Taking medication like cough syrups and painkillers in order to treat illnesses only addresses these symptoms, but does not solve the underlying problems. Additionally, excessive use of antibiotics has been shown to cause potentially dangerous and irrevocable long-term consequences due to the disruption they cause to the gut’s friendly bacteria (1).
There are a number of ways you can take preventive action to boost your immune system.
1. Up your nutrient intake
The immune system requires lots of nutrients to function properly but when you’re sick, your body absorbs fewer nutrients, so good nutrition is key for both prevention and recovery. Studies suggest that zinc, often used in throat lozenges, may reduce the duration of a cold by up to 50% (2).
Vitamin C and selenium, which is needed for the cells of the immune system to function, are two other essential nutrients.
The lack of sunshine in the UK means that many of us have suboptimal Vitamin D levels but this vitamin is very important because it stimulates the production of anti-microbial proteins (3). Vitamin D also reduces inflammation and protects the body against viruses.
2. Reduce stress
Stress lowers immune function because it increases the hormone cortisol in your blood. Raised cortisol levels indicate to the body that it needs to be in “fight or flight” mode and must prioritize its energy towards vital functions that will allow it to escape from dangerous situations.
This means your energy is diverted from the immune system to other physiological responses such as increased alertness. For example, when you’re stressed you produce fewer natural T-cells, the body's “killer cells” that fight viral infections (4).
You can also give your body a helping hand with some key stress-busting ingredients. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which means it helps the body to adapt to a variety of stressors. It has a calming effect on the body and also been shown to aid sleep, hormone balance, and consequently, your immunity. Check out our recipe for the ultimate ashwagandha hot chocolate to help you find some peace and clarity whenever you're faced with stressful times.
3. Get a good night’s sleep
A lack of sleep leaves your body lacking the energy to fight off illnesses. Sleep deprivation impairs your immune responses by disrupting the circadian rhythms that control hormones and the production of protective immune cells (5). Levels of the stress hormone cortisol also rise when you aren’t getting enough sleep. Check out our top tips to help you make getting your 7-8 hours a night a priority.
4. Embrace the friendly bacteria
It may surprise you that up to 70% of your immune system is actually inside your gut (6). Probiotics such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are ‘good’ bacteria that live inside your digestive tract. This good bacteria is thought to play an important role in regulating the immune response. Antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria so probiotics are a good way to replenish the beneficial bacteria in your gut microflora. Dairy and fermented products such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso soup are good sources.
5. Get some exercise
Exercise encourages your body to flush out bacteria, toxins and waste through urine and sweat. It is also thought to stimulate the production of antibodies and white blood cells by your immune system.
A large clinical review found that moderate exercise improves measures of immunity by 15-25% (7). This is likely because chronic inflammation is involved in disease formation and exercise acts like an anti-inflammatory. Exercise also improves circulation, helping it to deliver more anti-inflammatory cytokines throughout the body.
6. Drink bone broth
Bone broth may sound strange, but it has actually been used as a natural anti-inflammatory and immune booster for centuries.
By boiling and simmering bones from beef, poultry or fish along with various vegetables, a broth is created that is high in vitamins, minerals, and collagen. Bone both can help maintain the balance of good bacteria in the gut, reduce swelling in the digestive tract and lungs and may also protect skin from signs of ageing due to its high levels of collagen.
7. Cook with mushrooms
There are over 2 million kinds of mushroom but research suggests that some types may have properties that increase immune function and promote good health. Some species also have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Beta-glucans, which make up the mushroom cell walls, stimulate the immune system and research indicates that they may even help in the defence against cancer (8).
Look out for common varieties like shiitake and rarer ‘medicinal’ mushrooms such as maitake and reishi. Reishi mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine in Asia for thousands of years. To get more into your diet, try our easy, dairy-free, immune-boosting cream of mushroom soup.