The festive season is a time where many people come together to celebrate. However, it can also be a time where your immune system is put under strain and you are more susceptible to getting sick.
Given the present climate, it's now more important than ever that we ensure our immune system is firing on all cylinders.
In this article we'll be briefly touching on how the immune system really works, why we should focus on supporting it rather than "boosting" and our best tips on how you can ensure your immunity is fully fortified to fight off any nasty viruses, bugs or whatever else this festive season.
What is our immune system really?
Put simply, the immune system is a network of organs, cells and proteins that work together to protect us from infection and illness. It's responsible for recognising and destroying harmful organisms such as viruses, bacteria and parasites.
The immune system is constantly at work, but it can be weakened by a number of factors including stress, poor diet, lack of sleep and smoking.
Our immune system can be broadly split into two distinct camps; the innate immune system and the acquired / adaptive immune system.
The innate immune system is our first line of defence and includes things like skin, tears and saliva, which act as a barrier to infection. The innate immune system also includes white blood cells, which work to destroy harmful organisms.
The innate system at work is actually what most of us experience as feeling "poorly" as it helps to fight off potentially harmful organisms by burning them out (a feverish temperature), flushing them out (through phlegm and sweat) and focusing on just the infection itself (which is when we start to feel fatigued and weak).
The acquired / adaptive immune system is more sophisticated and is responsible for creating immunity to specific infections. This immunity can be passed from person to person (immunity conferred by vaccination is an example of this).
Why we may not be boosting our immune system as we're being made to believe
There are many “experts” and companies who are claiming that their given product and or diet can boost your immune system. Some of the products include immunity boosting supplements and immunity boosting teas.
The problem is that these claims are not supported by recent scientific research, which proves immunity boosting products do not really work as they claim to be.
In fact, immunity boosters can contain harmful ingredients such as herbal extracts or vitamins in high doses. Immunity boosters also cost a lot of money and can have possibly negative side effects.
The only actual means of "boosting" your immune system is by exposure to a virus, pathogen etc. as this leads to our acquired / adaptive developing an effective immune response capable of fighting the harmful outsider the next time we're exposed to it.
Vaccinations are the only evidence-based intervention which can “boost” our immune system (as vaccines are a weakened version of a pathogen, it allows our body to develop and record an immunological response in a relatively safe manner).
"Boosting" our immune system may not be an actual desirable outcome either; if our immune system was constantly boosted we'd actually feel pretty miserable!
Imagine your innate system being in full operation all the time! That would be awful!
Supporting our immune system through diet, lifestyle and supplementation
First and foremost, if we are achieving a well-balanced diet and maintaining a lifestyle of healthy behaviours our immune system will most likely be functioning as it should. Malnutrition and or excessive intakes of certain nutrients or minerals can have an equally detrimental effect on our immune system.
The gut is an often underrated factor in the immune fight. In fact, you could argue it is the key to our immune system functioning at it's best!
Afterall, it is also home to the majority of the immune cells within the body.
The gut microbiota is constantly interacting with the immune system and it has been shown that both a healthy gut microbiota and a balanced diet are essential for a well-functioning immune system.
Minimizing inflammation of the gut is an important goal in preserving immune function.
Inflammation may contribute to the development of “leaky gut” or, more accurately, reduced integrity of the cells lining the gut (allowing for more free passage of potentially harmful pathogens into our system).
So, what can you do to support your gut health and immunity this festive season?
Eat plenty of fiber
Fiber is essential for a healthy gut microbiota. It helps to increase the numbers of good bacteria while reducing the numbers of bad bacteria.
Good sources of fiber include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics are “good” bacteria that have a positive influence on the gut microbiota while prebiotics are food for probiotic bacteria. These can be found in a variety of fermented foods, such as plain yogurt and sourdough bread. Fibre and other forms of complex carbs are also considered prebiotics.
A Mediterranean diet style approach
The Mediterranean diet is high in fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics. It is characterized by plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts/seeds/oils, herbs and spices. Furthermore it contains only moderate amounts of dairy products and red meat.
It also contains plenty of anti-inflammatories such as vitamin C and omega-3s.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant vitamin which helps immunity by protecting against free radical damage and also has a role to play in the formation of collagen for wound healing. Studies have shown that those with adequate levels of Vitamin C have a stronger immunity than those with lower concentrations.
Omega-3s have been linked to immunity. Studies have found that those who had low levels of omega-3s had a hindered immunity, and those with adequate levels of omega-3s had a more effective immunity. This suggests that consuming more foods rich in Omega-3s could have positive effects on immunity.
Supplements to support the immune system
Vitamin D is known to support immunity, with studies finding that those with low levels of Vitamin D are more susceptible to infection.
Relevant to our present situation, lower levels of vitamin D appear to be linked to greater risk of COVID infection and worsening symptoms. Supplementing with vitamin D may actually help protect from COVID too.
It would be recommended that you supplement with vitamin D, aiming for around 1000IU per day.
Zinc and selenium are two minerals that also play key roles in immune function, with deficiencies being attributed to a significantly decreased capability of our immune systems to battle against pathogens.
Managing our stress and getting adequate sleep are also critically important for our immune function. When we're feeling run down or are chronically stressed, our immune system is working overtime to try and keep us healthy - and this can lower our immunity in the long term.
Getting a good night's sleep is essential for rejuvenating our bodies and restoring our immunity. 7-8 hours per night is generally recommended.
Exercise can also help support our immune system. Moderate exercise has been shown to increase immunity, while excessive or high-intensity exercise can have the opposite effect.
We do hope this gives you all a bit more clarity on the subject of immunity and how to support your immune systems during these slightly more testing times.
Remember to also maintain proper hygiene practices and use common sense; if you’re sick stay at home, cover your mouth when coughing and wash your hands!
Balance is Northern Ireland's leading nutritionist and dietician coaching team.
We work with everyone from Olympians to office workers to help them achieve their nutrition and diet related goals.
Get in touch with us today to discuss how we can help you;
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