What can we do to support our immune systems?

We tend to think of the immune system as something that kicks in in the winter months if we start to get a cold, but actually our immune system is working all the time, and is involved in a ton of different processes, from being the body’s main cancer surveillance system to affecting how we age. So taking care of our immunity is for life not just for covid.

The immune system is not something passive that we have no influence over. There are lots of things we can do that can positively impact how it works. The immune system develops through exposure to the environment around it and it is made not born. It changes throughout our life and can be built and developed if given the right inputs.

Can certain foods boost our immunity?

There is no single miracle food or drink that can ‘boost’ immunity. Of course, nutrition plays a role in our health, but rather than choosing to add in or cut out specific foods, food groups or drinks, a better approach is to consider whether our diets are providing us with all the right nutrients we need for overall optimal health.

When it comes to diet it’s not about what you ate at one particular meal.  It’s about the overall pattern of your diet. Focus on trying to get most things right (so that means natural and minimally processed) rather than stressing about every meal being perfect. Does your diet contain good quality carbs, protein, fats? Are you consistently getting all the relevant vitamins and minerals that your need? Is your diet diverse or are you eating the same things over and over again?

How do we build a balanced meals at home?

A balanced diet is generally one that contains the following in each meal where possible:

  • Wholegrain starchy and fibrous carbohydrates such as, brown rice, quinoa, oats, sweet potato, potato, etc.
  • Lean forms of protein in the form of meat, oily fish, eggs and plant-based options such as beans, pulses, nuts, etc.
  • High consumption of fruit and vegetables, try to eat a variety of different colours of fruits and vegetables (each colour denotes a different range of nutrients)- aim for 3 different colours with every meal
  • Small amounts of dairy and fortified plant-based dairy alternatives
  • Small amounts of fat and only using unsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive oil and omega 3 rich foods such as oily fish and flax and chia seeds.
  • Fibre is key for gut bugs (the gut microbiome). With over 70% of our immunity in our gut, gut bugs are one of the key educators of our immune system. There is an inextricable link between the immune system- diet- and gut bugs. And different gut bugs need different forms of fibre to function. Different forms of fibre are in all the plant-based foods, not just fruit and vegetables, they are also in nuts and seeds, beans and legumes and whole-grains. Try to aim for at least 30 different forms in your diet in a week.

Other aspects that support immunity:

Vitamin D

It’s also a good idea to take daily 10 microgram (µg) vitamin D supplements especially in the autumn and winter months, since we rely primarily on the sun for this and cannot always get enough.

How often you’re eating

We know that eating is an inflammatory and energetically costly process, therefore it’s important to allow the body time to rest between food. It’s a good idea to try to eat all your food, with breaks between meals, and within a 10-12 hour window.

How much you’re eating will also impact your immune system

Continually over or under eating will negatively impact immunity.

Stress

Cortisol (the bodies major stress hormone) dampens the immune system. Which is okay in the short term but in the longer term can be extremely damaging. Stress also changes your gut, GI tract and digestive system significantly- so eating in a stressed state can change the way your body reacts to food.

Sleep

Lack of sleep also significantly negatively impacts your immune system. An extra half an hour of sleep could be more beneficial than twicking your diet.

Even with this advice though, please remember that everyone is different and perfection doesn’t exist; now certainly is not a time to be add extra stress to your life by worrying that you aren’t getting it exactly right!

For more bespoke and targeted advice or to book a nutrition consultation please contact Jennifer Medhurst Nutrition at [email protected].

References:

British Dietetic Association (2020). COVID-19 / Coronavirus – Advice for the General Public. Available online at: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/covid-19-corona-virus-advice-for-the-general-public.html

NHS. (2020). Vitamin D: Vitamins and Minerals. Available online at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/

Public Health England. (2018). The Eatwell Guide: Helping you eat a healthy, balanced diet. Available online here