Immune Health. Continuing the second part of my nutrition and lifestyle naturopathic approaches to support your immunity.
Step 6: The restorative power of sleep
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?
Step 7 –Appropriate Exercise
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.
Step 8: The Impact of Stress and natural ways to alleviate it
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.
Step 9: Support good lymph flow
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.
Step 10: Emotional Wellbeing
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.