It seems that for some of us our immune system starts to take a knock around this time of year. This could be due to the fluctuation in weather or being caught out in the cold. It may also be the colder weather prompting a change in diet and exercise. After all winter can be more tempting for comfort foods whereas physical motivation can be lacking.
This is where some proactive changes to a health routine, can provide an immune system boost for the colder months ahead. The immune system is complex so providing some support will require more effort than simply taking a pill. Like all body systems, to function well it requires balance and harmony, yet unfortunately its complexity means that it is hard to prove a direct link between lifestyle and immune function.
That has not stopped a great deal of research into the effect of such things as diet, exercise, age and other lifestyle factors on the immune response. Although these study findings may not be conclusive, there are some hints that point in the right direction, for providing the body with assistance in dealing with disease-causing micro-organisms.
A layered immune system
Viruses, bacteria, microbes, parasites and toxins are all around us, and the immune system is designed to keep them at bay. Sometimes though a bacteria or virus will get through and then the immune system will try to find and eliminate the germ before it becomes established. Should the bacteria or virus make itself at home then the immune system has to work harder to destroy it.
It is interesting to note that bacteria and virus differ greatly, with the former being able to grow on non-living surfaces and the latter needing a living host. Bacteria live in-between cells and some are helpful to the body, whereas all viruses are harmful, infiltrating a host cell to then change the cell’s function for the purpose of expansion.
Bacterial diseases vary from ear infections to food poisoning, and ulcers through to STD’s such as gonorrhoea. Viruses cause a wide variety of viral diseases including the flu, chickenpox and measles, as well as herpes, shingles and HIV. Some infections can be either bacterial or viral such as pneumonia and meningitis.
Thankfully the ‘system’ of our immune defences is made up of multiple layers, that protect the body against disease. The first stage of defence, are physical barriers such as the skin, coughing and vomiting, along with chemical barriers of fluid like saliva, tears, mucus, urine and stomach acid.
The second line of defence is a varied group of proteins and cells, along with one of the first responses of the immune system to infection, inflammation. The heat, swelling, redness, and pain caused by inflammation is a good thing as it signals increased blood flow, bringing with it components to protect and mend the site of the infection. Fever is also good in moderation, as it inhibits bacteria from growing, while increasing the rate of tissue repair.
The final layer of the immune system is either ‘genetic’ immunity, as in an inherited ability to resist certain diseases, or ‘acquired’. Acquired immunity can be either naturally through having been exposed to the disease before, or from antibodies in something like breast milk. It can also be artificial as in a vaccination, or from antibodies harvested from a donor, who has developed resistance against the toxins produced by a bacteria or virus.
Even though the immune system is complex and well equipped to protect against disease, it is inevitable that at some stage the body will deal with something unpleasant. Even so, the immune system is sure to benefit from any proactive health choices that are made. Whether it’s prevention by reducing the chances of illness, providing proper care and nutrition for the body or vaccinating against disease. Lessening the opportunities for sickness to take hold, will keep the immune system better balanced, for when we need it most.
Reducing potential pathogens
As pathogens are disease causing micro-organisms, such as bacteria or a virus, they are impossible to avoid, but the interaction we have with them can be reduced. Every time we touch a surface our hands come in contact with bacteria, which is followed by us involuntarily touching our faces. This happens quite regularly throughout the day, on an average of fifteen times an hour.
So good hand hygiene is a great start in keeping bacteria based diseases at bay, especially before preparing food or eating something. Washing cuts and grazes straight away will also prevent bacteria from taking a hold. Whether washing hands or a cut, ensure that skin is dried thoroughly as bacteria can stick to skin more easily when wet.
In fact bacteria love a wet and warm environment, so anything relating to food or good hygiene should stay right away. For example looking after a toothbrush by keeping it dry and in a holder, can help do it’s job of reducing bacteria in the mouth rather than introducing more to the body.
Good food hygiene that sees fresh food prepared, cooked and stored correctly will eliminate another potential source of bacteria and food poisoning. The ‘if in doubt, throw it out’ rule, as well as being selective where takeaway or restaurant food is bought, will pay off in the long run.
Sometimes to protect against potential sources of bacteria a little selfishness is required. Not sharing pens or bringing your own cutlery into work may be the difference between getting work done and using up your sick leave. There is even sense in doing away with the shaking of hands and replacing this with a nod, or a polite wave instead of a kiss, and this is especially so should one feel the initial symptoms of sickness.
Bolstering the body
Theories exist regarding the benefits of exercise to the immune system. These range from exercise helping to flush out bacteria from the airways or that increasing blood circulation assists immune cells circulation throughout the body. Other claims are that the increase in body temperature inhibits bacteria growth, and in doing so slows down the release of stress hormones that inhibit the immune system.
