boosting immune system

The expert’s guide to boosting your immune system

Doctors give us their advice on improving your body’s natural defence mechanism

Every winter we see them – rows upon rows of powders and pills promising to boost our immune systems and keep us healthy. And, while we might not be able to buy them right now (thanks stockpilers), the COVID-19 pandemic means it’s never been more important to make sure your immune system is in top condition.

But, firstly, a bit of myth busting. We all know that the immune system is the body’s defence against disease but many, incorrectly believe they are born with either a weak or strong one. “Although we are all born with set genes that influence how our body functions, the environment has tremendous power to impair or boost immunity,” explains Dr Michael Barnish, Head of Genetics & Nutrition at IV therapy specialist Reviv. “There is not a set immune level and environment alters the immune system’s function quite easily.” In fact, Barnish points out, an overactive immune system can lead to dangerous autoimmune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Grave’s disease, in which the body attacks its own cells and tissues.

boosting immune system

“Another misconception is that antibiotics reduce our immune response,” adds Dr Hilary Jones, GP, ITV health editor and Non-Executive Director of MedTate. “They do not, but they can accelerate clearance of a bug which is sensitive to antibiotics whilst an immune response is mounted.” In other words – always do what the doctor orders.

Both doctors are also keen to stress there is no magic trick that’s going to supercharge your immune system and, if you’re already sick, there’s very little immune boosting measures can do to help you get better. However, by adopting small changes to your everyday life you can make sure your body is in the best shape to fight any infection it may come across. Here’s what the experts suggest…

Get some fresh air

This may seem like slightly counter-intuitive advice given the UK’s current state of near lockdown but even standing on a balcony or in your garden for a few minutes everyday can do wonders for your health. “Sunlight helps the body boost its vitamin D levels, essential for immune modulation and support,” explains Barnish. “The fresh air will also give the body a break from poor ventilation and air conditioning or heating systems that can dry the mucous membranes and promote infection.” So be sure to make good use of that one walk a day, gents.

Reduce stress

Again, we’re aware this is a more stressful time than usual for most people, but both doctors argue that the energy exerted in worrying is a big barrier to boosting your immune system. Try focusing on the immediate issues you are in control of and stay away from social media to stop yourself spiralling into a void of coronavirus-induced panic. We also have some great tips on managing stress and anxiety during the pandemic here.

immune system food

Eat well

Consuming the right amount of high quality nutrients is essential to maintaining health and keeping your body running as it should. However, as Barnish points out, this can be harder than it initially seems. “Unfortunately, nutrition is often poorly misunderstood in the convenient, modern world. Even those that are eating healthy options may not be getting the nutrients they need,” he explains.

“Industrial farming, manmade animal feeds, pesticides and no crop rotation will leave even the healthiest salmon fillet or floret of broccoli lacking in goodness. Think about where your food comes from, how it was reared/farmed and the soil it was grown in. Wild caught fish, grass-fed animals, free range chickens and organic produce will ensure the food you eat will nourish your immune system and body as a whole.” He also suggests upping your intake of nuts, seeds and legumes which are all packed full of essential nutrients.

immune system exercise

Up your exercise

For Jones, exercise is the single most important habit you can adopt to improve your health long-term. “Exercise is a truly potent preventive measure against both mental and physical ill-health,” he explains. “It helps us sleep well and encourages release of the happy hormone serotonin which improves our mood. Exercise reduces blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. It also helps to normalise weight and reduce the effects of stress.” Don’t know about you but we’re sold.

Stop smoking

We shouldn’t have to spell this one out for you gents. We all know smoking is bad for us – and we’re looking at you too vapers. Plus, now we’re on lockdown it’s incredibly anti-social. The good doctors also suggest you refrain from drinking to excess. While we agree, we won’t begrudge you a Friday night Negroni or two in these troubling times.

immune system supplements

Consider supplements

If you’ve always shied away from your nearest Holland & Barrett for fear of long, complicated names and vague promises, now might be the time to consider adding a few supplements to your diet. Jones recommends Vitamin D (especially if you’re unable to go outside), zinc, Vitamin C, garlic and echinacea as all being helpful in supporting the immune system.

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