Four Easy Ways To Optimise Immune Health
The human immune system is made up of cells and organs that work together to protect us against foreign invaders. Generally speaking, for most of us, our immune systems do a great job of protecting us against disease causing micro-organisms but every now and then they may be overwhelmed, leading to illness.
Whilst the intricacies and inter-relationships of the different parts of the immune system are a topic of ongoing research, there are some general dietary and lifestyle measures that are associated with better overall health that may give your immune system a helping hand as the cold and flu season approaches.
Let’s take a look at 4 ways you can optimise your general health and increase your immunity.
- Make time to chill out!
During times of stress the body’s responses are activated to adapt and ultimately aid our survival. This involves a co-ordinated response between the nervous system and other systems of the body, including the immune system. Whether it’s emotional (such as fear/anger/worry), mental (such as overwork, preparing for exams, or overthinking), or physical (such as trauma, lack of sleep, environmental), ongoing stress causes a number of physiological changes including a reduction in white blood cells which leads to reduced ability to fight infection and lowered immunity. This is backed by research which has demonstrated that individuals reporting higher levels of stress in their daily lives are more likely to develop clinical symptoms during experimental respiratory viral infection.
In addition to these direct effects on immunity other important functions such as digestion, relaxation, & sleep are all suppressed while the body is readying itself for action that may be needed for survival.
There are many ways you can manage stress and reduce its long-term impact on your health. One quick and easy way that can be utilised anywhere, anytime is to use calming breathing techniques in which you breath in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and slowly breathe out for a count of eight. This extended outbreath helps to balance the nervous system which has flow on effects throughout the body, downregulating the effects of stress.
2. Get out into nature and savour the sunlight!
A growing field of interest is the effect of nature on human health and wellbeing. Research has identified significant benefits associated with regular exposure to natural environments, many of which are believed to be related to improved immune function. Some of the underlying mechanisms are thought to be the contact with the microbes in nature which may modify immune function through effects on our microbiome, natural substances in the environment (such as phytoncides from trees) which have been associated with improved immune cell activity, improved air quality, and stress reduction.
Vitamin D has long been recognised for its importance in enhancing the immune systems response to both bacterial and viral agents. According to the Ministry of Health 32% of people in NZ are below the recommended blood level of Vitamin D. With between 80 and 100% of our Vitamin D needs able to be met through adequate (safe) sun exposure there’s no better reason to step out into the sunshine and soak up some rays. The safe and natural way to get your Vitamin D is with 10 – 15 mins sunscreen free skin exposure during safe sunlight hours.
For more detailed information on safe sun exposure see the Ministry of Health guidelines at https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/healthy-living/food-activity-and-sleep/healthy-eating/vitamin-d.
We live in one of the most beautiful places on earth with access to amazing natural landscapes so whether it’s the beach, forests, or the mountains that make your soul sing, make sure you get out there regularly and do your immune system a favour.
3. Make sleep a priority, not just something you do after everything else is done!
Recent findings have demonstrated a vital role for sleep and circadian rhythm (the internal body clock that drives, among other things, sleep wake cycles) in the maintenance of a healthy and well-coordinated immune system response and resilience against infection. Studies have shown that “short habitual sleep – less than 6 hours per night- is statistically associated with reduced life span and increased vulnerability to viral infection” (Haspel et al, 2020).
Recommended sleep times range from 18 hours in newborns, 12 – 15 hours in toddlers, 10- 11 hours in children, 9-10 hours in adolescents, and 7-9 hours in adults. When it comes to the immune system quality of sleep is just as important as quantity. Ensuring that you are regularly meeting these sleep targets with good quality, undisturbed sleep is key to good health and immunity.
4. Eat the Rainbow and Don’t Forget Herbs & Spices!
A diet rich in wholefoods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds and nuts provides the key nutrients required for optimal immune function. Studies show that deficiencies in zinc, vitamins A, B6, C, iron, copper, selenium, protein, and omega 3 fatty acids negatively impact immune health. While there is ongoing debate about the advantages of various dietary philosophies, one thing that is generally agreed upon across the board, is the benefit of eating a wide variety of plant based foods. Including fruits and vegetables of all colours encourages adequate intake of a variety of health promoting nutrients and phytochemicals.
Some foods that have been shown to be of particular benefit include:
- Red coloured foods – e.g. strawberries, red capsicum, tomato, as they tend to be high in antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune modulating phytonutrients and are generally very good sources of Vitamin C which is well known for its beneficial effects on the immune system.
- Foods rich in carotenes (found in dark green, yellow, orange, and red vegetables) have been shown to increase antiviral properties of our immune systems and enhance the function of white blood cells (an important component of our immune response).
- Herbs and spices are another easy, and tasty way to support your immune function. Some well researched immune boosting culinary herbs include garlic, ginger, thyme, rosemary, and turmeric.
- Medicinal mushrooms are rich in immune supporting beta glucans which have been the focus of much research in the health arena and are another great way to give your immune system a boost. Find more information on these amazing foods at this link.
Here’s a quick and easy immune boosting tonic recipe to have on hand:
2 lemons with skin on (or not if you’d prefer), cut into chunks
½ cup of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
½ cup of peeled garlic cloves
½ cup of raw, organic honey
Add all the ingredients roughly chopped into a blender and pulse until it forms a paste. Keep in the fridge and make a warm drink using 1-2 teaspoons of the paste with warm water.
Exposure to colds and flu is inevitable but by taking a few simple and inexpensive steps you can optimise your immune function and give yourself the best possible chance of avoiding those change of season ills and chills.
If you have any concerns about your immune (or general) health or want more information on how to incorporate healthy changes, why not make an appointment with a qualified and registered naturopath. The Paua clinic at South Pacific College of Natural Medicine is staffed by final year students (supervised by fully qualified naturopaths and medical herbalists) who would love to help you with a personalised plan to optimise your health and wellbeing. For more information or to make an appointment visit https://www.spcnm.ac.nz/paua-clinic/.
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