As the weather gets colder and the nights draw in, the season of coughs and colds begins. Now is the perfect opportunity to build up your body’s natural defences.
Read on to understand the immune system and my three favourite tips for living well to stay well this Autumn and Winter.
What’s the purpose of your immune system?
Protection! It’s your body’s own natural defence system and it can protect you from getting the common cold and the flu. And it can also protect you from developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, and cancer.
How does the immune system protect us?
There are a variety of mechanisms through which your immune system keeps you healthy. The immune system is highly sophisticated when you start to delve into the layers, including the innate and the adaptive systems and their related defence mechanisms.
At a simple level, we can use the military analogy of an army protecting its territory. The immune system comprises an army of soldiers or specialist immune cells that exist in the white blood cells, and they identify enemies and effectively destroy them. The enemies could be a range of things, for example, foreign agents like bacteria and viruses and also defective body cells.
For the last 100 years or so, western medicine has focussed on drugs designed to destroy invaders on our behalf. Think about antibiotics, antiviral agents, and chemotherapy. These clearly have a legitimate time and place, but only recently does it feel like our attention is turning ‘within’ and back towards the natural methods that strengthen our own defences.
This is really important to recovery from illness and to preventative healthcare, as our ability to react rapidly to a new invader makes all the difference between a minor 24-hour cold or stomach bug, and a week in bed with flu or food poisoning.
My top 3 top things you can do to support your immune system?
With just a little effort, you can integrate some relatively simple things straight away into your daily being to help you build your natural defences:
1. Eat a variety of red foods
There is a vast and wonderful array of foods, herbs, spices which all support the immune system thanks to their wonderful anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties and there are a range of specific nutrients in foods which may help enhance the immune system.
However, what I wish to focus on here is red foods. Red is not an arbitrary selection, but because in our health red can be seen to symbolically represent the immune system, and many red vegetables and fruits are fantastic sources of antioxidant nutrients which can boost the strength of the immune system and neutralise or disarm potentially harmful chemicals called free radicals in the body which are produced by invaders to fight off the troops of the immune system.
When the production of free radicals overwhelms the body’s need for, and capacity to neutralise them, then cellular damage, inflammation, and chronic disease can result. Antioxidants are molecules that safely interact with free radicals and neutralise them, preventing them from causing damage and reduce the risk of oxidative stress.
There are a variety of antioxidant nutrients your body requires to assist with this process, and they need to be obtained from your diet. Examples of the powerful antioxidant nutrients present in red foods include vitamins C, and E, beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A), and a variety of polyphenol compounds such as lycopene, a powerful carotenoid that gives some red fruits and veg their colour, and anthocyanins which are in the flavonoid family.
Think about the red vegetables and fruits you are eating on a regular basis. How many of these could you name off the top of your head?
2. Support your Gut health with probiotic foods
If you think of your digestive tract of one of the main gateways into the body, the mucous membranes that line that tract are one of the first lines of defence against infectious agents or pathogens.
Because our intestines are inside our bodies, most people don't realise that it forms a protective barrier between our bloodstream and the external world. But in fact, your gut and your immune system are very closely linked, and 70 to 80 percent of immune tissue is situated in your digestive tract.
The vast ecosystem of friendly bacteria that reside in your digestive tract are another key form of defence - they have a powerful, beneficial effect on the gut's immune system, aid in the production of antibodies, and help regulate other functions of the digestive system, for example, stomach acid levels, which is also important for defence.
One of a number of factors which impacts our gut flora is antibiotic usage. Antibiotics do not discriminate well between infectious bacteria and commensal bacteria and consequently lead to more problems. So, to help ensure you don’t deplete your beneficial microflora, you may wish to try giving your body a chance to deploy its natural defences and do not pressure on your GP to prescribe antibiotics to you without adequate grounds to believe a persistent infection is present.
Overuse of antibiotics is also become a bigger problem for society at large as bacteria become resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics and we are seeing the emergence of super-bugs such as MRSA.
To strengthen your own gut flora defences, I recommend regularly eating one or more probtioic-rich foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, or natto. And consider taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement. If you are unsure where to start with this, please contact me and I will happily point you in the right direction.
3. Maintain gentle movement daily
Physical exercise is important for lymphatic drainage. The immune systems utilises the lymphatic vessels to bring any ‘invaders’ into its ‘forts’ such as the lymph nodes, tonsils, the appendix, spleen, and specialist patches in the digestive tract, from which the invaders can be destroyed. Since the lymphatic system has no pump, it relies on muscle movement to move lymphatic fluid.
Here are some key thoughts to consider when thinking about how your own activity levels are affecting your immune system:
Regular movement in natural daylight
Ensure calming forms of exercise form part of your activities
Be wary of over-exercising which can increase oxidative stress and create a burden on the immune system if it’s already taxed
Prone to being unwell when the cold weather hits and interested in what else you can do?
I have created an Autumn Reset eating plan which includes a super simple, mix-and-match, flavourful menu, perfect for those in need of seasonal inspiration and want to approach the winter months eating well, feeling well and looking well.
Find out more here >