Yet links between a better functioning immune system and exercise are not known. On the other hand, if incentive is needed to meet the daily minimum requirement of thirty minutes of exercise, then look no further than the benefits to cardiovascular health and preventing such things as heart disease. As commonly stated, there are many advantages to incorporating exercise into the day. This can be as simple as a brisk walk instead of driving the car, or kicking a ball with someone instead of watching the evening news.
Much study has been devoted to the link between optimism and the biological process associated with physical health. Fostering a positive outlook, according to one study could influence immune changes in the context of stress. Stress can slowly wear us down physically and emotionally, so finding ways to cope, such as relaxation techniques like meditation, daily exercise, and stress-management techniques can help relieve pressure, is well worth the effort.
Stress and its relationship to immune system is difficult, as an emotional condition is hard to quantify, and therefore from a scientific perspective, immeasurable. Scientists can only measure that which is a reflection of stress, such as heart rate and blood pressure. This short lived sign of stress is different however to long term stressors caused by relationships or work challenges. There are known physical tolls for emotional stress, such as an upset stomach and heart disease, yet the effect on the immune system can only be loosely related. For overall health though, avoiding stress where possible will at least benefit health in some way, even if purely by its absence.
Any of these stress factors could affect sleep, further compacting the effectiveness of the immune system. Ensuring your body has seven to nine hours quality sleep each evening will give the body the rest it needs to recharge and recuperate. Just like we train children, going to sleep and rising at the same time each day will put the body into a better rhythm, and this can also be applied to when we eat or exercise.
Socialising is also good for the body, so living a less hectic lifestyle will allow time for catching up with family and friends or following a social activity. It is also a good chance to relax, have a laugh and lift the spirits. On the other hand contact with people can also increase your chances of contracting a virus so choose your interactions wisely.
There is little evidence in the claim that exposure to sunlight, and more specifically UV radiation, in small doses is beneficial to the immune system. Nonetheless it is a fact that the body is designed to produce large amounts of Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight. This vitamin and others are beneficial not just to the immune system but tho the function of the body as a whole.
A healthy diet and using supplements
Being deficient in some vitamins and minerals will create problems, as they are essential for small metabolic reactions to take place in the body. For the most part though a healthy diet will provide sufficient levels of vitamins and minerals. However as part of investigating overall health, your doctor can test for vitamins and minerals deficiencies in a health check up.
Whether by eating the foods that contain them or by taking them as supplements, a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals each day will keep the body in good shape. In particular vitamins C, E, ,B6, ,A, and D, as well as iron, folic acid, copper, zinc and selenium are essential.
Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, will take care of vitamin C, iron and folic acid, whilst nuts and seeds, like almonds and sunflower, are great for vitamin E. Tuna or other fatty fish, or legumes such as chickpeas, contain vitamin B6, and colourful foods like carrots and sweet potatoes are great for vitamin A. Oily fish like salmon and tofu are good for vitamin D as are mushrooms, whilst oysters are an excellent source of both copper, zinc and selenium. Other immune friendly foods are papaya, pineapple , wheatgrass, ginger, garlic, turmeric and anything involving citrus or berries.
Taking vitamins and minerals in their natural form requires effort, so in some cases having them as supplements may be warranted due to being busy, or having limited access to fresh fruit, for example whilst travelling. Supplements should be taken to fill the gaps in vitamin deficiency, rather than as an ‘immunity booster’ as some products claim.
The main thing with any diet or supplements is constancy, as eating well one day and not the next will mean that the body has an irregular supply of nutrients to draw upon. The other benefit of eating a balanced diet with fresh food is that this can help promote healthy gut bacteria. This will help prevent disease causing bacteria from taking root in the stomach tissues.
Unhealthy habits like too much sugar, smoking, excess weight or excessive drinking, will be counter productive to the benefits of any of these body bolstering techniques, as will the health related issues that come with them, such as high blood pressure.
Vaccination against disease
Today more than ever we are globally connected and as such it is easy for disease to travel too. Vaccinations throughout our lives protect us against illnesses such as shingles, influenza and hepatitis B, yet thousands die each year from vaccine-preventable disease. Vaccinations are important for giving the body a head start in fighting infection, and as immunity weakens with age, having a flu vaccination, especially if over the age of 65 years of age, is wise.
There is a lot of debate regarding vaccination, especially with immunisation for children, yet strong data from various medical investigators supports the safety of vaccines. Regardless the decision to vaccinate is a personal one and any concerns you may have about them can be discussed in detail with your doctor.
Other than seeing your doctor if you do become ill, preventive measures when you first notice that the body is fighting infection can help the immune system. Drinking enough fluids is essential, as is taking medicine such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to bring a temperature down. Resting at home has a dual benefit of allowing the body to conserve energy for fighting infection, whilst making sure the exposure of the bacteria or virus is limited in its access to others.
Whether or not these lifestyle changes will give your immune system the upper hand is debatable. Yet the simple fact is, if any of these changes reduce your frequency of sickness and make you feel good, then stick with them. If you do happen to get sick, then just look on the bright side and trust that the immune system, will reward you for your efforts.