How to Boost Your Immune System

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Our immune system is like an invisible suit of resilience, equipped with all manner of weaponry to clad us with protection from disease and infection. We’ve been wearing this superhero suit (on the inside and the outside) all our lives and its effectiveness is vital to our survival. The good news is, there are some simple ways to boost its power. 
 

What is the immune system and how does it work?

 
Phew… big question! 
Put simply, it is our body’s defence against disease and infection. We have natural barriers like the mucus membrane in our nasal passages, the acid in our stomach, our white blood cells and more. The next line of defense has an adaptive element to it. Specialised cells ‘remember’ what we come in contact with and ‘learn’ how to beat the baddies again next time.
 
Second only to our nervous system in its complexity, our immune system is highly interactive with itself and other systems in our body which allows it to attack what is foreign and preserve what is us, in normal situations. 
 
It relies on many of our other bodily systems to function well. For example, our immune system uses the lymphatic and circulatory systems as highways of transport through the body, which means the way we move our bodies has a direct effect on our immunity. Also, the majority of our immune response takes place in the gastrointestinal tract, so what we eat and how well we absorb and assimilate nutrients is critical. Our nervous system, which operates in permanent, bidirectional communication with our immune system can be directly affected by the way we regulate our breathing. It may come as no surprise then, to discover that taking slower, deeper breaths has scientifically proven benefits for our immunity. 
 
But before we unveil the pearls within movement, diet and breath regulation, let’s start with the baseline of health. Getting enough sleep. 
 

Sleep to boost immunity

 
When we are sick, our instinct is to curl up and go to sleep – and for good reason. There is a large body of research, highlighting the various benefits of adequate sleep on our immune system. Two very brief examples:
 
A 2015 study of 164 healthy people showed that an average of five hours sleep per night in the week leading up to being exposed to a dose of rhinovirus (the common cold) led to significantly increased rate of infection, compared with those who slept for an average of eight hours. Nearly 50% of the deprived sleep group contracted the cold, compared with just 18% of those who had experienced between seven to nine hours sleep. 
 
Another study demonstrated that a single “bad night’s sleep” (four hours) reduced the natural killer cells in healthy, young men by 70% compared with those who had a full eight hour night of sleep. Natural killer cells are like our body’s secret service agents who identify and take out all manner of bad guys including malignant tumour cells. 
 
The bottom line – for a healthy immune system, aim to get between seven to nine hours sleep. For more tips on how to do this, check our our previous blog on sleep here https://risehealth.com.au/2019/07/sleep-your-1-health-priority/
 

Movement to boost immunity

 
The summary of the science is that consistent, moderate resistance training and cardio exercise can strengthen the immune system over time. But single, high intensity or long duration exercise can interfere with immune function.
 
There’s a sweet spot when it comes to how much is ideal. Sedentary people have a higher risk of infection than people who do a moderate amount of exercise. ‘Over exercisers’ have the highest risk of all.
 
So when it comes to boosting the immune system, how many sessions per week should we do and how hard should they be? 
 
At this point, it’s important to distinguish between what we call ‘work outs’ (higher intensity sessions which increase heart and breathing rate) and ‘work ins’ (lower intensity sessions which do NOT significantly increase heart and breathing rate). Check out our previous blog on this topic for more detail on the difference. https://risehealth.com.au/2019/08/the-key-to-consistency-working-in-and-working-out/
 
The studies suggest that around three to four moderate intensity ‘work outs’ per week is the ideal range. More than that, although potentially beneficial for our fitness and performance, can lower immunity. 
 
Bear in mind that ‘work ins’ can be done every day and will help to circulate the lymphatic fluid, boosting the immune response. 
 

Eating to boost immunity

 
Our digestive tract is the front line against pathogens so it makes sense that around 70% of our immunity comes from it. 
 
Saliva contains powerful antimicrobials and the hydrochloric acid in our stomach breaks down most germs before they can reach our intestines. Proteins and other chemicals in the small intestine fight any remaining harmful bacteria and our own good bacteria in the large intestine provide strong protection too. 
 
Plenty of nutrients are needed to form the building blocks of these protective chemicals so if our diet is poor, we’ll get sick more often. 
 
It can be a vicious cycle when infection takes hold as we experience decreased nutrient availability through low appetite, poor absorption, intestinal damage, diarrhea/loss of nutrients and an increased demand for nutrients as our body activates the inflammatory and immune response, redistributing nutrients and increasing metabolic rate.  
 
To maintain good health we need a balanced diet but to really boost the immune system, we should also include prebiotic and probiotic foods to help build healthy bacteria. 
 
Prebiotic foods are those which contain certain fibres and natural sugars that stimulate the good bacteria in the gut.
 
Two to Three servings per day of Prebiotic foods:
– Vegetables such as asparagus, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower and onions. 
– Carbohydrates such as barley, beans, oats, quinoa, rye, wheat, and sweet potatoes. 
– Fruit such as apples, bananas, berries, citrus, and kiwi.
– Fats such as flax seeds and chia seeds.
 
Probiotic foods contain living bacteria and yeasts which help keeps us healthy. 
 
One to two servings per day of Probiotic foods:
– Dairy such as yoghurt, cheese and kefir with live and active cultures
– Fermented products such as pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and soy sauce.
 

Got the lurgy?

 
No matter how hard we try, sometimes we still get sick. Here are a few things to try when you’re feeling poorly.  
 
Science hasn’t confirmed whether or not “feed a cold, starve a fever” actually works which is why we recommend to “eat if you’re hungry, don’t if you’re not”.
 
These foods have been shown to fight germs and improve symptoms. They may help you feel better faster.
 
– Garlic acts as an antibiotic and can lessen the severity of colds and other infections. 
– Green Tea boosts B Cell antibodies and helps us get rid of invading pathogens.
– Honey has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties and can also act as an effective cough suppressant. 
– Chicken soup (Yes! Mum was right) with vegetables provides fluids, electrolytes and anti-inflammatory nutrients that can decrease symptoms. 
– Elderberries have antiviral properties and are rich in phytonutrients.
 

Breath regulation to boost immunity 

 
The vagus nerve, which controls the soothing branch of our involuntary nervous system connects our brain to the majority of our abdominal organs including our lungs, heart, stomach and digestive tract. 
 
When we make our breathing slow, deep, quiet and regular, the brain communicates this message of relaxation (via the vagus nerve) to the organs, causing a cascade of chemical changes that lead to a slower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, improved digestion and a reduction in the levels of circulating stress hormones such as cortisol. Chronically high levels of cortisol are known to suppress the immune system and can make us more susceptible to colds and contagious illnesses. 
 
So by consciously slowing and deepening our breath, we can produce a profound physiological relaxation effect to our organs which directly boosts the immune system.
 
 
 
I hope you find these tips helpful. As always, feel free to email Ruth or me with any questions or comments.
 
Until next time,
John
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