need good fats to absorb some key antioxidants and nutrients.
Increase exercise, even gentle regular exercise, at least 30 minutes per day, and getting out in the fresh air and sunshine whenever possible. Exercise helps calm the nervous system and combined with vitamin D from gentle sun exposure helps strengthen immunity. Choose a level of exercise that suits you.
Make lifestyle adjustments to lower stress and anxiety levels and improve energy. Stress is major player in immune dysfunction and the body’s responses to stressful situations can contribute to suppressing the immune system. Try reducing alcohol, not smoking, some gentle exercise, regular sport, massage, acupuncture, mediation, and some enjoyable recreation activities.
Improve your sleep. We need good quality unbroken and refreshing sleep as lack of sleep can disrupt immune function. Practice sleep hygiene and shut down computers/TV etc. well ahead of sleep time and relax before bed e.g. reading, listening to music, meditating or doing breathing exercises.
Drink more water, at least 1-2 litres daily for hydration and detoxification. Try water with a slice of citrus, herbal teas or simply hot water with lemon juice, which is also a good way to start the day. Ginger tea — raw ginger, organic honey and a slice of lemon in hot water is a great winter drink.
Do a detoxification protocol, which will help remove toxins, fungi, candida etc., and rebuild levels of good bacteria and vital nutrients.
Add useful supplements if diet is not adequate – include Vitamin D3, Vitamin A, fish oil, B-complex vitamins, zinc, olive leaf, vitamin C, iron and immune enhancing probiotics.
And include herbs. Some of my favourite herbs to support and protect the immune system are: Elderberry, Echinacea, Andrographis, Garlic, Ginger, Astragalus, Siberian Ginseng, Poke root and Cat’s Claw. These beautiful herbs provide many health benefits in addition to immune support. And add in some herbs that assist in stress and anxiety such as Lemon Balm, Passionflower, and Ashwagandha (Withania).
Finally, minimise possible infection by washing your hands regularly and not sharing food and drinking utensils with anyone suffering from cold and flu infections.