Immune Health. Continuing the second part of my nutrition and lifestyle naturopathic approaches to support your immunity.
Increasingly scientists are discovering how powerful sleep is to your overall health.
Sleeping 7-8 hours per night is associated with healthy ageing. And your immune system relies on good quality sleep for optimum function. A lack of sleep has been shown to depress immune function. When you sleep your body enters the growth and repair phase. New cells are produced which include all those associated with your immune system. Various white blood cells that fight infections are increased, mobilised and function is enhanced.
Lack of sleep is an unfortunate 21st century problem. The busy “always connected” lifestyle does not help. Aim to introduce a sleep routine to create a good night-time habit. Banish blue light ( from phones and gadgets) by turning them off at least two hours before bedtime. Blue light interferes with the production of melatonin from the pineal gland and makes it harder to unwind and fall asleep. Modern LED lights may have the same effect. You can buy glasses that block the blue light but I’d recommend reducing gadget usage as the information overload also acts as a stimulus.
Try to increase your exposure to natural light during the day as this helps the natural body clock and recognise when it is time for sleep. Ensure your bedroom is a cool 17c and your curtains are dark or use black-out blinds or lining.
Try to follow a relaxing evening routine: an evening bath with lavender, read a book or watch a relaxing TV show. Night-time is not the best time to watch a thriller! A small snack before bed can also be beneficial to help you stay asleep, but only do this if the tips above do not work. A very small banana alongside some nut butter; 2 kiwi fruits; cottage cheese on two oat cakes. All are shown to aid sleep.
What steps can you take tonight to help you achieve a good night’s sleep?
We tend to group together exercise as one activity and classify it all as healthy. But it is not as straight forward as that. We need to understand the impact of exercise intensity on the body’s immune system.
From an immune enhancing or degrading perspective, undertaking excessive high impact intensive cardio exercise may act as an immune suppressor, reducing important immune fighting cells and their efficiency, causing inflammation and oxidative stress. Athletes training for important competitions may be more at risk to coughs and colds but should be following a nutrition programme to help alleviate this outcome.
For those of us who like to train hard, care should be taken to ensure nutrition status is kept high. As a minimum, follow my Steps 1-5 discussed in my daily posts.
For most of us physical exercise should have an immune stimulating effect. It does not have to be overly strenuous. Walking for 30 minutes a day has been shown to stimulate immune response and white blood cell production. It helps circulation enabling immune cells and substances to travel freely through the body and carry out their job.
In one American study women who walked for a half-hour every day for 1 year had half the number of colds as those who didn’t exercise. In another study, researchers found that in 65-year-olds who did regular exercise, the number of T-cells — a specific type of white blood cell — was as high as those of people in their 30s
Moderate exercise may be the best for immune health. And building up your fitness levels gradually. Aim for 150 – 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week or 5 lots of 30 – 60 minutes. Walking, running, dancing and cycling are all options we can do at this time.
Movement is the key. So spend less time sitting and more time moving to really support our health overall.
When we are stressed, the body goes into a state of “fight or flight”. This is perfectly natural and designed to mobilise the body’s systems and prime the body for action to move us from a state of danger. Adrenaline is the immediate hormone that tells the body to respond to danger. Cortisol – a second stress hormone – responds more slowly and takes longer to decline.
Stress has a negative effect on immunity since cortisol suppresses the immune response and number of white blood cells making it harder to fight infections.
Unfortunately in the modern world we can find ourselves in a stressed state more often than not, leading to chronically raised cortisol and a less efficient immune system.
I recommend that you first look at your diet as there are two actions that will help you cope better with stress AND help to stop an unnecessary adrenaline release. Aim to keep blood sugar levels stable (by eating less refined carbohydrates and a diet rich in protein and good fats) throughout the day. And lower your intake of stimulants like tea, coffee and alcohol. I recommend a maximum of two cups of tea/coffee a day and alcohol free days always being mindful of the government guidelines of 14 units a week men and women.
