Your Immune System: what might you be doing wrong?
Picture those pathogens (germs!) invading your body, making you feel tired, under the weather and struggling to get up and start your day. Sound familiar? We have all had unfortunate days like these, but is it possible to intervene and strengthen your immune system to fight off these germs? Will it help if you make changes to your diet? Start taking food supplements? Make lifestyle changes to support a stronger immune response? Well, read on, because I am going to give you a guide to prepare your immune system as much as possible for the coming season!
Nine reasons why your immune system might be weakened
It may surprise you to learn that frequent travelling requires a lot of effort from your body and can negatively impact your immune system. Whether you are travelling on a bus or a plane, a car or a train, your body goes through a lot and here is why! Using public transport in particular, means you may come into contact with lots of people carrying cold and flu germs; also lack of sleep, change in air pressure, pollution and temperature changes may all result in a low immune response.
This daily exposure to germs puts your immune system to the test and increases the chances of catching a bug. To reduce the likelihood of infection whilst travelling, try carrying hand sanitiser, tissues during your travels, minimise contact with contaminated objects i.e. bus stop buzzers, arm rests, support poles / rails, tray tables etc.1 For ultra-travellers, here are extra tips on 'How to Stay Healthy While Travelling Abroad'.
Stress is cumulative; it may affect immunity and might eventually develop into more serious health issues, so it is important to be conscious of the simple day-to-day influences that cause you stress, especially as research indicates that being happy is a great boost for the immune system. To relieve stress, try doing some relaxing activities such as, yoga or simple stretching, use of a health spa (sauna, steam rooms). Above all, try to stay positive. As well as other beneficial effects, research has shown that people who practice positive thinking have a stronger immune response, compared to those who tend to be more negative. 2
3. Poor diet
We all have our super-healthy days, and our not-so-healthy days, but if your bad diet days outnumber your good, then this might affect your immune function. Maintaining a good structured healthy diet may be challenging, but if you are someone who finds themselves picking up every bug going around, it is time to take a good look at the food you are feeding your body. A high sugar intake, and consumption of processed and fast or ‘convenient’ foods, can unfortunately weaken the immune system. These types of foods feed bad bacteria in the gut and this makes for an unhealthy gut environment. Many of our immune cells are found in the gut, and so an imbalance could possibly affect immune responses resulting in inflammation in the body. Head over to the Learning Lab to read this article: 'Diet type can impact quantity and activity of gut bacteria'.
We can still have the odd yummy cake, but it is all about striking a balance. Aim for lots of colour and variety in your diet – these are your #DietGoals! Make sure you eat enough protein, e.g. meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and dairy products, and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables which contain vitamin C, E and beta-carotene – all of these nourishing vitamins and minerals will boost and strengthen your immune system.3
A night out with your friends may lead to one, or two, or more… alcoholic bevvies! Not only does the aftermath of a night out with your friends not feel quite so good, but alcohol misuse may result in lowered immunity. The journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews (ARCR), found that alcohol disrupts immune pathways in complex and seemingly paradoxical ways. These disruptions can impair the body’s ability to defend against infection, contribute to organ damage associated with alcohol consumption, and can actually impede recovery from tissue injury.4
So, I would advise limiting the amount of alcohol you consume. If you like having a drink during the week after a long day, consider having a glass of red wine instead of other types of alcohol, as this contains antioxidants known to support health and relax the body.5 Keep track of how much alcohol you consume each week – those units can mount up without you realising!
Just so you know, here are some useful guidelines to help you monitor your alcohol consumption. It is highly advised that both men and women are not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week on a regular basis. This is achievable by spreading your consumption over a course of 3 or more days if you are someone who tends to drink more than 14 units per week. If you are determined to cut down on your alcohol consumption, try to have several drink-free days each week and you are guaranteed to notice a change!6
Alongside the multiple negative effects of smoking, research suggests that smoking also weakens your immune system.7 There are harmful elements found in cigarettes which can lead to the formation of free radicals in the body, which can adversely affect immune function. It is believed that smoking may also affect the health of your gut microbiome. If you are a smoker, the best recommendation is to give up smoking! If this is too much of a challenge, try swapping cigarettes for a less harmful alternative such as, a vapour or e-cigarette and gradually work towards giving up smoking this way.
