How to support and improve your immune health
Author Reena Reeves Last updated 7th January 2021 Ingredients & Nutrition
How to support and improve your immune health
Immune health and immunity continue to be high up on everyone’s agenda from a health perspective. From which foods to eat, which to avoid and which supplements might be helpful, the advice out there can be confusing and overwhelming. In this article we’re going to look at some of the ways you can support your immune health.
What can I do to improve my immune system?
If you want to keep your immune system functioning well it’s a good idea to try to get plenty of restful sleep, eat a balanced, healthy diet and take regular exercise. Research has shown strong evidence to suggest that sleep enhances our immune system defence,1 so it really does pay to ensure you’re getting at least 6-9 hours of sleep every night, which is how much the NHS recommends most adults need. If you find it hard to drop off then start to adopt a good night time routine that includes reduced screen time, relaxation techniques and limiting your alcohol/caffeine intake.
In terms of exercise, the NHS says that adults should do some type of physical activity everyday. Any type of activity is good (walking, cycling, jogging, gardening, DIY etc) and the more you do, the better.
What foods can boost my immune system?
We all know the importance of eating a well-balanced diet that contains plenty of fruit, vegetables, lean protein and some good fats. But there are specific foods that contain vital nutrients to help keep our immune system in tip-top shape. These include mushrooms, which are rich dietary sources of vitamin D; a key nutrient that supports normal function of the immune system. Aiden Goggins, an award-winning pharmacist, medical nutritionist and author, who is on our scientific advisory board, lists 7 foods to boost immunity, that he recommends including in our diet.
Foods that contain flavonoids
Another great way to support your immune system through your diet is to make sure you include foods that contain flavonoids. Flavonoids are plant molecules that are known for their multiple health benefits, including immune health. Quercetin , the most abundant flavonoid, naturally occurs in foods such as tomatoes, red onions, cabbages, berries, apples, broccoli, capers, tea and even wine, although the amount of quercetin in each of these foods does vary. As quercetin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s thought that it can indeed support the immune system. 2
Did you know that gut health can play a significant role when it comes to our immune health? Our gut is home to 70% of our immune cells so it deals with pretty much every aspect of our health. In recent years it’s been discovered that certain fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt are exceptionally good for our gut health as they contain live organisms (probiotics). 3 Take kimchi, for example. It’s made with cabbage, sugar, salt, onions, garlic, ginger, and chilli peppers and can provide up to a whopping 1 billion beneficial lactic acid bacteria per gram, making it far stronger than any probiotics you can buy. So if you’re looking to increase your fermented foods, adding a portion of these to your meals is a great way to start.
What vitamins and minerals are good for the immune system?
Even if you do your best to eat a healthy, balanced diet it can still be difficult to get enough of all the essential nutrients into your diet. Plus in many instances you would have to eat a lot of a certain food to truly gain the benefits. We’re talking kilos of tomatoes, mushrooms or broccoli. Throw other factors into the mix, such as poor gut health or a deficiency, and a high quality supplement can be helpful to give your immune system the support it needs to function normally. The micronutrients with the strongest evidence for supporting the immune system are vitamins C, D, Zinc and selenium4 but let’s take a closer look at why.
Dubbed the ‘sunshine vitamin’, vitamin D is essential for a number of vital functions in your body. In fact it’s so important that everything from the heart to the brain and immune system have vitamin D receptors. Vitamin D is synthesised in the skin from UV light. In the UK, we typically get enough from the sun in the summer months but still many of us are deficient in vitamin D 5, so it’s recommended to take a supplement in the winter months. In recent times the guidance has changed slightly, and we are now being advised to take it throughout the year if we can, due to spending more time indoors. 6
Vitamin C and Zinc
It’s long been heralded as the remedy to the common cold and many of us reach straight for vitamin c at the first sign of a sniffle. Although research evidence doesn’t support this fact, it is still true that vitamin C has a central role in the immune system. 7 Vitamin C is water soluble and we can usually get it through our diet from food such as oranges, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit, peppers, berries, tomatoes or vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. If you don’t think you’re consuming enough vitamin C through your diet, then a supplement can come in handy. Bear in mind that your body will only take what it needs and gets rid of the excess when you take a vitamin C supplement- so it’s better to take a small amount every day rather than a big dose whenever you remember (or feel poorly). Many vitamin C supplements also contain zinc, which is an essential nutrient when it comes to the functioning of the immune system 8. Zinc plays an important role in development and growth, and neurological functions. Zinc plays an important role for immunity and can affect how the immune system responds to inflammation and infection.
Does alcohol affect your immune system?
Research suggests that excessive amounts of alcohol can interrupt how the immune system works, and affect its ability to fight off infections. 9 As alcohol enters our body via the gastrointestinal system it alters the numbers and abundance of gut microbiomes. And as we mentioned earlier, we know these microorganisms are linked to immunity, as well as normal gut function. Researchers have also linked excessive alcohol consumption with pneumonia and acute respiratory illnesses, as well as certain cancers, sepsis and liver disease.
It’s clear that our immune systems are intricate and complex; there’s no quick fix or shortcut to ‘boosting’ your immunity rapidly. To keep your immune system functioning in an optimal way, you need to consider all the different aspects of immune health - sleep, diet, exercise and supplements, and include steps to nurture them, in your daily routine.
1. Yao Li, Jiaying Yao, Chunyan Han, Jiaxin Yang, Maria Tabassum Chaudhry, Shengnan Wang, Hongnan Liu, Yulong Yin Sleep and immune function.
2. Li Y, Yao J, Han C, Yang J, Chaudhry MT, Wang S, Liu H, Yin Y. Quercetin, inflammation and immunity. Nutrients. 2016; 8(3):167
3. Bell V, Ferrão J, Pimentel L, Pintado M, and Fernandes T One Health, Fermented Foods, and Gut Microbiota
4. Gombart AF, Pierre A, Maggini S. A Review of Micronutrients and the Immune System-Working in Harmony to Reduce the Risk of Infection
5. Afrozul H, Svobodová J, Imran S, Stanford C, Razzaque MS. Vitamin D deficiency: A single centre analysis of patients from 136 countries.
6. NHS: Advice on Vitamin D.
7.Carr AC, Vissers MCM. Synthetic or food-derived vitamin C-are they equally bioavailable?.
8. Dardenne M. Zinc and immune function.
9. Sarkar D, Ph.D.,Phil.D, Jung KM, Ph.D.,Wang HJ Ph.D. Alcohol and the Immune System .