Your immune system is a complex matrix of cells and systems that works cohesively to protect against illness. Whether you succumb to viruses often comes down to the state of your body—with stress, tiredness and nutrition all playing a part.
The body’s natural defence system against pathogens (bacteria, viruses and microorganisms that cause disease), the immune system also promotes effective cellular repair. The key players are infection-fighting white blood cells, lymphocytes, which travel around the body through the bloodstream, and lymphatic vessels, which are stored in the lymphoid organs—these include adenoids (at the back of the nasal passage), blood vessels, bone marrow, lymph nodes, the spleen, the small intestine, the thymus and tonsils.
To support your immune system, there are some things you can do before reaching for the antibiotics (which, in any case, will only tackle bacterial infections). Here are Vogue’s top seven tips to boost your immunity.
1. An antioxidant-rich diet
While vitamin C is high on the list when it comes to staving off colds and viruses, antioxidants in general offer huge support to the immune system, reducing cell death and promoting the development of white blood cells, which are key to destroying harmful bacteria.
Antioxidants also play a key role in repairing damaged DNA and boosting the body’s ability to repair itself. Free radicals essentially prompt an inflammatory response in the cells, while antioxidants work to neutralise them and reduce this response.
Food is the best possible source of antioxidants, so add some of the following to your shopping list: berries, dark chocolate, artichoke, coffee, kidney beans, green tea, apples, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables and oily fish.
2. Garlic protection
An ancient remedy for illness that is proven to have multiple health benefits, garlic has long been considered a superfood.
The active compound found in garlic, allicin, has antibacterial properties that can help to prevent illness and infection. The benefits are ultimately in its anti-inflammatory properties, which help to keep the immune system working at its best.
A study by the Journal of Immunology Research found that allicin has a direct effect on boosting white blood cell count too, which fights free radicals and harmful bacteria. The best way to take garlic is to include it in your cooking or in supplementary form.
3. Good gut health
Over 70 per cent of the body’s immune cells are located in the gut walls, which explains why good gut health is key to healthy bodily function. The digestive system plays an important role in metabolising the body’s toxins as part of our natural detoxifying system.
An increase in fibre and roughage will help to keep moving any toxins through the gut swiftly. The fibre in particular has a direct impact on improving microbiomes located within the digestive walls.
It’s also worth introducing a good quality pre- and probiotic supplement into your diet.
4. Keep moving
A study by the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal has shown that regular brisk walking increases the circulation of white blood cells. The main purpose of these immune cells is to kill any sickness-causing pathogens. The same benefits can be harnessed with regular weight (resistance) training too, which increases the heart rate and the body temperature (another factor that contributes to killing bacteria). This study, however, also came with a caveat: any exercise done for 75 minutes or longer at a high intensity causes a spike in hormones, which can compromise the immune system. So, a balance of low and high intensity is key—and if you’re starting to feel under the weather, don’t go all out, but do keep moving.
5. A good night’s sleep
The benefits of good, restful, rejuvenating sleep are endless, including its impact on the immune system. Research by the Pflügers Archiv – European Journal of Physiology has shown that ample sleep and a balanced circadian system (the body and brain’s sleep/wake cycle) will improve the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines (substances secreted by the immune system) and killer cells, improving the body’s ability to fight off infections.
6. Cut down on alcohol
If you break down the macros in alcohol, you’re essentially looking at pure sugar. When consumed in excess, sugar and/or alcohol are major culprits in reducing the body’s ability to produce white blood cells, which means you’re more likely to succumb to viruses and bugs. In the longer term, alcohol can seriously compromise immune cell function, making your body more susceptible to disease. To cut down, try low-alcohol alternatives and alternating every alcoholic drink with a glass of water.
7. The best immune-boosting supplements
Vitamin D: Promotes bone health and plays a role in regulating calcium.
Glutamine: An amino acid that can help to feed your gut, promote recovery in the cells and support the immune system function.
Vitamin C: Replenishing vitamin C levels when you’re feeling run-down is a great way to support flagging energy levels.
Zinc: An unsung hero, zinc is key in activating T-cells, which help to support the immune cells’ activity. Taking a zinc supplement can help to shorten the lifespan of symptoms of colds and flu.
Echinacea: Best taken in tincture form, the antiviral and antimicrobial properties of echinacea can support immune system function enormously. It has potent adaptogenic effects, which reduce stress and can strengthen the immune system indirectly.