10 ways to support your immune system
We are living in a strange time and now more than ever it is paramount we do as much as possible to look after our health. I have put together a few pointers on some simple ways to support your immune system through diet.
Fruits and vegetables
The NHS currently advices that you have 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but ideally you should eat more than that, with a focus on vegetables. Fruit and vegetables are packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which are vital to help our body fight infections. Research shows that a higher intake of fruit & vegetables helps decrease inflammation in the body and enhances immune cell populations.
Different colours contain different phytonutrients, which all benefit us in different ways. Therefore you should aim to consume a rainbow of colours and from a variety of sources over the week. This will also ensure you are consuming adequate fibre.
Some ways you can help increase your intake are: include a portion at breakfast (e.g. avocado on toast, a handful of berries with your cereal, smoothies); soups; colourful salads; make a vegetable laden omelette or frittata; use fresh herbs liberally; snack on crudities and hummus.
Vitamin C is well known for its importance for a healthy immune system. Our body’s demand for it also increases when we have a virus. It is therefore a good idea to make sure you are consuming vitamin C rich foods on a regular basis.
Oranges are the one most people tend to go for but kiwis, peppers, (especially red peppers), strawberries and broccoli are all wonderful sources. If you are having oranges opt for the whole fruit rather than juice as the fibre from the fruit helps slow down its release.
Zinc is needed for hundreds of reactions in the body and contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system. Deficiency can, therefore, compromise the immune system. Levels can be depleted in the elderly and in individuals with diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, alcoholism and those that have had gastric surgery or are vegan.
Foods that are rich in zinc are shellfish (especially oysters!), nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), eggs, lentils and chickpeas.
Vitamin D is crucial for optimal immunity. It is mainly synthesised in our skin through sunlight exposure, therefore our levels tend to dip in winter time. You can help increase levels by getting outside for 15-20 minutes sun exposure a day.
You can top up levels through foods such as: shiitake mushrooms, oily fish and eggs. As it is a fat soluble vitamin it will be absorbed better if eaten with some form of fat. Mushrooms are also rich in a compound called beta-glucans which help support the immune system.
Vitamin A is a key nutrient for immune cell activation and regulation. The richest source is in liver, but it can also be found in egg yolks, whole milk and butter. Orange fruit and vegetables are high in carotenoids which are precursors to vitamin A and also antioxidants. Examples are carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and mangos.
Selenium is an antioxidant and helps to support our immune system. It is abundant in Brazil nuts, so consuming 2-3 a day will help keep levels optimal.
Stress has a detrimental effect on immunity as it causes the body to go into “fight or flight” mode. Chronic stress tends to suppress the immune system. It is therefore important to try to limit stress as much as possible. Perhaps easier said than done in times like these, but some ideas to help manage it include: gentle exercise such as yoga or going for a walk; meditation (many find the Calm and Headspace apps good); getting outside in nature; reading a novel.
Limit sugar and processed foods
High sugar consumption can affect the immune system, decreasing its ability to fight infection. Processed foods tend to have added sugars in them and have limited nutritional value compared to home cooked food. Try to limit fizzy drinks, sweet snacks such as cakes and biscuits, and refined grains such as white rice, pasta and bread. Instead focus on whole grains such as brown rice, pasta and bread which can contain up to 75% more nutrients than refined versions and do not affect blood glucose levels as much.
Adequate sleep is needed for optimal immunity. Ways you can help improve your sleep are:
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon; Epsom salt bath in the evening - it contains magnesium which helps you to relax; avoid screens (television, computers, phones, tablets) for 1-2 hours before bed, drink calming herbal teas such as chamomile.
While a small amount of alcohol can help one relax and even be beneficial to health, too much can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness. It can also reduce sleep quality, deplete zinc amongst other nutrients, increase blood sugar levels and increase stress hormones, further affecting immunity. Therefore try to limit consumption.
Next time I will be writing about how you can improve gut health. As 80% of you immune system is found in your gut it is also crucial for optimal immune function.