Also introduce some time throughout the day to still your mind. Whether this is deep breathing exercises, a walk in fresh air, yoga, meditation or using a specially designed App. These activities help to turn off the fight or flight switch and move your body into “rest and digest” calm state.
Finally look at your sleep patterns and exercise. I have spoken about both of these in my daily posts (Steps 6 and 7). As you can see, taking a fully holistic approach to your health really does influence the effectiveness of your immune system.
The lymphatic system is an essential part of our immune system. It is a network of vessels that drains waste from tissues back into the bloodstream. It is also home to many immune fighting white blood cells and lymph nodes that filter out pathogens. And it helps mature certain immune cells.
Unlike the circulatory system the lymphatic system does not have a pump (like the heart) to keep the lymph fluid flowing around the body. Naturopaths believe that poor lymph flow can contribute to a lack of vitality due to its essential roles in removal of waste and immunity. Helping congested lymph is important to our overall health.
There are a number of naturopathic techniques that we can all practice at home. The first is to keep moving. This does not have to be strenuous exercise but movement of all body parts. If you find you are sitting for long periods of time try circling ankles, lifting and lowering legs and the rotation of arms in their shoulder joints.
Deep breathing really helps to move the diaphragm and support the movement of the lymphatic vessels in the chest. Skin brushing helps to stimulate the lymph capillaries that lie close to the skin surface. I frequently recommend dry skin brushing to clients using a long handled brush or an exfoliating mitt prior to showering. Take long strokes from the bottom of the feet, up the legs and arms and body and always in the direction of the heart.
This final tip may not seem so appealing but it really is beneficial! Finishing your showers with a short cold water boost has been found to support the production of white blood cells as well as helping circulation. 30-90 seconds is the optimum time (hence “short cold”). This is a natural hydrotherapy technique still practiced in Germany today.
I hope this has given you an insight into why it is important to support the lymphatic system for good health and immunity.
Researchers have found a wealth of evidence that positive emotions can enhance the immune system, while negative emotions can suppress it. We now understand that there is a constant interaction between our mind and body so logically there is a correlation between mental and physical health.
Research has shown how infections last longer and wounds take longer to heal when there is stress or trauma. The immune system can be suppressed for several hours after an argument. However, when there is positive interaction such as having fun with friends and family and laughter it has a positive effect on our immune system for several hours after.
So how can we create a positive sense of wellbeing? Certainly fun and laughter are important but it is unrealistic to spend all our time in this state of mind. Social interaction is important. This does not have to be face to face. Phone contact is just as valuable.
Relaxation calms the nervous system. There are so many ways to do this from deep breathing and meditation to a good walk or sitting in the garden and listen to the birds.
It’s helpful to stop every so often and consider whether you live your life in accordance with your life purpose. What motivates you? What brings meaning to your life? Sometimes our jobs and lifestyle do not match our true values. This may seem a bit deep but when we start to think about what makes us happy or unhappy it is often our life purpose that is at the root to the problem.
So consider what brings you joy. What makes you calm and contented. What makes you happy. And try to spend time each day focused on these factors. Our emotional wellbeing is just as important to our immune system as nutrition.
Immune Support. I write this at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic when we fear a new and novel virus that has the ability to infect many and potentially kill many thousands of people. The fear is generated when we feel we have no control over the situation. It’s understandable as very little that is said about how the human body fights infections every day. But the body does and can fight infections. And it will do this with this new virus and new ones that will occur in the years to come.
But like every other organ and system of the body, we need to support it so that it can be strong and mount an effective response. Here I’ll talk you through my ten step plan to help build a strong immune system.
Our immune system- this wonderful complex system of specialised cells and antibodies that has enabled the human race to survive and thrive.
By definition the immune system mounts defences to fight infection or disease. There are two arms to it: the innate system that acts quickly and attacks anything foreign it comes into contact with; and the acquired system that learns to recognise a specific bacteria, virus or pathogen and send out specific antibodies to neutralise the threat and prevent it from proliferating. The acquired system is much slower to act as it has to be mobilised once it recognises the “antigen” but once it does it is highly effective.
