Immune health is at the forefront of everybody’s minds at the moment as we ward off the global Covid-19 pandemic. It has been shown that 80% of those infected with Coronavirus are asymptomatic, so how do we differentiate between who succumbs and who soldiers on regardless. It is clear from research data, that those who are less metabolically healthy and susceptible to chronic disease have a reduced ability to fight off this deadly virus (and other regular colds and flus). Metabolic health and chronic disease are very much linked to diet and lifestyle choices and these choices also play a major role in a strong immune system.
Diet and lifestyle factors that strengthen the immune system include:
- A nutrient rich diet. We get our big immune boosting vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, E, A and Zinc from a plant-based, protein rich diet. If you are consistently living on processed food and junk food you are depriving your body of the nutrition it needs to maintain a robust immune system. I find that clients supplement these nutrients when they get sick, but if the diet is loaded with these important vitamins and minerals on an ongoing basis they may have never have got sick in the first place. You can’t out supplement a bad diet!
- Low or no alcohol consumption. When you overload your body with regular and heavy alcohol consumption, it is too busy trying to process, what it sees as a liquid toxin, to deal with viruses and other infections. Overloading the gut and liver leads to a low-grade inflammation in the body and a reduction in immune health. A high alcohol consumption has also been shown to be a irritant on the lung lining so definitely not a good idea when Coronavirus is around, and I would think twice about stocking up on the wine, beer and spirits if we end up back in lockdown.
- Regular, moderate exercise. There is a bell curve of effect on the immune system when we exercise. Too little exercise, or none at all, can have a detrimental effect on our immune system. Regular, moderate exercise up to an hour a day has been shown to have immune boosting qualities. However, if you go over that and go for intense exercise, 2-3 hour per day it can lead to overtraining syndrome and may have a detrimental impact on immune health. Frequent colds, flus and stomach bugs are a major sign of overtraining. If you want to get the immune benefits of exercise, opt for walking, easy jogging, yoga, pilates, regular gym sessions etc. on a daily basis, and avoid overdoing it.
- Daily exposure to sunshine. Vitamin D is a very important immune boosting hormone. We can obtain a fair bit of vitamin D from our diet (mostly oily fish) but the majority of our vitamin D comes from the conversion of ultraviolet light in our skin. That means we need to get out in the sunshine without any sunblock. You would think that, in Australia, all of us would be vitamin D sufficient, but that is absolutely not the case. Some studies have shown that around 30% of Australians are vitamin D deficient. Try to get out in the sunshine daily at close to peak sunshine time (10am-2pm) and soak up those rays for 10 minutes. I find that going for a walk at lunchtime is a great way to boost vitamin D.
- Get plenty of sleep (but not too much). Super important for immune health. Sleep is the time when our body repairs itself, and enough sleep every night has been shown to boost our immunity. Just think about it, if you are consistently busy and getting too little sleep, then you stop and rest, it’s usually the time that you get a cold or bug – the immune system crashes. Go for 7-9 hours sleep every night (everyone is different when it comes to how much sleep they need). If your alarm is having to wake you every morning you are probably sleep deficient. On the other hand, too much sleep has been shown to have a detrimental effect on health so try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Avoid high stress situations. Of all of the factors that can affect your health, I see stress as one of the most important. There is culture these days where we need to be constantly stimulated and on the go. Being super busy all of the time has the same effect on the body as going through a stressful experience like a death in the family, divorce, bankruptcy etc. If you are working full time, training, bringing up kids and are on the go from 5am to 10pm you are consistently elevating your stress hormones, which may have a detrimental effect on your immune system. If you are getting colds and flus regularly then you may be suffering from ‘too busy syndrome’. Altering schedules and prioritising some relaxation time can have a very positive effect.
- Look after your gut bacteria. Our gut microbiome has been very much linked to our immune system and the ability to fight of viruses and pathogenic bacteria. The microbiome is the word used to describe the trillions of bacteria, fungi, microbes etc that live on our skin, mucous membranes and all through our digestive tract. There are actually more bacteria in our microbiome that cells in our body. We are mostly not us!
The bacteria in the microbiome help digest our food, regulate our immune system, protect against other bacteria that cause disease, and produce vitamins including B vitamins, B12, thiamine and riboflavin, and Vitamin K, which is needed for blood coagulation. As well as these important functions, the bacteria housed in our gut microbiome have been linked to mental health, gut health, weight loss and gain, and the occurrence of many chronic diseases and autoimmunity. The health of our microbiome has been very much linked to the diversity of bacteria and fungi that live within it. The more different types of bacteria that dwell in there, the better. Research has shown that the health of our microbiome, and consequently, the health of our gut, is very important for our immune health. A good mix of bacteria in the gut has been shown to stimulate the immune system to the point that it makes it stronger without over stimulating it and causing it to weaken. It’s all about immune tolerance.
Unfortunately, our gut microbiome can take a big hit on a regular basis with medications such as antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors and non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drugs causing good bacteria to die off and less beneficial bacteria to take over. A couple of doses of antibiotics close together or long term, low dose antibiotics can have a permanent effect on the health of the microbiome. However, the biggest driver of the health of the microbiome is the quality of our diet. Beneficial bacteria love lots of different types of raw fruits and vegetables. They live on fibre from plant foods and diversity in the diet drives diversity in the microbiome. If you eat too much meat, not enough veggies, drink too much beer or wine and are constantly on antacids your beneficial microbes may die off and pathogenic bacteria and yeasts take over, leading to gut discomfort and immune dysfunction. Look after your gut bacteria and they will look after you.
As you can see, there are many areas of diet and lifestyle that we can work on to boost immune health. When I work with my immune compromised clients, I use diet and lifestyle recommendations (and I sometimes use supplements as a booster) to strengthen their immune system and help them fight back against any circulating viruses. Prevention is always better than cure.