Updated: Oct 15, 2021
With COVID 19 on top of the usual delights that winter brings, avoiding getting sick is probably front of mind for most of us this winter. Thanks to the current pandemic, we have all been educated on how to stop bugs from coming into our bodies - we have to take great care with the ‘in-roads’ - so that means covering our mouth and nose, washing our hands and watching what we touch.
Yet, as we know, none of this is foolproof. We are now learning how to live our lives as normal alongside COVID, just like we've done with Seasonal Flu. So, how do we stop ourselves getting sick? Can we affect how well our bodies respond to an invader by strengthening our immune system?
The first thing to say is it’s not quite as simple as some brands would have us believe. Our immune system is a complex collection of organs, cells and chemicals that defend the body against foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. This system attacks infections in multiple ways: from the antibodies which bind to and destroy them, to the hormones which can block them from multiplying, to the onset of fever which can leave them inactivated. In fact, the symptoms we often associate with being sick such as fever, headache and fatigue, result from the immune system doing its job at the start of an infection (1).
So, it’s not the infection that makes us sick - illness occurs when the infection is able to damage the cells in our body (1). The risk of this occurring is driven by the infection type as well as the underlying health of the person. If we can work towards good underlying health, we are much more likely to be able to fight off and recover quickly from infections.
Here are my top tips for strengthening your natural defences:
1. Watch your stress levels
When we are stressed for long periods of time, it leads to imbalances in immune cell function and inflammation in our body (2). In a university study, students were found to have significantly lower levels of important immune cells during the simple stress of their 3-day exam period (3). So if your life feels like a frenetic, pressured juggling act most of the time, it would be very wise to introduce some stress management techniques to make your body more resilient to illness.
Breathing exercises, meditation and yoga are all fantastic ways to calm the stress response down and allow the immune system to do its job. Whilst life may be busy, always remember: starting with 2 minutes a day is better than not doing it at all.
2. Prioritise those precious ZZZZs
When we sleep our bodies do all sorts of wonderful things, including producing infection fighting antibodies and cytokines. Unfortunately, this process is disrupted when we don’t get enough sleep, as shown in a study on the common cold. People who got less than 6 hours sleep a night were more likely to get a cold than those who slept 6 hours or more each night (4).
If you are struggling to sleep for at least 8 hours a night, try introducing a wind down routine at the end of the day to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. For example, turning off your phone two hours before bed, eating early to allow time for digestion and taking a hot bath can all help to relax the mind and body and get you ready for sleep.
3. Feed the friends in your gut
We all have a community of billions of good bacteria living in our gut (called the gut microbiome) and recent research has shown them to be essential to our health. When the microbiome is robust, it can play an important role in immunity, because it prevents harmful invaders from getting through the digestive tract (6).
In order to keep your gut friends happy, eat a diet rich in plants - they are full of the fibre the microbiome love to feed on. Diversity is key, so try getting as many different varieties into your weekly meals as you can. Also try adding fermented foods to your diet as they are rich in probiotics (or friendly bacteria) which can re-populate your digestive tract.
4. Put the fire out on your internal inflammation
Whilst short term inflammation is a normal evolutionary response that helps us to heal from injuries, chronic inflammation is a more modern response from our bodies, signalling poor health. It occurs when the body has been ‘attacked’ by too much stress, processed food and toxins and it can suppress the immune system and lead to chronic disease (2).
Avoiding processed foods and sugar and eating a diet rich in antioxidants and healthy fats will dampen down inflammation (7,8). Try eating oily fish such as salmon twice a week, add olive oil to salads and eat as many colourful vegetables as you can. Here are some delicious recipes for inspiration.
5. Move your body
Exercise has long been hailed as having fantastic health benefits and it is no different when we look at immune function. Frequent, moderate exercise can enhance the recirculation of important immune cells, reduce inflammation and potentially even diversify our gut microbiome so it can defend the digestive tract (8).
Walking, running, yoga and strength training are all great ways to move your body. It can also be as simple as getting up and stretching during your work day. All movement counts!
6. Drink plenty of water
Staying hydrated supports our blood volume, which in turn, allows the immune system to transport important communication signals to organs. In addition, evidence has shown that being dehydrated can increase your susceptibility to illness.
Start your day as you mean to go on - make drinking a glass of water the first thing you do... before you get onto the caffeine! When we are busy it can be difficult to remember to drink, so keep a litre bottle near you so you can sip at it throughout the day.
7. Supplement wisely
There is much conflicting evidence about supplements and they are certainly not all made equal. That being said, evidence shows that vitamin C, zinc and echinacea can reduce the duration of a cold (10,11). It is also possible to reduce the chance of getting sick by supplementing with garlic and vitamin D if you have a deficiency (12,13).
8. Try cold therapy
Some people believe that “cold therapy” can strengthen the immune system by building up the body’s resilience to short term stress. Although this is an area that has only just begun to be researched, a Dutch study showed that as part of a stress management regime, cold therapy resulted in fewer infection symptoms in the participants.
Advocates of this practice are religious about it and I certainly think there is something in it. Try cold water swimming, if you can bear it, or put the cold on during your morning shower for 30 seconds, building up to a minute over time…see how it makes you feel!
What do you like to do to stay healthy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!