Can we actually BOOST our immune system?
By: Jenny Tschiesche BSc(Hons) Dip(ION) FdSc BANT
As the global pandemic has taken a hold over the past year, we have all been looking for ways to boost immunity. The idea of “boosting” our immune system may seem obvious. We hear it in the press, read about it online and we must therefore believe it is a universal goal. However, when we stop to consider what is meant by boosting our immune system we might start to wonder if it is a flawed concept. That is because if our immune system were too active, it would attack our own tissues, such is the case with autoimmune diseases.
Rather than thinking about boosting the immune system, it is better to think about keeping it healthy and balanced. What this means is that when our bodies face threats from invading microbes, our immune systems mount a proper response, not underactive nor overactive.
So instead of giving your immune system a boost, give it balance. You just want your immune system to work well, to do its job which is to defend your body against disease by fighting infection. Ideally, this balance will be created through both nutrition and lifestyle interventions. Not only do you need to eat and drink well there are some other important aspects of your health and wellbeing that need addressing for balance:
Getting insufficient sleep is linked to lowered immunity. Without sufficient sleep you are far more prone to getting sick when you are exposed to viruses and infection. Ideally, you’d get 7-9 hours of quality sleep a night.
Top Tip: try tart cherry juice which provides the sleep hormone melatonin, chamomile tea or passionflower tea, both sources of apigenin known to aid sleep. There is also some evidence that passionflower increases the production of the brain chemical gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) which works to inhibit other brain chemicals that induce stress.
A healthy digestive system is essential to support normal immune system function. The immune system needs certain nutrients to work effectively and to defend your body against pathogens.
Top Tip: Enjoy probiotic and prebiotic foods. Probiotics are found in cultured dairy products and unpasteurised fermented foods. Prebiotics include onions, garlic, leek, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, bananas, and jackfruit. Fibre also helps to keep your digestive system healthy by encouraging regular bowel movement so ensure your diet regularly includes whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Reduce Long Term Stress
In short spurts, cortisol (a stress hormone) can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. But over time, your body can get used to having too much cortisol in your blood and this lowers your immunity. In addition, stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection.
Top Tip: Diaphragmatic breathing helps expands the lungs and increases efficiency in oxygen absorption and supply. It strengthens the muscles of the chest, improves digestion and quality of sleep, and strengthens the immune system by reducing stress.
Stay Connected to Friends
Staying connected with friends, especially if they’re health-minded friends serves an indirect role in our immune system. Our friends and their habits and behaviours can encourage us to eat well, prioritise sleep and exercise frequently. Good friends also help to buffer the stress of negative events.
Top Tip: join a club or community with similar goals and beliefs to your own or simply make a regular date with a friend for a walk and talk.
Eat Mindfully and Practice Hara Bachi Bu
Eating too quickly is linked to a whole host of health issues including weight gain, insulin resistance and poorer digestion and immunity.
Top Tip: try to sit down to eat, without electronic devices. Take it slowly with pauses in between mouthfuls. Chew your food well. Hara bachi bu is the Okinawan phrase that refers to eating to only 80% full. This is a great habit to get in to from a health and immunity perspective.
Instead of concentrating on ‘boosting’ the immune system, a more useful approach is to think about ‘balance’, as a healthy immune system is one that sits in balance.