Even at the best of times we can worry about getting ill. In the midst of a fear-filled medical pandemic, it can be all-consuming. Here’s how to boost your immune system.
The truth is that we are not just at the mercy of random ill fortune. Yes, chance may play a role, but there are other players in the game too. Aspects that we do actually have control over.
These are things like diet, exercise, getting sunshine, and managing stress levels. You can be gently proactive in keeping you and your loved ones out in front. Both for disease prevention, but also so that if you do get ill, you are in a stronger position to deal with it.
The wonder of your immune system
The immune system never ceases to impress me. There are so many interactive layers, checks and balances, and astoundingly clever processes. Your immune system is complex and wonderful – and powered by food. You need specific nutrients to keep it healthy and strong. The good news is that you can eat fairly simply to boost your immune system.
Below are some key foods that help you to make and regulate white blood cells and antibodies. First, however, we need to look at an equally important part of your immune system: your protective barriers.
Protective barriers – your first line of defence
These include your skin, the mucous membranes lining your airways, and digestive tract. To keep these healthy and intact you need:
Water plumps up your skin, keeps it flexible and strong, and helps you make protective mucus. You breathe, wee, poo and sweat out about four litres a day, on average, and you need to get about half that back in what you drink, and the rest in your food. Soups and salads, for example, are far more hydrating than toast and sandwiches.
2. Vitamin A
Liver, eggs, shrimps and cheese are the best sources of vitamin A. You can also convert beta carotene from orange and green leafy vegetables into vitamin A, but not necessarily very efficiently. So vegans will need to eat lots of these daily.
3. Vitamin C
Fruit is a great source, but also green leafy vegetables, herbs, sauerkraut and onions, as long as they’re all raw. So a nice herby coleslaw should do the trick.
4. Vitamin D
Anti-inflammatory and protective against a number of disease, vitamin D is particularly useful for gut and skin health. Your best source: sunshine.
Nuts and seeds, especially pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, lamb, chicken and beef are all great sources of zinc. Soak nuts and seeds overnight in water to make the zinc more bioavailable.
You just need two or three Brazil nuts to get your daily selenium fix, or some oily fish.
7. Dietary oils
Another reason to eat oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and also nuts and seeds.
8. Fermented foods
These help keep a balanced, actively protective microbiome – the bacteria and other microbes largely in your colon, but also lining all your mucous membranes and your skin. Think sauerkraut, blue cheese, kefir, yoghurt, kim chi, and unfiltered apple cider or balsamic vinegar.
Like this article? You might like to read about how to boost your oestrogen too
White blood cells
Now, it just happens that many of these nutrients also keep your white blood cells in shape. You have lots of different types of these super cells, including Natural Killer Cells, cytotoxic T cells and more.
Natural Killer Cells are always on patrol, looking out for cells that are showing signs of cancer or viral infection and killing them. Cytotoxic T cells have a similar function, but have to be specifically activated and will only kill cells that your body has developed antibodies to.
Vitamins A, C and D help you to make healthy white blood cells and help them to carry out various functions well.
Selenium helps regulate T cells, and has been shown to stop some kinds of virus mutating to a more severe form. Zinc is crucial to the number, function and balance of nearly all your white blood cells. Clinical trials have shown zinc to reduce infection rates in both children and the elderly.
Natural killer cells additionally need vitamins B6, B12 and folate. It’s hard to get B12 on a vegan diet without supplements, but regular meat, fish and eggs will provide good levels of B12. Green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes and cauliflower are great for B6, and you can get good levels of folate from lentils, green leafy vegetables, broccoli and cauliflower.
The first time you are exposed to a bacteria or virus, for example, your immune system quickly learns what it looks like, and assigns it unique antibodies. These antibodies can help destroy or neutralise that specific bacteria or virus if it appears again, or activate relevant cytotoxic T cells plus a whole cascade of inflammatory substances.
To make plenty of antibodies, you need sufficient protein in your diet. Perhaps 25% of each meal you eat. If you are vegan, then have pulses (beans, lentils, peas) at least once a day, plus nuts, seeds and grains to get your full amino acid profile.
Your immune-boosting plate
To give your immune system everything it needs to do its job well and regulate its activity, you need to feed it well. Mealtimes should generally include:
– A little meat, eggs or fish if you eat them, or pulses
– A sprinkling of nuts and/or seeds
– A generous handful of green leafy veg
– A variety of other vegetables
– A little sauerkraut, yoghurt, unfiltered vinegar or something fermented
This will provide you with a broad range of immune-supportive nutrients, plus natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and heaps more besides. Remember to include soups, stews and salads in addition to drinking a good couple of litres of plain water daily (not all in one go!)
The most important thing if you’re planning to boost your immune system, however, is to keep it simple and enjoyable. If you hate cooking, then find quick and easy recipes. Batch cook so you’re not spending all your time in the kitchen. And take time to sit down and savour each mouthful. Stress is a real immunity thief, so try not to add to what’s already there. Keep calm and eat your greens!
For more advice on your health and nutrition I’m running online courses. Find out more at my Connect with Nutrition site. Comment below if you have any questions about this article.
Kirsten has been talking nutrition for over a decade in workshops, on university and college courses, on retreats and to the hundreds of people who have come to her for one-to-one consultations. Find her www.connectwithnutrition.co.uk