Our immune system acts as our defence against invading germs. It is comprised of a complex set of tissues, cells and molecules specialised in protecting against infections. When our immune system is functioning optimally infections are kept at bay.
There is, however, often a degree of variance between different people and the efficiency of their immune systems. This can be due to genetic differences in immune function but also due to some environmental influences as described below.
What Affects Your Immunity?
Several environmental influences impact on our immune system function but by and large the most common factors include:
- Lack of sleep
- Poor diet
- Lack of vitamin A, C, E, B6, B12 and folate
- Lack of zinc, iron and copper
- Chronic stress
- Lack of sunshine (vitamin D)
- Certain medications such as corticosteroids and chemotherapy
- Long term pollution exposure
- Poor hygiene
These factors not only justify differences in individual immunity but may also account for why we may be healthy one year and then repeatedly sick with infections the following year.
Top Immunity Boosters
The following strategies have been proven to be beneficial in increasing our immunity.
- Reduce Stress Levels – high stress hormone levels can impair immunity and make us vulnerable to recurrent infections. Consider taking a holiday and resting if you find that you are often sick.
- Try Hypnosis – there is some evidence that this may be useful in improving immunity in cases of viral illnesses including herpes and the common cold.
- Get Enough Sunshine (& Vitamin D) – studies suggest that vitamin D deficiency may rapid the development of autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases are those in which the immune system starts to attack our own bodies and includes diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and type 1 diabetes. There is no well-known cause for autoimmune diseases but one growing area of research suggests that having adequate vitamin D levels may help to prevent these diseases from developing.
- Sleep Well – poor sleep quality and not getting enough sleep has been linked to increased susceptibility to the common cold. It is important to get a good night’s sleep to protect our immune system function.
- Move – studies confirm that exercise helps to boost our immune system function.
- Deep Breathe – there is some research to suggest that deep breathing techniques help to boost immune system function1.
- Eat Immune Boosting Foods – eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish helps to boost our immune systems; as does moderate amounts of cocoa/dark chocolate, green tea, oysters and shiitake mushrooms.
- Add Some Spice – the spices turmeric and paprika may help to improve immune system function as does garlic and ginger1. Try adding these into your cooking.
- Boost Omega 3 – omega 3 fish oil has been shown to boost immune function by activating B-cells, which is a key component involved in forming long-term immunity. Consider supplementing your family’s diet with a good quality omega 3 fish oil, especially if your family does not regularly consume omega 3–rich fish like salmon, tuna, herring, sardines or mackerel.
- Take Probiotics – a large proportion of our immune response lies in our gut and this immune response depends on the existence of beneficial bacteria that live in our gut; namely the lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species. If there is an imbalance of bacteria living in our gut due to lifestyle, stress, medication use, or other factors then we may become more vulnerable to infections. Try taking a good-quality probiotic daily if you are experiencing recurrent infections. There is some current thinking that fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi might be a more bioavailable way to introduce probiotics into our intestinal tracts. These can be made at home and a small amount eaten regularly.
- Increase Vitamin C – this is a key nutrient to improve immunity. Many fruits and vegetables do not contain the required daily amounts due to food processing practices. Consider taking up to 1000 mg a day in the winter months.
- Increase Zinc – likewise, zinc is also a key ingredient required for immune function. Zinc is found in animal products, beans, nuts and certain types of seafood. In winter months consider taking a zinc supplement of around 25–30 mg a day.
- Reduce Sugar – sugar intake can inhibit immune function. Consider reducing the amount of hidden, processed sugar you eat such as that found in breakfast cereals, muesli bars, biscuits and lollies.
- Consider Herbal Medicine – if you find that you just cannot seem to shake an infection you can try herbal medicines containing Astragalus and/or Echinacea. Astragalus is commonly used in Chinese medicine and has been shown in numerous studies to help modulate immune function. Echinacea has been shown to be helpful in the early treatment of the common cold reducing its severity and duration. Also, specifically for urinary tract infections, concentrated cranberry extract may be helpful. Avoid drinking cranberry juice – rather take it in capsule form as sugar is often added to sweeten the juice product. Other herbs such as olive leaf extract, mushroom extract, and green tea extract are yet to be properly evaluated in research but may have a good effect. Always choose good quality, pure products due to the effects of unknown additives in poorer quality products.