You’ll already know that one of the best ways we can prevent spreading infection, and protect those who are older or at higher risk from respiratory viruses, is to keep washing those hands. Wash thoroughly for 20 seconds while singing Happy Birthday twice through, or a different song of your choice if you’re getting a little bored of that one!
While there is no silver bullet to prevent you from catching a virus, whether it’s a cold, the flu or the COVID-19 infection, there are lots of simple but effective steps you can take to support your immune system to help fight off a virus.
How to support your immune system
Get enough sleep
At some point you’ve probably had a stressful period where you’ve not slept well, and you started to feel pretty run down. That’s because sleep is vital to our immune health. The importance of sleep has been well studied, and we know that in particular sound sleep allows our T cells, which play a vital role in our immune defence, to function well. While our needs in this department vary, the vast majority of us need between 7-9 hours to wake up feeling refreshed.
If you struggle with getting good kip, find some simple tips to get better sleep here.
This is an area that can be overlooked when it comes to its impact on our immunity but luckily, it’s something we can take practical steps to influence. A little stress is important for us to function, but chronic stress inhibits the immune system from working properly. When we’re under stress or in ‘fight or flight’, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol that can compromise immune function.
You might be thinking… easier said than done. Certainly right now, with so much uncertainty around the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s natural to feel anxious, overwhelmed or upset. Although there are stressors that are out of our control, it’s helpful at these times to focus on what we can control and there are some small but impactful steps you can take here. Every little really does help. A few tips I share with clients:
Limit time on news outlets and social media: While it’s important to stay informed on what we should do to protect our communities at the moment, spending hours scrolling the web will only increase your stress as we can actually perceive news reports as a threat. Try limiting checking the news to once or twice a day.
Spend 10 minutes (longer if you can!) daily doing something that allows you to switch off and connect with the present and your surroundings: Reading, meditation, practicing yoga, going for a walk or jog in nature, are all great options.
Leave your phone and other devices outside the bedroom! Your bedroom is for sleeping and sex. That’s it. Invest in an old fashioned alarm clock or a light alarm.
Practice diaphragmatic breathing. This method of breathing is a proven way to reduce stress levels as it moves us out of “fight or flight”. I will send you a free step by step resource when you sign up for my monthly newsletter.
Taking a bit of time each day to dedicate to relaxation will help you retain balance, and keep stress levels in check.
Load up on vegetables
We all grew up learning that vegetables are good for our health (and you’re probably sick of hearing about it!) but it’s important to realise that they are essential for our good health. Our immune system needs the broad variety of vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables to function at its best.
Specific compounds found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower and cabbage, have been found to be essential in sustaining immune function in the gut lining (where 70% of your immune defence lives!)
Tip: Try adding an extra portion of your choice of dark, leafy greens to your diet once a day.
Support your gut microbiome
Gut health has been a hot topic in recent years, and for good reason. The balance of our gut bacteria determines our overall health, and as our immune system predominantly lives in the gut lining, you can see why it has a big impact on immunity.
So, how do we help the bacteria in our gut lining to find a healthy balance? Cutting out or limiting inflammatory foods like processed food, sugar and alcohol, is very helpful. We can also feed our microbiome by including a wide range of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and pulses. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, kefir and kombucha also help the good guys in our gut to grow.
TIP: Try adding one fermented food to your diet this week. Start in very small amounts as it can initially cause bloating, stomach upset and gas. Fermented foods can also cause histamine reactions so you may want to avoid this tip if you have histamine intolerance.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! As we’ve just talked about, alcohol is inflammatory and daily drinking can weaken your immune system. Drinking alcohol in the evening also disrupts and reduces our REM sleep, and as we know, good sleep is our golden defence against getting sick. Try cutting back on what you’d normally have in a week, or swap for a non-alcoholic drink.
TIP: Sparkling water with cordial, or some fresh fruit, can be a nice alternative if you’re trying to cut back, as it still feels a bit special.
Water helps the body to produce lymph, which carries white blood and other immune cells. Aim to drink 6 to 7 glasses of water a day. It’s also important to remember that coffee, tea and alcohol are dehydrating. If you want to up your water intake, try cutting back on dehydrating drinks or drink an extra glass of water for each one you have.
Get regular exercise
When we work out moderately, immune cells circulate through our system and are better able to kill viruses and bacteria. Studies show that people who exercise consistently, get fewer colds. It’s also true that overtraining can make you feel run down and more susceptible to getting sick, so it’s important to take rest days for your body to recover after exercise.
TIP: Try adding a half hour walk to the end of your day – getting out in nature will work wonders for your mood too. There are also some fantastic free online resources to do at home Yoga, for all levels. The Yoga with Adriene YouTube channel is a personal favourite!
Conclusion: Can’t I just take a supplement?!
Supplementing with nutrients such as vitamin C, D or B6 can be helpful for immune health in some cases*. In particular, NHS advice in the UK suggests that many of us can benefit from vitamin D supplementation over the winter months as it’s hard to get enough from sunlight exposure and diet alone, and having optimal vitamin D levels is vital to our immune function.
However, you really can’t out-supplement a poor diet and lifestyle! If you’re including a variety of veggies, whole grains and healthy fats (think olive oil, fatty fish like salmon and trout, avocados, nuts and seeds) - you should be able to get the majority of what you need from a balanced diet. Unless, of course, you’ve been advised by a medical practitioner to supplement.
With all the steps above, a little will go a long way. If it feels overwhelming, pick one or two areas to focus on and take some steps to improve your balance. Although no one can control whether they pick up a virus, taking a few steps to support your immune system is a great way to empower yourself to support your own health, the health of your family, and community.
If you’d like to talk through concerns around immune health, or support to take practical steps to improve your health, I offer a free 50 minute consultation online or in person. I’d be happy to hear from you to talk through your goals and concerns.