The immune system is big news right now. Particularly in the light of coronavirus.
Just recently, many patients have been asking me how they can strengthen their immune system – so that they’ll be able to fight off viruses and won’t get sick with covid-19, winter flu or any of the other ailments around at this time of year.
But the idea of having a ‘strong’ immune system is often a misleading concept. Your body has a highly sophisticated network of cells and organs that work together to recognise and identify the injury or infection – and then restore function. When people get symptoms like a fever or a bad cough they presume that this is the virus that’s wreaking its havoc. However, these signs actually show that your body is just doing its job and producing these symptoms to fight back. And you want it to be able to do this efficiently without going into overdrive. A hyperactive immune system can be just as bad as a weak one, causing other serious problems like anaphylaxis, allergies and autoimmune disorders. What you’re really striving for is balance.
Many of us have seen the products out there that claim to be good for immunity such as vitamins and probiotics. These tend to be most useful for people who aren’t getting the correct nutrients in their diet. For most healthy people, they will probably do little to help.
When it comes to avoiding illness, it’s the simple lifestyle choices that we make that tend to make the most difference:
Wash your hands and clean surfaces
Maintaining good hygiene is one of the best ways to avoid infection. Although some diseases are airborne, many can be acquired after you have touched a contaminated surface. Germs can also move from your hands into your eyes, nose or mouth, so don’t touch your face and make sure you wash your hands.
Maintain a healthy weight
Not only does obesity increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but it can also cause a state of chronic inflammation which causes the immune system to become compromised. Taking steps to lose weight and get fitter can make a big difference to your overall wellness.
Regular physical activity allows immune cells to perform effectively increasing blood flow and strengthening antibodies. Just don’t overdo it as overtraining can be detrimental to the immune response.
Eat a diet high in fruit and vegetables
It’s long been recognised that people who are malnourished are more vulnerable to illness and infectious diseases. A good whole food diet with plenty of natural ingredients and brightly coloured fruit and vegetables can be hugely beneficial for good health.
Get enough sleep
During sleep, the immune system releases cytokines. These increase with infection, inflammation, or during periods of stress, in order to combat illness. If the body fails to get enough sleep, it may actually decrease the production of these protective cytokines and infection-fighting antibodies which can weaken the immune response. So it really makes sense to ensure you get at least 7 hours of shut-eye a night.
Try to minimise stress
Often the hardest one to achieve but it’s an important one. When we’re under stress, more cortisol is produced. The hormone corticosteroid then suppresses the immune system and reduces the ability to fight off antigens. Relaxation techniques can often help to reduce strain and tension.
Watch the alcohol
Avoid drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol if you want to keep your immune system in good shape.
Smoking affects circulation, decreases oxygen levels and alters immune responses which can make the body less successful at fighting disease.