What is Vitamin D’s significance to immunity? It has a very significant and pro-active role in the function of the immune system as immune cells have vitamin D receptors. It helps to enhance the function of the immune cells. Low levels have been shown to enhance susceptibility to infections. Vitamin D also helps to modulate your immune response (meaning it is neither too weak or too strong). If immune signals are not turned off at the appropriate time it can lead to autoimmune conditions.
Check your Vitamin D levels and if it’s Winter (October-March inclusive) supplement 400IU daily of Vitamin D3 ideally a sub-lingual formula as this is effectively absorbed straight into the bloodstream. These are actual NHS guidelines but very few people seem to know this or possibly do not understand the significance of the advice.
Vitamin D (actually a hormone) is activated from sunlight coming into direct contact with the skin. In the Winter in the Northern hemisphere the sun has too little UVB to provide sufficient vitamin D plus our bodies are covered in clothing. In the Summer it is important to allow some exposure to skin with no suntan lotion without burning: -20 minutes a day is ideal.
Can we obtain vitamin D from food? Yes from fatty foods (oily fish like salmon, egg yolks, dairy like butter and cheese) but for optimum levels we require sunlight on our skin.
In March our vitamin D stores will be at their lowest after the long winter (unless you’ve been fortunate to have some foreign sunny holiday).
There is a difference between “deficiency” and “optimal” levels and whilst no one optimum vitamin D level has been defined the MS Trust suggests a level of 75nmol/L. However by the end of Winter approx. 40% of the population has an average Vitamin D level of <25nmol/L (SACN 2016).
When you can, get out in the sunshine, expose your arms and soak up your daily dose of vitamin D.
How are humans similar to guinea pigs? We are the only mammals who cannot manufacturer vitamin C so must obtain it from our diets!
This unassuming vitamin has remarkable immune fighting properties. So much so that whilst you don’t hear these stories in the media, other countries use intravenous vitamin C to help fight viral infections.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that you look to do this, but optimising your intake of vitamin C is a simple, low cost and safe option that is high up on my immune fighting protocols.
Vitamin C is involved in the fight against infections by helping to speed up the production of immune fighting cells. It has anti-viral properties that has been shown in research to help prevent a virus from entering cells (where it replicates). It is also a powerful antioxidant scavenging and neutralising free radicals helping to prevent damage to cells.
Whilst we have an “RDA” level of just 60mg, this is set at a level designed to prevent disease (scurvy), but is not a level designed for optimal health. Most nutritional therapists often recommend much higher dosages. As a water soluble vitamin, the excess is excreted if not required and in very high dosages this may lead to loose stools. It my experience this is unlikely to occur in dosages of 1000mg per day.
For some people the acid based formulas may irritate the stomach lining so choose a gentle version using calcium ascorbate or “Ester C” instead. Try to choose one with flavonoids as they have a complementary effect together and a “time release” formula so that there is a “drip feed” of the vitamin into the bloodstream, helpful as the vitamin cannot be stored in the body.
We tend to think of oranges having the highest vitamin C levels, but they are not top of the list. The following foods are rich sources: dark green leafy vegetables (kale, cabbage, broccoli, parsley, Brussels Sprouts, cauliflower), kiwi fruits, peppers, cherries, berries, tomatoes, lemons. And at this time of year (April), why not go and (carefully) collect nettle leaves and make a soup (I promise the cooked leaves do not sting). It’s free, extremely healthy and tasty too!
In very simple terms what I mean by this is a vegetable rich, processed food and refined sugar free diet. It’s common sense isn’t it? But can you honestly say that your diet matches this description?
Processed food is high in cheap processed fats, chemicals and sugar delivers no nutritional benefit to your body. In fact your body may utilise more nutrients metabolising this “junk” creating what is known as a nutritional debt. Other than the obvious signs like sluggishness, poor sleep, mood swings and difficulty coping with stress, you are not giving your organs and cells the fuel to thrive. And in the context of this article, it will impair the immune system. After sugar consumption it has been shown to suppress the immune system for up to five hours.
