We caught up with our favourite health nut, Nutritionist, Matt Edwards, to delve into what your immune system actually is and how you can boost it through simple lifestyle changes and supplementation.
What is your immune system?
Like a protective suit, or mask (which thanks to the current global pandemic we’re all pretty well acquainted with) the immune system is the part of your body that protects you against outside attackers (known as pathogens). It’s made up of a number of different systems, organs, cells and chemicals that work together to help you to fend off bacteria and virus, fight infection and combat illness. Simply put, it’s the system that stops you from getting sick.
The main parts of the immune system are made up of:
Like lots of our bodies internal systems, it’s pretty complex.
How does it work?
The innate part of the immune system is the bit that starts to work as soon as nasties such as pathogens (toxins) start to attack the body. It’s the part that we all associate with immunity, as it keeps out viruses, bacteria, toxins and stops them from spreading around the body.
The adaptive part of the immune system kicks in once we have been exposed to the toxins. It cleverly uses antigens to memorise the threat and enhance your immune system’s response, shortening your recovery time once you’ve caught a cold or flu. It’s particularly clever, as It keeps an internal record of every germ (or microbe) that it has ever tackled so it can quickly recognise and defeat it should it enter the body again.
These are known as ‘memory cells’ and they work hard to detect illness-causing microbes before they have a chance to multiply and make you sick.
Pretty clever, right? But if that’s the case, why can I catch a cold more than once?
Common infections like flu and colds have to be fought many times, this is because they contain so many different viruses or strains of the same type of microbe that your immune system is required to fight them each time. Hence why if you want to try and avoid illness altogether, you should try to maintain a strong immune system. What foods help to boost the immune system?
There are lots of myths and mis-conceptions online about how you can’t boost your immune system through diet and supplement. This couldn’t be more incorrect.
Strengthening your body’s natural defence system is possible with the right diet, supplementation and lifestyle changes. Matt explains the foods you should be adding to your diet if you’re looking for an effective way to boost your immune system. “As cliche as it sounds, the best thing you can do for your immune system is to eat a diet based on ‘live’ foods such as plants and stay clear of processed foods that are packaged on supermarket shelves. That being said, there are certain foods that can give your body the upper hand when trying to fight those pesky pathogens. Increasing your intake of whole plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds can help increase your immune boosting power.”
Why do these types of foods boost your immune system?
Well firstly, they’re packed with antioxidants. Antioxidants are masters at decreasing inflammation in the cells of the body as they neutralise free radicals.
Free radicals continuously form in the body as you breathe and help convert food into energy. They are the things that make you age and without antioxidants, they would cause harm very quickly.
However, free radicals are also essential for staying healthy as they help keep your immune system in good working order. The key is managing the free radical and antioxidant balance.
If you lose this balance and end up with more free radicals than antioxidants, this is when oxidative stress, disease, illness and ageing is caused.
“Plant foods are great for boosting your immune system as they feed the healthy bacteria within your gut, where 70% of your immunity resides. Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome can boost your immune system as it helps to keep harmful pathogens and free radicals from entering your body through the digestive tract.”
Vegetables and fruits are packed with Vitamin C which is a key antioxidant and has been proven to strengthen your body’s natural defences.
Oranges are often hailed as a Vitamin C hero, and they are, but it can be found in abundance in lots of other foods such as:
If you want to experience the illness-fighting benefits of Vitamin C, the key is to consume it every day and not just when you think you’re getting sick.
LEARN MORE: DOES VITAMIN C HELP THE IMMUNE SYSTEM? >
What vitamins are good for the immune system?
It can often be challenging to get all of the vitamins that we need through diet alone. This is because, generally speaking, our diets are full of processed foods, meaning that they lack the vitamins and minerals designed to give us a strong immune system.
Whilst it’s known that a diet low in nutrients and high in sugar isn’t great on the waistline, what’s less well-known is that if you add salt, pesticides and colourants into the mix, you’ve created a cocktail for internal inflammation - your immune system’s worst nightmare.
The good news is that research has shown that supplementing your diet with certain vitamins can help boost your immune system and protect your body against illness.
Matt gives us the lowdown on his favourite immune boosting vitamins.
“A powerful antioxidant, Vitamin C is one of the best vitamins for building a strong immune system. It strengthens your body's natural defences by protecting healthy cells against free radicals, which like we said earlier, if left to accumulate, can cause a state of oxidative stress - which has been known to be linked to many chronic diseases and ageing.”
LEARN MORE: HOW DOES VITAMIN C HELP THE IMMUNE SYSTEM? >
“It’s an often told old wives’ tale but elderberries have long been used to treat infections, particularly those which affect the upper respiratory tract - so colds and flus. They contain a high level of antibacterial and antiviral qualities, meaning that they enhance your immune system response. They’ve also been shown to help shorten the duration and ease the symptoms of colds.”
