Can you really boost your immune system?




This year seems to have been particularly bad when its come to catching the lurgy. Not those run of the mill annoying bugs that you moan about but power through. The ones that knock you off your feet, sickness, stuff coming out both ends, endless coughs, aches akin to being on a stretch rack and having to stay in bed with no interest in crappy daytime TV.

These are also the kind of bugs you generously donate to close family members or the strangers sat on the bus and train, innocently minding their own business. Poor suckers!

Since before Christmas, I've seen whole families taken out and with my genuine fear of sickness and illness, I've been doing my best to stay clear. When I say fear I mean phobic levels of fear when it comes to vomit.

Someone just has to say they feel queasy in my presence and the adrenaline surges in my body. The butterflies go mad and I'm asking a million questions about 'what do you mean you feel queezy?' 'Do you feel sick?' 'Do you think you might be sick?' 'What did you last eat?' 'Is anyone else at work ill?' 'Do you think it's something you ate?' And there is a ban on kissing in the house.

I actually have a cast iron immune system. I am rarely ill [now touching wood] so must be doing something right! So what can you do to ward off these nasty germs? With at least another 6 weeks of prime time bug fest, it's not too late to ensure your defences are up to the challenge.

Here's what you can do:

Personal hygiene is vital - as the saying goes, cough and sneezes spread diseases! Viruses can remain suspended in the air for a good 20 minutes and can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hrs. You can read more fun facts like this here. Using tissues and anti-bac hand gel is definitely recommended if you are ill, or close to someone that is!

In fact, managing illness at work can be a real problem for some. If the work place culture is work harder, succeed more, employees can be frowned upon if they want to take a genuine sick day and so feel guilty if they do.

Keep your germs to yourself. What may feel counter-intuitive, often isn't - taking time to get well and get back up to speed again will have a far more positive effect on productivity compared to the negative effects of presenteesim (staying in work but doing next to nothing). Subtlety may not be your best friend here, so as I have done in the past - tell them (offering a virtual hug) you don't want them spreading their germs and go home! It really is selfish to spread your germs!

Sleep is also essential. Basically, sleep deprivation suppresses your immune system making your body less resilient to persistent and recurrent infections. This is a whole separate read or webinar right here but in the meantime, why not check out my previous blog here which gives plenty of tips on getting more quality shut eye. This is also where exercise and booze comes in - both of which can have really profound effects on your snooze quality.

Manage your stress. Long term stress increases the amount of Cortisol in your body. This hormone is designed to help your body cope in stressful situations but continued high levels will suppress your immune system, just as if you were sleep deprived. Often stress, anxiety and poor sleep go hand in hand so working on relaxation and self care can give you a multitude of health benefits.

Sort your diet out. I'm going to be pretty blunt here, eating a junk food diet or 'just making do' will do you no favours at all when it comes to your immune system.
To get your immune system running like a well-oiled machine; responsive, fast acting and effective, you can't fuel it with any old crap. I'm not a fan of taking short cuts with supplements (for most people anyway) because your body simply wont absorb synthetic vitamins and minerals like natural, food based ones. You NEED real food - veggies and fruit especially!

Be skeptical. Many products on shop shelves claim to boost or support immunity. Although zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B, C, D and E have all been shown to be implicated in immune responses, most work has been done in animals, not humans and we simply can't make any assumptions from those findings.

The immune system is pretty much the most complex system in the human body, we just don't know enough about it to make recommendations with confidence. BUT the research at this stage is showing promise, at least for some vitamins and minerals there appear to be benefits from having more.

Vitamins and Minerals

Iron and Zinc deficiencies for example have been linked to poor immune function.
Supplements do not however, appear to boost the immune system in healthy, well nourished people. Supplements may well be beneficial in the over 60's or people recovering from a long term illness though and perhaps the worn out, stressed out, poor eater.

On the flip side, more is not necessarily better. I don't recommend mega dosing with Vitamins and minerals as you may well experience some unpleasant side effects and you may end up causing more harm than good.

Antioxidants

We DO know that antioxidant vitamins (A, C, E) and trace elements have important effects on our immune responses. So get in your 5 a day at least! Go for highly coloured fruit and veg and include lots of greens. Broccoli by the way contains three times as much vitamin C as an orange!

Phytochemicals

Fruit and veg are also rich in phtochemicals - beneficial non-nutrients found in plants like allicin in garlic which gives it antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Shiitake mushrooms are receiving more interest regarding their antiviral properties. Tumeric and onions may help in allergic type immune responses because of their powerful anti-inflammatory effects....glass of onion juice anyone?!

Herbs

Echinacea is perhaps the best known of all immune-stimulating herbs. Lab studies show echinacea to enhance the immune system in a number of ways and may be particularly helpful with the common cold, reducing their duration and severity. I have to say I swear by it!

Protein

Protein is needed to make antibodies and immune cells that physically kill germs. To be honest, most people probably eat more protein than needed but if you are new to vegetarianism or veganism or have a heavy training schedule, you could be lacking and may need to think more about your sources of protein.

Probiotics

Probiotics are live bacteria (the friendly ones!) that can be taken in food form (particularly fermented foods like yoghurt and pickles) or as a supplement. Given our gut houses the largest reservoir of bacteria and acts as the body’s largest immune organ, it makes sense that probiotics could have a significant effect on our immune system. Evidence suggests that chronic inflammation and an imbalance of gut bacteria can contribute to obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression, inflammatory bowel disease and altered immune function.

After a bout of sickness or diarrhoea (unlucky if you get both), I'd highly recommend a quality probiotic (not those little yoghurt drinks from TESCO) to get your gut bacteria back in balance again ASAP.

Vitamin D

AKA the sunshine vitamin is certainly sparse at this time of year. With a limited number of foods rich in this vitamin, deficiency is more common in the autumn and winter months when we have a lack of quality uv from the sun. We now know that Vitamin D does so much more than make strong bones and teeth.

Deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to infection, so if you're feeling a bit run down, go get some liquid sunshine in a gel capsule. You can read my blog all about Vit D right here.

If you've got any questions about this topic, please comment below, or drop me a message and I'll provide a non nonsense answer :-)

Here's to a happy healthy month ahead!

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