The question on everyone’s lips right now is ‘how can I boost my immune system?’ While the idea of taking a ‘superfood’, medication or supplement is enticing, the truth is that it’s not that straightforward.
The immune system is precisely that – a system, not a single entity, so is a highly complex web of specialist organs, cells, hormones and chemicals that ebb and flow in response to its surrounding environment. What we are actually striving for is an immune system that is resilient.
On the whole, our immune system does an outstanding job of defending us, but sometimes it fails and a germ invades successfully and makes us sick. A resilient system has the flexibility and capacity to adapt to any challenges that are presented and the finesse to respond appropriately, so we return to a healthy state of wellbeing with minimal collateral damage.
Framed in this way, the holy grail of optimal health and wellbeing is to build and maintain a flexible, resilient immune system.
1 FOOD CHOICES
To mount an immune response is a job that demands a lot of energy – we need a good supply of vitamins, minerals and balanced nutrients. Excess sugar can disrupt the digestion and high blood sugar unleashes destructive molecules that interfere with the body’s natural infection-control defences. Choose to include wholefoods in your diet, especially vegetables and some fruits, which are nutrient-dense with vitamins and minerals, which in turn help protect cells. Go for wholegrain carbohydrates such as brown rice, rye and spelt, and avoid overly processed wheat and packaged foods. Think about protein as the side dish rather than the main event, and choose from fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, eggs, organic beef, chicken, and goats and sheep’s cheese.
2 INCREASE MOVEMENT AND HEART RATE
Regular exercise is one of the pillars of healthy living. It improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, brings blood sugar under control by sensitising cells to insulin and helps to control body weight. About 40 minutes’ exercise, raising your heart rate, four to five times a week is the goal. A brisk walk by the coast is a great way to get your daily exercise.
3 TOP UP YOUR VITAMIN D
Vitamin D plays a key role in facilitating a balanced immune response and helping to fight an infection, such as a virus. Although we can synthesise vitamin D ourselves by spending time outside in the sunshine, in the UK (and at similar latitudes) only summer midday sunlight contains enough UVB for vitamin D synthesis so getting out in the midday UK sunshine will help with this, but it may be worth taking a supplement as well.
4 LOOK AFTER YOUR GUT HEALTH
A healthy diet provides excellent levels of fibre, which encourages the growth of a diverse microbiome, specifically gut bacteria that produce chemicals called short-chain fatty acids. SCFAs interact with the gut immune system to facilitate tolerance and to help people with diabetes better control blood sugar and body weight.
5 IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP
New research which appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience shows that important immune cells called microglia, which play a role in fighting infections and repairing damage, are primarily active while we sleep. To get the best sleep, it’s important to wind down before bedtime. The brain begins releasing melatonin approximately two hours before sleep, and reading books – rather anything on an electronic device – is key to encourage a calm state, as the blue light emitted from electronic devices cancels the effects and reduces the production of melatonin. Other sleep-promoting rituals that help lower the stress response are a warm bath with magnesium salts, or taking magnesium supplements. Finally, it is important to sleep in a dark room, void of light and distracting pets (that may jump up on the bed at 2am…), to support optimal melatonin production and uninterrupted sleep.
Tanya Borowski is a fully qualified nutritional therapist and one of only 45 fully certified IFM practitioners in the UK to hold an Institute for Functional Medicine certification. She has contributed content and recipes to revolutionary book, The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosley. She offers online consultations, virtual retreats and webinars. Full details can be found at tanyaborowski.com.