LEARN MORE: WHY ELDERBERRIES BOOST YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM >
“Zinc is one of my favourite supplements for helping to boost the immune system. It helps both the innate and adaptive immune system to defend against oxidative stress. Like all minerals, our bodies can’t make Zinc, which means it must come from our food and supplements.
Zinc helps prevent illness by stimulating the activation of the cells responsible for fighting infection.
“B6 plays a key part in supporting biochemical reactions within the immune system. This means that it increases the production of antibodies, therefore helping to boost your body’s illness-fighting responses.” Vitamin B12 “B12 is well-known for boosting mood, energy and immunity. It works by supporting the normal function of red blood cells.
Further, it helps your metabolism to convert food into energy helping your body to meet the challenges that it goes through throughout the day.”
Can you use essential oils to boost the immune system?
It might sound a little woo-woo, but essential oils are a really effective way of building a stronger immune system.
Most people don’t know this but they can be ingested, inhaled and applied topically like you would with your skincare.
Essential oils are basically concentrated plants and trees. As an example, just one drop of lemon essential oil is made by using ¼ of of a whole lemon.
Essential oils are packed with antimicrobial properties, which simply put, means that they kill or stop microorganisms in their growth - in this case it’s the pathogens (toxins) that attack your cells and cause illness. However, each essential oil differs in terms of which qualities they contain. Matt explains:
“Lavender is a really versatile essential oil that can be used for just about anything. The main reason it’s great for immunity is because it de-stresses the body and helps you to sleep. Stress and lack of sleep are common factors that contribute to a weakened immune system.”
It’s the green leafy plant that's most famous for being the food of choice for our fluffy Koala friends, but Eucalyptus oil is more than just a great scent. “Being Australian I love eucalyptus oil. It has powerful antiviral and antibacterial properties, stimulating the mind aswell as the immune system. It’s also been proven to help fight off other illnesses like chickenpox and measles.”
A common ingredient in homemade cleaners, lemon essential oil has powerful anti-bacterial properties. “Lemon essential oil is great for immunity as it stimulates lymphatic drainage and aids digestion. Both of these processes encourage unwanted toxins to leave the body, resulting in less illness-causing pathogens to be writhing around and creating a stronger immune system.”
“Packed full of antioxidants, Oregano essential oil is an extraordinarily powerful natural antibiotic that helps fight bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that can cause disease. However, it is very strong and should be used in moderation or under the advice of a qualified practitioner.”
Stress and the immune system
Stress and a weakened immune system go hand in hand. Cortisol is a hormone that is released into our blood when we are stressed, putting us into a fight-or-flight state.
Whilst an increase in cortisol is okay for short periods of time, when it is prolonged we are at a greater risk of inflammation and a weakened immune system.
This is because when we’re stressed the immune system’s ability to fight off pathogens (toxins) is affected, making us more prone to infections and illness. It’s a fact that those who live busy lives (and life is busy nowadays, right?) are more prone to stress.
So, if you’ve ever wondered why you come down with a cough, runny nose or stinking cold when you’ve got a big meeting, endless deadlines or when you’re trying to spin endless plates at home? It’s because your immune system’s ability to fight off infection is compromised by the stress that you’ve put your body under.
“We are what we eat and more importantly, what we absorb. Eating nutritious foods, sleeping well and getting exercise can actually be a fantastic way to manage stress because it improves brain function, immune function, lowers blood pressure and helps to reduce toxins from the body.”
Boost your health with better sleep
Most of us know that getting the right amount of shut eye is good for us, but who knew that it actually plays a crucial role in keeping our immune system fighting fit too.
“Getting more sleep doesn't necessarily stop you from getting sick altogether, but getting less than 8 hours per day can have a detrimental effect on your immune system - which could cause you to pick up a nasty cold or flu.”
Without sufficient sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines - the protein that targets infection and inflammation - which creates your immune response.
The body produces and releases cytokines when you’re asleep also, meaning that skimping on it can cause your immune system to weaken.
If you want to live a healthy life it’s crucial that you make sleep a priority. Make sure you get 8 hours every night and if it becomes interrupted try to make up for the lost rest with naps.”
Exercise and the immune system
It’s no secret that having a fitter body is going to give you a better chance of fighting off infection.
But did you know that physical activity can actually boost your immune system? Well, you know those nasty pathogens that we keep harping on about? Exercise helps to flush bacteria out of the lungs and the airways meaning that you’re less likely to get sick.
Matt explains: “When you exercise, the white blood cells - the cells that help you fight disease - move around the body more quickly, meaning that they’re more likely to detect pathogens or illness causing toxins much sooner than someone who lives a sedentary lifestyle. Exercising helps lower stress thereby boosting your immune system also.”