6. Lack of sleep
Your beauty sleep not only is heavenly, but is actually important for our health. A number of studies have shown that sleep deprivation resorts in the number of T cells reducing and anti-inflammatory cytokines increasing, disrupting and weakening our immune response, which increases the likelihood of catching the common colds and infections.8 How can you improve your quality of sleep? Try reducing your caffeine consumption, and consider organising your evening tasks by creating a checklist; this can help to prevent you feeling overwhelmed by your commitments. Having a positive pre-bed routine may help to promote a good night’s sleep: try a relaxing soak in a warm or hot bath, listen to relaxing music, sip on a cuppa of chamomile tea, or read an absorbing book. It is also good to keep your bedroom tidy and organised, creating a pleasant environment for sleep. Lastly sleep with an eye mask and earplugs, to block out distractions which may disturb your slumber.9
7. Lack of exercise
Time, the weather, and our daily responsibilities are just a few common things which may hinder the amount of exercise you do, but research suggests that incorporating as little as 20 minutes of daily exercise into your routine has been shown to support positive immune responses10. Therefore, it is well worth trying to find time for that regular workout, so that if you do come into contact with the cold or flu bugs, you may be better able to fight them off. On that note, exercise gets a big thumbs up from me!
Here are a few pointers which may improve your physical activity. Take public transport and get off a stop or two earlier than you need to, then walk the rest of the way home. If you are driving then park further away from your destination so you can do some more walking. Instead of taking the lift, take the stairs. Wash the car instead of using the car wash. Do not forget that housework is also great exercise! If you give some thought to making it a priority it is easy to add more exercise into your daily routine – be creative! For those who like to over prepare, here are some bonus tips for a regime to support you for the new year: Beat the January Blues
It may not be our first thought when thinking of immune support but feelings of loneliness and social isolation can have negative effects on your immune system. Studies have suggested that people who have a healthy connection to friends and/or family have a stronger immune system, compared to those who experience emotions linked with isolation.
To improve your social status and well-being, try joining local community clubs, plan a day out or explore a new area. If you have children, arrange a play date and enjoy a social chat over a cup of tea with the parents. There are also various organisations available online which can help you reconnect or meet new people.11
9. Unhealthy relationships
Whether this be a romantic or a friendship relationship, listen to your ‘gut feeling’! Unhealthy or toxic relationships can weaken your immune health. Start by reflecting on the company that you keep in your life. Ask yourself: do they bring the best out of me? Do they add value to my life? Is it one sided or are both parties invested? It is really important to surround yourself with positive, like-minded people who genuinely want the best for you. A study showed, that reciprocating positive emotions was associated with people suffering fewer colds and/or infections.12
If you're a mum, you may like to check out these quick & easy tips from insta mums!
References1. Dipak Sarkar, D. M. K. J. a. H. J. W., 2015. Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Research Current Reviews, 32(2), pp. 153-155.
2. Feifei Qiu, C.-L. L. H. L. Y.-Q. Z. S. H. S. H. X. L. a. Z. D., 2017. Impacts of cigarette smoking on immune responsiveness: Up and down or upside down?. Oncotarget Open Access Impact Journal, 8(1), pp. 268-284.
3. H, H., 1996. Vitamin C and common cold incidence: a review of studies with subjects under heavy. International Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 17, pp. 379- 383.
4. Luciana Besedovsky, T. L. a. J. B., 2012. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv, 463(1), pp. 121-137.
5. Michelle Micallef, L. L. a. P. L., 2007. Red wine consumption increases antioxidant status and decreases oxidative stress in the circulation of both young and old humans. Nutrition Journal, 6(27).
6. NHS, 2015. Loneliness 'may affect the immune system'. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/loneliness-may-affect-the-immune-system/ [Accessed 06 09 2018].
7. NHS, 2016. Sleep and tiredness. [Online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/how-to-get-to-sleep/ [Accessed 06 09 2018].
8. NHS, 2018. Alcohol support. [Online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calculating-alcohol-units/ [Accessed 05 09 2018].
9. Ozdemir, K. K. a. N., 2012. The Effect of Nutritional Elements on the Immune System. Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy, 2(9), pp. 1-6.
10. Pickersgill, H., 2013. Lighting Up Immunity. Science Signaling, 6(301).
11. Segerstrom, S. C., 2007. Optimism and immunity: Do positive thoughts always lead to positive effects?. HHS Author Manscripts, 19(3), pp. 195-200.
12. Sheldon Cohen, W. J. D. R. B. T. C. M. A. a. D. P. S., 2003. Emotional Style and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, Volume 65, pp. 652-657.