This month, our Sussex health expert takes a look at how to optimise your immune system.
Especially during these challenging times, optimising your immune function seems like an obvious course of action. However, boosting your immune system is actually much harder to accomplish than you might think. Your immune system is incredibly complex: it needs to be strong and active enough to fight off a variety of illnesses and infections, but not so strong that it overreacts inappropriately, leading to allergies and other autoimmune disorders.
However, there are everyday dietary and lifestyle changes that will invariably support your immune system against infection or illness.
- Maintain a healthy diet – eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein. As well as providing energy, healthy eating will provide sufficient amounts of the micronutrients that play a role in maintaining your immune system, including vitamins C, E and B6. Vegetables are also rich in antioxidants which protect the body against inflammation. In addition, the fibre content of vegetables feed your gut bacteria and maintain a healthy gut microbiome, which further protects against invasion of harmful bacteria and viruses.
- Eat more healthy fats – healthy fats, such as those in olive oil, fish, chia seeds and avocado, boost the body’s immune response to potential infection by decreasing inflammation.
- Avoid sugar – All forms of sugar (including honey) interfere with the ability of white blood cells to destroy bacteria. Studies show that diets high in sucrose (refined sugar) impair certain aspects of immune function.
Alcohol intake, including occasional episodes of modest consumption, interferes with a wide variety of immune defences.
- Exercise regularly – As well as maintaining muscle strength and helping to reduce stress, exercise is also an important part of supporting a healthy immune system. In fact, studies have shown that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day helps stimulate your immune system.
- Stay hydrated – Adequate levels of water in your body is key to a healthy immune system. Lymph – largely made up of water – carries lymphocytes (white cells that fight infection) around your body. Dehydration slows down the movement of lymph, which can impair immune system function.
- Get plenty of sleep – Important infection-fighting molecules are created while you sleep. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough good quality sleep are more prone to becoming infected when exposed to viruses.
- Minimize stress – Response to stress – whether acute or more prolonged – suppresses your immune system, which increases the risk of infection or illness. Long term stress also increases inflammation, which in turn also suppresses the immune system. Finding ways to deal with inevitable stress is key – including meditation, moderate exercise, finding a hobby, or consulting a professional.
Nutritional supplement treatment options
Multivitamins – Most double-blind studies have shown that elderly people have better immune function and reduced infection rates when taking a multiple vitamin-mineral formula.
Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system, from the barrier of the skin to the regulation of white blood cells. Zinc is crucial for the normal development and function of cells that are involved in general immunity. Zinc supplements have been shown to increase immune function.
Beta-glucan is a fibre-type polysaccharide (complex sugar) derived from baker’s yeast, oat and barley fibre, and many medicinal mushrooms such as maitake, reishi and shitake. Numerous studies have shown that beta-glucan can activate white blood cells. In fact, there have been hundreds of research papers on beta-glucan since the 1960s. The research indicates that beta-1,3-glucan, in particular, is very effective at activating macrophages and neutrophils (important immune cells). A beta-glucan–activated macrophage or neutrophil can recognize and kill tumour cells; remove cellular debris resulting from oxidative damage; speed up recovery of damaged tissue; and further activate other components of the immune system.
Vitamin D has numerous effects on cells within the immune system and is therefore essential for the normal functioning of the immune system (including the inflammatory response to wounds and infection). Vitamin D is also known to play a role in autoimmunity.
Vitamin E enhances some measures of immune-cell activity in the elderly. According to double-blind research, this effect is more pronounced with 200 IU per day compared to either lower or higher amounts.
Beta-carotene and other carotenoids have been shown to increase immune cell numbers and activity.
Vitamin C stimulates the immune system by both elevating levels of immune system proteins and enhancing the activity of certain immune cells.
Vitamin A plays an important role in immune system function and helps mucous membranes (including those in the lungs) resist invasion by micro-organisms.
Colostrum can be effective as a means of providing passive immunity to protect against disease. The immune-boosting effects of colostrum are mostly due to its high concentration of the antibodies IgA and IgG, which are proteins that fight viruses and bacteria.
Probiotics or Prebiotics (growth factors that encourage the development of healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract) may help protect the body from harmful organisms in the intestine that could cause local or systemic infection.
Botanical treatment options
Echinacea – human studies have found that echinacea taken orally stimulates the function of a variety of immune cells, particularly NK (natural killer) cells. Studies also suggest that echinacea speeds recovery from the common cold, via immune stimulation (as opposed to killing the cold virus directly).
Asian (Panax) Ginseng has a long history of use in traditional herbal medicine for preventing and treating conditions related to the immune system.
Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) has also historically been used to support the immune system. Research has shown that healthy people given eleuthero tincture had an increase in certain lymphocytes important to normal immune function.
Ashwagandha is considered a general stimulant of the immune system and is known as an adaptogen —a herb with multiple, non-specific actions that counteract the effects of stress and generally promote wellness.
Astragalus contains complex polysaccharides that act as “immunomodulators”. Studies indicate that it can prevent white blood cell numbers from falling in people given chemotherapy and radiotherapy and can elevate antibody levels in healthy people.
Cat’s Claw contains substances called oxyindole alkaloids that have been shown to stimulate the immune system.
Green tea has very high levels of antioxidants, which facilitate its immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. Several studies have also shown that green tea has antimicrobial properties that inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses.
Article contributed by Dr Tracy S Gates, DO, DIBAK, L.C.P.H., Consultant, Pure Bio Ltd. Copyright © Pure Bio Ltd 2021. All rights reserved
Pure Bio Ltd are a leading UK supplier of the highest quality PURE nutritional supplements, based in Horsham, West Sussex. Visit www.purebio.co.uk for all your nutritional supplement needs.
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