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How to support your immune system

There has never been a more important time to be proactive with our nutrition, with the aim of supporting the very best immune system defence.

Our immune systems play a role not only in fighting off infections, but also in promoting tissue repair to recovery. To function properly, our immune system requires plenty of both macro and micronutrients.

To help support your health over the next few months, we’ve put together a few diet and lifestyle pointers to keep you going in this worrying time.

Avoid strenuous exercise

Moderate-intensity exercise can be protective against illness by boosting the immune system, whereas high-intensity sessions actually compromise the immune system. Our immune system takes a hit for up to 72 hours following high-intensity training, making this a key time for susceptibility. This is especially important to note if you exercise in a class with others, where you’re more likely to pick up bacteria and viruses.

Let yourself sleep, rest and recover

Rest and recovery are key to prevent getting ill and further unwanted illness. If you’re always on the go with minimal rest, your immune system can be compromised long term. Poor sleep can affect the immune system and make you more susceptible to infection or illness. Sometimes it’s hard to stop, particularly when the future feels so uncertain, but don’t ever underestimate the importance of rest and relaxation! Run a hot bath, read a book, get a massage or listen to relaxing music every now and again.

Don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol

Excessive chronic intake of alcohol can decrease the number of a few white blood cells types, which means that your immune system will not be as able to fight off any bugs. Keeping within the alcohol guidelines will help, which in the UK is currently set at 14 units per week. That’s 6 pints of beer or 6 glasses of wine if that’s your preferred tipple. If you do prefer to round off the week with a few drinks you could pick drinks with healthy, vitamin-packed mixers such as orange, tomato or pineapple juice.

It’s not the time to diet

If you are unlucky enough to pick up an infection, you will need plenty of energy to fight it off. That means that it might not be the wisest time to start a calorie reduced diet – unless of course you have a pressing health issue that means you need to lose weight urgently. Low intakes of carbohydrates such as bread, rice and potatoes, which end up as glucose in the blood, can be a contributing factor to impaired immunity.

Keep well hydrated

Unfortunately, being dehydrated can also contribute to a compromised immune system. Still at this time of year when there’s still a bit of a nip on the air, it’s easy to forget to drink. One of the front-line defences in our immune systems are the immune proteins in our saliva. When we’re dehydrated, the levels of these proteins decreases, meaning our initial defence to bugs entering through the mouth is also decreased. Make sure you don’t wait to feel thirsty before you drink up, carry a water bottle with you (everywhere!) and keep sipping throughout the day.

Taste the Rainbow

Fruit and vegetables contain a wide range of different micronutrients with varying roles within the body. Many of these nutrients are involved in immune function such as iron, vitamins C and D, selenium and zinc. Anyone with even mild deficiencies in any of these micronutrients can have an altered immune response.

The easiest way to ensure you’re getting enough micronutrients and other phytochemicals is to consume a wide variety of different fruit and vegetables. Taste the rainbow- choose different coloured and textured fruit and veg every single day!

Vitamin Supplements

Vitamin C, vitamin D and selenium all help to support a healthy immune system. Not everyone can eat enough to get these micronutrients (or get enough sun in a UK winter), so consider taking a food supplement if you are lacking some antioxidant or immune protection. Contrary to popular belief, huge doses of vitamin C are not required in winter. At doses of say 400-500mg a day, the excess vitamin C is simply excreted in urine, making it literally money down the toilet!

In summary: consume enough antioxidants to support your immune system, sleep well, drink plenty (but not too many drinks of the alcoholic kind), avoid strenuous activity and wash your hands before eating to stay well.