While we would all like to know the secrets to boosting our immunity, the reality is our immune system is naturally designed to protect us from bodily enemies like disease and viruses.
But what happens when our immune system gets weak, or fails altogether? How can we make it the failsafe armour it needs to be to protect us from illness? How can we ensure our immune system is functioning fully?
With winter approaching, here’s five ways to help support your immune system.
Begin with your gut
When it comes to immunity, the gut is number one.100 trillion bacteria, known as microbiota, or 70 percent of your immune system, lives in your gut, so keeping your digestive tract in prime condition will ensure your immune system stays healthy too.
There is an increasing amount of research into the link between gut health and the immune system.
One doctor describes it as the “new frontier of medicine”, with “many looking at the gut microbiota as an additional organ system”.
A study by immunologists at the world-class Babraham Institute found that cohousing young and aged mice, and faecal transplants from young mice replenished the gut microbiota and also boosted the gut immune system in older mice.
Lead researcher Dr Marisa Stebegg explained: “Our gut microbiomes are made up of hundreds of different types of bacteria and these are essential to our health, playing a role in our metabolism, brain function and immune response.
“Our immune system is constantly interacting with the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. As immunologists who study why our immune system doesn’t work as well as we age, we were interested to explore whether the make-up of the gut microbiome might influence the strength of the gut immune response.”
This study demonstrated that decline in the gut immune response due to age is not irreversible and can be boosted in older people.
While booking in for a faecal transplant might seem extreme, this procedure is now used to treat certain digestive issues.
Simpler ways to improve your gut bacteria can be to take probiotics (try to avoid antibiotics), eat fermented foods, manage your diet (see advice below) and stress less, because stress weakens the immune system.
Food as medicine
A balanced nutritious diet with fresh fruits and vegetables is a no-brainer when it comes to optimising your health, but there are certain foods you should include when it comes to immunity.
Nutritionist Agnesa Simcic says one of the best ways to support your immune system is to eat foods rich in Vitamin C. These are usually the bright orange, yellow and red fruits and vegetables. Papaya is excellent for digestive health and kiwi fruit and leafy greens should also be high on your agenda.
“Good quality protein is important and a food like bone broth is wonderful as it contains glutamine which is full of concentrated amino acids,” said Agnesa.
“In terms of probiotic foods, I wouldn’t recommend these immediately as they may affect people who have issues with their gut.
“However, start with trying small amounts of foods like sauerkraut, kefir or yoghurt – and make sure it’s a yoghurt that actually contains probiotics!”
Finally, Agnesa says, get your regular dose of Vitamin D in the easiest way by heading into the sunshine in the earlier or latter part of the day.
Vitamin D can help to reduce cancer cell growth, control infections and reduce inflammation.
Naturopath Fin Mackenzie also recommends including certain foods in your diet, particularly those that support the microbiome in the gut.
“The more diversity in your microbiome, the healthier you are,” she explained.
“You should include complex carbohydrates and fibrous foods like oats, buckwheat, onions, garlic, ginger and fermented foods. The gut bacteria also love the purple, blue and red fruits and vegetables.”
For children with poor immunity, Fin recommends probiotics because the evidence is strong in this area, with children having less cold and flu symptoms with supplementation.
Herbs work wonders on the immune system, says Fin.
“My number one recommendation as a preventative is Elderberry syrup - it has antiviral properties, is pleasant tasting and great for kids,” she said.
“Zinc is also crucial for immune response, especially in Australia because we have low zinc levels in the soil here.”
Fin also suggests the following herbal supplements:
- Echinacea - shown to increase RTH1 cells that fight against bacteria and viruses and stimulate the immune response.
- Liquorice extract – good for viral infections
- St John’s Wort – improves mood and sleep
- Melissa (lemon balm) – relieves nausea and indigestion
“Also medicinal mushrooms for general immunity – like Shitake, Reishi, and Turkey Tail varieties - you can also take this in powder form.”
For support in recovering from low immunity, Fin suggests Astragalus, a Traditional Chinese Medicine tonic and Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa), derived from a South American vine.
Sleep is your superpower
Sleep and the immune system are, in layman’s terms, co-dependent. A review in the American Physiological Society Journal says lack of sleep or disturbed sleep weakens our body’s defences, while an infection or sickness increases the need to sleep.
According to The Sleep Foundation sleep disorders like sleep apnoea can lead to illness, while getting consistent quality sleep strengthens the immune system, enabling it to function effectively.
Melatonin, the hormone that is produced at night, counteracts the stress that can come from inflammation during sleep.
Try the Wim Hof Method
The Wim Hof Method (WHM) is a combination of cold (temperature) therapy, breathwork, commitment and focus and has numerous health benefits, one of which is to assist in relieving symptoms related to immunity.
A study of WHM practitioners who were injected with the bacterial endotoxin, E. Coli showed they were able to gain control of their nervous system and immune response and experienced less flu-like symptoms than the control group. It showed the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can be voluntarily influenced. The WHM may offer benefits for conditions that relate to persistent and chronic inflammation.
Esther Stegehuis, a WHM instructor, found the method helped her feel more in control of her health and more resilient, physically and mentally.
“It has changed my life – I’ve had more energy, I function so much better, I haven’t had a serious cold since I began practicing it more than two years ago, my arthritis is at a stand still - and I just feel amazing,“ Esther said.
Esther believes the WHM is not only useful in building resilience but also as a first aid tool, after she used it to help recover from a knee injury that occurred while she was teaching a ski class.
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