As of yesterday, wearing masks on public transport is now compulsory. However, in addition to washing hands and social distancing, you can also fortify yourself by nourishing your immune system, keeping you safe and healthy as you return to the workplace.
How does our immune system work?
Our immune system is hugely complex but it basically comprises two parts: the general innate system and the adaptive, specialised one. The former is our first line of defence, acting quickly when it detects a pathogen (germ) – e.g. bacteria entering the skin through a wound – and destroying it. However, because the innate system is not specialised at targeting specific pathogens, it may not be able to stop the spread of germs and you may become ill for a few days. During this time the adaptive system kicks in, taking note of the invaders and building antibodies so that next time the pathogen strikes, it will remember it and you will either experience very mild symptoms, or you will be immune.
For your immune cells to work effectively, you can give it a helping hand and here are a few tips to help you take care of your ‘inner security guard’.
1. Double your 5-a-day
Fruit and veg contain powerful nutrients, known as phytochemicals, that protect the plant while it’s growing and confer this protection to us when we eat them. They are a rich source of antioxidants that help neutralise the harmful molecules (known as free radicals) that are released by the pathogen. The more of these we eat, the better our immune system will function so go for it, #eattherainbow, in the knowledge that every colour gives you a different powerful benefit. And why stop at 5? If you have some berries for breakfast, a big salad at lunch time and a few leafy greens and broccoli for dinner – you’ll easily reach a far more beneficial immune-enhancing 10-a-day.
Apart from these phytonutrients, we derive essential immune-supporting vitamins from our fruit and veg, and of course the one everyone’s heard of is Vitamin C.
Vitamin C is the ‘master’ vitamin. It helps immune cells to mature and improves the performance of antibodies. It is anti-bacterial and anti-viral and destroys toxins produced by bacteria. It is also a natural antihistamine, calming down inflammation.
It’s found in many fruits and veg including red & green peppers, kiwi fruit, strawberries, oranges, papayas, broccoli, tomatoes, kale, sugar snap peas, parsley, red chilli, rosehips.
However, as it’s a water-soluble vitamin, it only stays in the body for a few hours so it needs to be topped up regularly.
Also, for maximum protection you’re unlikely to get adequate vitamin C from these foods, so supplementation of 1-3 grams taken over the course of the day is recommended. And it's important to get the right dose: only studies that used over 1 gram daily provided effective protection.
2. Think Zinc
As for minerals, zinc is critical for immune cell production and has antiviral properties. Found in meat (offal), shellfish, eggs and seeds eg pumpkin seeds.
3. The Sunshine Vitamin
Another important vitamin is Vitamin D which helps to activate the immune system to defend us against invading microorganisms. The main source of vitamin D is the sun but it’s also found in oily fish like salmon, mushrooms, egg yolks and some fortified breakfast cereals.
4. Look after your gut
Did you know that 70% of your immune cells reside in your gut? So it goes without saying that a healthy gut means a healthy immune system. Here’s what you can do:
Ensure your diet is rich in fibre, especially soluble fibre found in vegetables, as this provides good fuel for the beneficial bacteria, helping to preserve the health of the gut lining.
To encourage a better balance of bacteria in the gut, eat fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, yoghurt and sourdough.
Eat prebiotics – foods that nourish the bacteria – eg. leeks, garlic, onions and Jerusalem artichoke.
5. Spice up your life!
Season your food with turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and cayenne pepper. These have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties and can help calm any inflammation in the body.
6. Water, Water, Water!
Staying hydrated helps your body naturally eliminate toxins as well as other bacteria that might cause illness. Aim for at least eight glasses of water a day, especially during these warmer months.
7. Get a good night’s sleep
7-8 hours of sleep can help bolster the T cells which fight infection in the body. One study showed that just one night of 4 hours’ sleep depleted the body’s natural killer cells by 70%.
8. Reduce stress
The brain and the immune system are in constant communication. When we are stressed, the brain produces more of the stress hormone cortisol to deal with the perceived ‘emergency’, all the while reducing the effectiveness of our immune system. Try relaxation exercises like yoga or meditation and simple breathing exercises such as the 3-4-5 technique (breathe in for 3, hold for 4 and exhale for 5) can really help lower stress levels.
9. Eliminate or limit the bad stuff
Stress, processed foods, sugar, chemicals, pollution, smoking, lack of sleep, starvation diets can all take their toll on your immune system so do your best to create a more favourable environment for your immune system to thrive.
10. Eat a well balanced diet
If you follow a low GL diet with lean protein, complex unrefined carbohydrates, healthy fats & plenty of multi-coloured fresh fruit and veg you could be doing yourself a great favour.