Our immune system acts as our defence against invading germs. It is comprised of a complex set of tissues, cells and molecules specialised in defending 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 factors as described below.
What Affects Your Immunity?
Multiple environmental factors impact on our immune system function but by and large the most common factors include:
- Chronic stress
- Lack of sunshine (vitamin D)
- Lack of sleep
- Poor diet
- Lack of vitamin A, C, E, B6, B12 and folate
- Lack of zinc, iron and copper
- Certain medications such as corticosteroids and chemotherapy
- Long term pollution exposure
- Poor hygiene
These factors not only account for differences in individual immunity but may also account for why we may be healthy one year and then recurrently sick with infections the following year. It is not uncommon for me to encounter this in clinical practice whereby a patient who, for example, has been very emotionally stressed for a prolonged period of time finds that they are unable to shake a cold or flu virus where they have previously had a very resilient immune system. Once the stressful situation passes and life returns to normal the person’s immune function seems to be restored to previous levels.
Top Immune Boosters
The following strategies have been proven to be beneficial in boosting our immunity.
Reduce Stress Levels – high stress hormone levels can impair immunity and make us susceptible to recurrent infections. Consider taking a holiday and resting if you find that you are recurrently sick.
Try Hypnosis – there is some evidence to suggest that this may be beneficial 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 precipitate 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 established 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 function.
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 ginger. 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 percentage of our immune response lies in our gut and this immune response depends on the presence 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 susceptible 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 inexpensively 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 limiting the amount of hidden, processed sugar you consume 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 several 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 positive effect. Always choose good quality, pure products due to the effects of unknown additives in poorer quality products.
Consider, too, speaking with your healthcare practitioner if you are experiencing recurrent infections as this may be a sign of a specific medical condition requiring more specialised diagnosis and treatment. More than just a few infections per year, especially if they are severe in symptoms or take more than just a few weeks to completely clear, needs to be looked into further. Infections that suggest a compromised immune system include recurrent mouth ulcers and cold sores, genital herpes, as well as shingles. These all warrant further investigation to ensure there are no underlying health concerns.
Dr Cris Beer
Holistic Medical Doctor