Boost your immune system with these 10 tips
Our immune systems do a remarkable job of defending us against disease, but like anything, they can fail and leave us sick, often when we need it least (like the night before a big presentation at work!) During the colder months, colds, flu and sore throats seem to be everywhere, so if you've come down with a bug, or are trying to prevent yourself from getting sick, there are things you can do to give your immune system a boost.
#1. Embrace clean living
Living a clean, healthy lifestyle is your first line of defence against any type of illness (1) colds and flu included. Here are a few tips to help you embrace clean living:
Don't drink too much alcohol - moderation is key
Get plenty of sleep
Take regular exercise and maintain a healthy weight
Wash your hands frequently
Eat a balanced diet low in saturated fat and high in whole grains, fruit and vegetables
Scientists already know that those who are malnourished and living in poverty are more likely to come down with infectious diseases, and diet plays an important role in defending your body.
#2. Try supplements
Whilst your body should get all the nutrients it needs from your well-balanced, healthy diet, sometimes it can help to take a supplement, particularly if you've been busier or under more stress than usual. A daily vitamin and mineral supplement could help to boost your immune system. Look for one which contains vitamin A, which can fight infection, vitamin B6 which bolsters your immune response and vitamins C and D.
#3. Eat garlic
It's not an old wive's tale - garlic contains allicin, an active ingredient that can help fight infections and bacteria. During a study in the UK, 146 people were given either garlic extract or a placebo for three months. The results revealed that those who took the garlic were 75% less likely to come down with a cold. Adding crushed garlic to your cooking a few times a week can really help to fight winter colds and flu, or you could even try taking garlic capsules.
#4. Eat more sweet potatoes
We love sweet potatoes and they're so versatile - mash them, enjoy them baked, make sweet potato fries - check out some of our ideas for inspiration! Sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A - half a cup contains 40% of your RDI of beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential to keep skin strong and healthy, and your skin is your first line of defence against viruses and bacteria. Other foods rich in vitamin A include carrots, pumpkin and butternut squash, all great options to blend into a hearty, warming soup this winter!
#5. Don't get wet
Your granny (or your mum) probably told you you'd catch your death if you got wet in the rain - she wasn't lying! It seems that cold weather really can make you ill. In 2005, scientists carried out a study on 180 participants - 90 were asked to keep their feet in a basin of iced water for 20 minutes, whilst the control group of 90 people kept their feet in an empty basin for the same length of time. Over the course of a week, only 9% of the control group developed a cold whilst 29% of the other group became ill.
When we get wet and cold, our bodies react by restricting blood flow to the extremities, in order to keep our brain and torso warm. When blood flow is reduced, it can also reduce our supply of white blood cells, our immune system's main defence against germs (2). So if you do have to go outside in the rain or snow, make sure you wrap up warm, take an umbrella and change out of any wet clothes as soon as you get home!
#6. Get plenty of sleep
Sleep is important for a whole host of body functions, but could sleep deprivation lead to an impaired immune system? Experts say yes - lack of sleep can make you more prone to catching a cold or the flu. Our 'T cells' which protect our bodies, are reduced when we suffer from lack of sleep, whilst the levels of inflammatory cytokines rise, increasing our risk of catching a cold (3). Aim for between eight and 10 hours of sleep a night - if you're having trouble nodding off, try a few drops of lavender oil in a warm bath, reading a good book or organising your workload for the next day so that you feel more relaxed at bedtime.
#7. Add mushrooms to your diet
Mushrooms have been used as an immune system booster for centuries. Douglas Schar, Director of Washington's Institute of Herbal Medicine, explains their benefits, "Studies show that mushrooms increase the production of activity of white blood cells, making them more aggressive. This is a good thing when you have an infection." (4)
Steer clear of white mushrooms and opt for Reishi or Shitake mushrooms instead, which provide the best boost - around 1/4 to 1oz of mushrooms a day can help. Why not add them to your home-made cauliflower pizza, top a burger with them or make a healthy mushroom omelette?
#8. Quit smoking
Smoking, or inhaling secondhand smoke, is really bad for your body, as you know. But did you know that of the 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, at least 43 are carcinogenic? Tobacco smoke can lead to respiratory tract infections, allergies and asthma attacks, and it can also contribute to cancer of the kidneys, pancreas and bladder. Kick the habit this January and you'll notice an overall improvement in your health.
#9. Reduce stress in your life
Everyday stress - such as stress at work or in your personal life - as well as extreme stress from a breakup, bereavement or divorce, can lead to chronic stress that could impact your immune system. Higher levels of stress hormones in the blood can even lead to cancer progressing more rapidly (5).
Those who are regularly stressed are also more prone to cardiovascular disease and periods of extreme stress can lead to sluggish 'T cells' and reduced immune response. Try reducing stress in your life by being more organised and planning/prioritising your to-do list, or try something relaxing like yoga or meditation.
#10. Exercise regularly
Research shows that exercising regularly can help to fight off colds and flu, whilst gentle exercise if you're already sick could help your body to get better, faster (6). The level of natural killer cells in your body, the ones that fight infection, increase by up to 300% when you exercise, and even moderate levels of activity, such as taking a 20-minute walk or going to the gym a couple of times a week, could help reduce the number of colds you get.
Hopefully these ten tips will help you to boost your immune system this winter and you'll make it through to spring without being affected by colds and flu - if you do get sick, these tips can still help you to get better more quickly.
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