Natural Ways to Boost Your Immune System This Winter*
The human immune system is an incredible thing. All day long we’re battered by microorganisms, and our immune system – on the whole – does a fantastic job of protecting us. Just think of how many millions of bacteria and viruses are floating around you right now, and compare this to how often you actually get ill. Pretty impressive, right?
And yet, as we all know, the human immune system is far from perfect. Despite all those millions of years of evolution, we still get struck down by coughs and colds on occasion. What’s more, it is in winter that we seem to suffer more than at other times of the year.
But what can we do to keep our immune system running at full speed, and help us avoid those unwanted sniffles and sore throats?
TAKE A WALK
Many people know that we need a combination of vitamin D and calcium to keep our bones and teeth strong. What is rather less well-known, however, is the growing evidence that vitamin D also plays an important role in our immune systems.
In recent years, studies on vitamin D have claimed that it is an “immune system moderator” that can help to “activate” the immune system against attack. Furthermore, other studies have suggested that vitamin D deficiencies can suppress the immune system, and may increase the chances of serious immune problems like autoimmune diseases.
So where do we get vitamin D from? As it turns out, the vast majority of the vitamin D in your body comes from the sunshine; more direct sun (within reason) means more vitamin D. This might help to explain why we seem more likely to get ill during the winter months – there is just less sunshine around so vitamin D levels can drop.
It therefore follows that getting outside, whether that is for a walk or for other reasons, has the potential to increase your vitamin D levels. This, in turn, may therefore offer immune-boosting benefits for you.
There’s more. Exercise and the immune system are intricately linked. It seems that exercise of a moderate intensity – such as walking or cycling – can help to boost the immune system. Oddly, it seems that more intensive exercise can have quite the opposite impact, and may actually negatively impact immunity.
Getting outside for a pleasant walk this winter therefore offers two potential benefits for your immune system; gentle exercise and more sunlight.
As a side note, a limited number of foods contain vitamin D. Oily fish and egg yolks both contain decent volumes. It seems as though it might also be possible to “eat for immunity” too, by ensuring your diet is rich in such foods.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP
Have you found yourself getting uncontrollably tired when fighting a cold or other virus? Alternatively, you also ever noticed that you tend to need more sleep when you’re ill? What’s going on?
It seems that sleep and the immune system are inexplicably linked. In one interesting study, participants were asked to record not just how much sleep they were getting but also how frequently they got ill. The experts found that people in their study group getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night were 2.9 times more likely to develop a cold than people getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night.
Scientists have even theorised that one of the reasons we humans actually need to sleep regularly is to allow the immune system to flush out toxins and increase their fight against pathogens. When the body comes under attack, the immune system produces chemicals known as “cytokines”. It is thought that these act as markers, helping to alert the rest of a body that an attack is underway. Interestingly, experts have also found that cytokines play a role in regulating our sleep. The two processes really do seem to be intricately linked with one another.
Getting at least eight hours sleep a night is therefore a fantastic, free and natural way to support your immune system and keep you fitter for longer.
Probiotics have long been a popular supplement. Whilst a range of foods are now sold as “probiotics” there are also an assortment of more “natural” solutions. Yogurt, together with many fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, are all rich in beneficial microorganisms.
One interesting study divided 69 children into two groups. One of these groups was provided with probiotics twice a day for three months, while the other received a placebo that was known to have no effect on immunity. The scientists found that the children being supplemented with probiotics were significantly less likely to suffer from fevers and coughs, and also took less time off school as a result of illness.
Probiotics work by improving the gut flora; the rich soup of “friendly bacteria” that help our digestion. Far from just relieving gas, however, there is also evidence that probiotics can help your body to fight against harmful bacteria. The research suggests that probiotics may be particularly helpful for fighting infections that start within our digestive system, by providing the support that our bodies need to fight these foreign bodies.
Zinc is one of the best-known supplements for keeping the immune system firing on all cylinders. Scientists have identified a direct link between zinc deficiency and suppressed immune responses, with highly deficient individuals not just getting ill more frequently, but even living shorter lives overall.
It seems that zinc helps to control your body’s response to infection. It has been shown to influence the activity of cells that both identify and fight pathogens, and is therefore critical in maintaining your body’s defences.
Fortunately, a range of foods are rich in zinc, including spinach, pumpkin seeds and even – you’ll be pleased to hear – chocolate. Alternatively, you can always consider a zinc supplement, with one scientific study claiming that oral zinc supplements “demonstrates the potential to improve immunity”.
Selenium is a fascinating substance with wide-ranging impacts on the body. Whilst it is only required in small amounts, selenium seems to play an effect in regulating the activity of antioxidants in the body, and so has a wide range of impacts on inflammation and the immune system. It should therefore not be surprising that selenium deficiencies have been linked to suppression of the immune system.
Selenium is also believed to play a part in healthy thyroid function and even fertility. Many meats contain decent volumes of selenium, but for vegetarians brazil nuts and spinach are both alternatives rich in selenium.
Vitamin C is possibly the best-known way to support our immune systems – but does it really work?
In one study, volunteers were provided either with a vitamin c tablet or a placebo twice a day for a 60 day period throughout the winter., At the end of the study the scientists found that those individuals taking vitamin supplements had significantly fewer colds and suffered fewer days of illness before recovery.
Interestingly, other studies have suggested that vitamin C can be beneficial as a “preventative” measure, helping to fight off potential infections, but tends to be less effective when infection has already occurred.
The evidence seems to suggest that far from gorging on orange juice when you start to develop a sniffle, a more effective option may be to feature vitamin C-rich foods as a standard part of your diet. In this way you can feel confident that you always have the optimum level to keep your immune system firing on all cylinders.
Whilst citrus fruits such as oranges are the best-known sources of dietary vitamin C, other great sources are tomatoes, broccoli and dark leafy vegetables like kale.
One far-ranging study used what is known as a “meta-analysis” – where the results of dozens of scientific studies are brought together in order to give an overall impressions of a subject. Here the experts investigated the actions of Echinacea on the immune system and found strong evidence that it really can boost the immune system.
When looking specifically at the incidence of the common cold, the scientists found that Echinacea provided a significant reduction not only in the odds of developing a cold, but also reduced the duration of colds by between one and four days depending on the dosage provided.
Echinacea can be grown in most people’s gardens, though of course Echinacea supplements are potentially an easier and more practical solution.
Your immune system is an incredible thing, and unsurprisingly a lot of work has gone into studying it over the years. We now have more information than ever before on how to support a healthy immune system.
As it turns out, with a few simple lifestyle changes you can help to avoid the coughs and colds that characterise winter. Get some gentle exercise, spend time outdoors, sleep properly and get a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables to help maintain a healthy immune system. Lastly, if you want to give your immune system a little extra boost consider some of the better-known supplements available nationwide.
Simply Supplements offers a range of supplements formulated for the immune system.