Your immune system is a complex network of organs that include the spleen, bone marrow, skin, tonsils, adenoids, and the lymphatic system. On the whole, it does a remarkable job of defending you against disease-causing micro-organisms. There is still much that we don’t know about the intricacies of the immune response, but research indicates that because it’s a system rather than a single entity, it requires balance and harmony to function optimally. We asked Dr Duvenage at Health Renewal how you can enhance that balance and harmony and improve your chances of staying healthy through winter.
Nurture a well-balanced gut
Almost 80% of the immune response is based on intestinal health, so keeping your gut and digestive system functioning at its peak should be a priority. Our digestive systems are designed to contain a large number of ‘good’ bacteria, to help fight off ‘bad’ bacteria and yeasts, but diets high in refined sugars, frequent use of antibiotics, and everyday stress can upset this delicate balance. You can help restore it by increasing your intake of whole, unprocessed foods or those high in beneficial bacteria, such as yoghurt. You may also want to consider taking a good-quality probiotic supplement.
Go out and enjoy the sunshine
Vitamin D, which is formed in our bodies through exposure to sunlight, is crucial for maintaining a strong immune system. In the grey winter months you may need to ask your healthcare specialist about supplementing vitamin D: one great natural source is cod liver oil. In addition to vitamin D, it contains vitamin A, which is another immune system superstar, and health-boosting omega 3 fatty acids.
Up your intake of antioxidants
Antioxidants are our body’s main defence against free radicals, which are the chemical by-products known to damage DNA and suppress the immune system. The best sources of antioxidants in the diet are vitamins A, C, E, and selenium – the nutrients found in green and brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables. Eat them raw whenever possible to maximise benefits.
Regular aerobic exercise (cycling, walking, or swimming) encourages efficient functioning of the lymphatic system, which is the network of vessels that pick up toxins and removes them from the body. The lymph system is dependent on muscular contraction, and working your muscles prevents it from becoming sluggish. Exercise also gets antibodies and white blood cells moving through the body faster so they can detect disease sooner. Keep your workouts moderate; sustained high-intensity activity can decrease the amount of white blood cells in the body and increase the risk of illness.
Eat lean protein at every meal
The antibodies that fight disease are actually built of protein, and many high-protein foods also contain other immune-boosting nutrients. Lean cuts of beef, chicken, or pork, as well as beans, soy, and seafood, contain zinc that helps keep up the production of infection-fighting white blood cells. Nuts, particularly almonds and cashews, are also good sources of protein as well as magnesium, which helps support the immune system.
Have enough sleep
Sleep gives our immune organs the chance to regenerate, and while we’re asleep our bodies carry out important processes such as repair, renewal, and energy restoration. Some studies suggest that our bodies achieve balanced levels of cortisol – the hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that protects the immune system – more effectively while we’re asleep than when we’re awake.
Cut back on sugar
Not only does sugar increase the production of hormones that suppress the immune system, it also uses large amounts of micronutrients to metabolise. This requires your body to use stored vitamins and minerals, further lowering your natural defences.
Brush your skin
As well as boosting circulation and leaving you glowing, brushing your skin every day with a natural-fibre body brush aids lymphatic drainage, which improves the removal of toxins and disperses excess fluid. Brushing also helps with skin renewal as it promotes blood flow and brings nutrients to the surface.
Manage stress levels
Chronic stress lowers our levels of immune antibodies and increases levels of cortisol beyond what is beneficial. It appears to disrupt the desired ‘communication’ between the nervous system, the hormonal system, and the immune system and affect the stimulation and coordination of white blood cell activity. So laugh, pray, dance, do yoga – whatever it takes to help you relax.
And how can you tell if your immune system isn’t working at full power? If you’re not enjoying vibrant good health and abundant energy, if you’re tired all the time and you seem to catch any cold that’s going, some of these simple lifestyle changes could bring back your immune system’s superpowers.
Do you want to ask Dr. Duvenage a question about health? Click on her Ask The Experts profile here.