What do I mean by a “vegetable” rich diet? If you struggle to achieve “5 a day” on vegetables (not fruit) you are in for a shock. I bang on about this all the time, but an ideal diet is closer to “10 a day” with the majority from vegetables. Vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals. They are high in fibre (that keeps our gut healthy). And compounds called phytonutrients- plant based nutrients like flavonoids- that confer their health benefits to humans. When you look at your plate (lunch and dinner), half should be covered in vegetables.
Why not fruit you may ask? Do enjoy a couple of pieces of fruit a day but be aware of the sugar content. And aim for as much diversity and colour of vegetables as possible. Go on- try something new this week!
Avoid refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, rice, crackers and the foods they are baked in) and choose wholegrain every time, but keep portions low. We really don’t need more than 20% of our plate in these starchy foods. The remainder of your plate should be protein with good fats.
I’m no saint and don’t expect my clients to be either. So think of the Pareto rule and aim for (at least) 80% of your diet fitting these healthy rules and aim for a maximum 20% less healthy. In fact, 90:10 ratio would be even better! Enjoy an occasional biscuit, but pile up those vegetables every day. You’ll be surprised how good it makes you feel. And think of the boost it is giving your immunity too.
Did you know that 70% of your immune system is in your gut? Like elsewhere in the body, the gut contains high amounts of specialist lymphatic tissue. This is home to white blood cells which fight infection. Some produce antibodies which attach to foreign invaders, some alert other cells to danger and some literally devour the invader!
A healthy mucosal lining traps bacteria and secretes its own anti-microbial compounds and the powerful Secretory IgA (SIgA) secretes antibodies that prevent pathogens penetrating the mucosal lining. This is also found in the respiratory tract.
Not forgetting the 100 trillion bacteria “microbiota” which reside in the colon – ten times the cells in your body. When we have a healthy diversity of beneficial (commensal) bacteria it promotes resilience and defence against pathogens. And with greater numbers of these bacteria it crowds out the bad pathogenic ones. By providing a home to these bacteria they provide innumerable health benefits to us that we are only just beginning to understand.
As a specialist in gut health, I frequently see poor gut health status: low levels of beneficial bacteria, extremely low SIgA, leaky gut, an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria. The body is unable to mount a strong immune response.
What can we do? Following a high fibre diet is essential. A very high vegetable diet, with berries, nuts, seeds, pulses and brown rice should be the foundation of your diet. The average fibre intake is 17g when we require 30g/day. Aim to consume 40 different plant foods each week to obtain various plant compounds and fibre which feed these gut bugs. Different bacteria require different fibre sources. And in turn they produce compounds that keep the gut healthy.
Slowly increase your fibre intake whilst increasing your fluid intake to 2L per day. Initially it may cause some flatulence as the good bacteria start to feed and grow, so don’t give up it should settle! There is so much more to gut health but follow my Steps 3 and 4 and you’re on the right path.
These are both trace minerals. And whilst only required in small amounts they may be deficient in people’s diets. But both are essential for the immune system so we should take care to be eating foods that are a rich source of each.
Zinc has a crucial immune role. It is involved in the normal development and function of most immune fighting cells. It helps immune cells fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Some studies have shown that supplementation may shorten the length of the common cold but it should only be taken short-term.
The richest source by far is oysters! More common foods are meat, seafood, dark meat of poultry, dairy, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas and almonds.
Selenium is essential for an efficient and effective immune response. A low selenium status has been shown to correspond with an impaired immune response to viral infections. Selenium consumption is considered to be declining in part as our soils tend to be more deficient in this mineral. Plants and animals eating the plants are not obtaining the levels they once did and therefore humans may have a lower intake too.
The richest sources are organ meat, seafood and brazil nuts. It’s also found in meats, wholegrains, eggs and dairy.
As I mentioned in Step 3, you can see why eating a dense wholefood diet is essential to obtain these less well known nutrients.