2020 has highlighted more than ever the importance of a strong immune system. The immune system has a major, vital role: to protect your body from harmful substances, germs and cell changes that could make you ill. It is essential that we do everything in our power to help support the immune system in its role. There are a few simple steps we can take to do this and all can be implemented TODAY!
Five ways to stay well in the winter
A 2019 scientific review in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that exercise can improve your immune response, lower illness risk, and reduce inflammation. Physical activity can help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. This may reduce your chance of getting a cold, flu, or other illness. Exercise causes a change in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body’s immune system cells that fight disease. Exercise contributes even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently. A 2020 study by the University of Bath proves that “in the short term, exercise can help the immune system find and deal with pathogens, and in the long term, regular exercise slows down changes that happen to the immune system with ageing, therefore reducing the risk of infections.” If you are new to exercise and don’t know where to start, try this: walk out of your home for 10 minutes. As soon as the 10 minutes is up, turn around and take the same route home with the aim being to try and get back in less than 10 minutes. This will ensure you pick up your pace a little for the second part of your workout. Aim to do this twice for a month with a view to increasing your distance and frequency after that. If you have any health concerns, it is important to speak to a medical professional before embarking on a new fitness regime.
Numerous studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get ill after being exposed to a virus, even just a common cold virus. Lack of sleep can also affect your recovery if you do get ill. The problem is that worrying about your lack of sleep can cause stress which can produce an even bigger sleep problem thus creating a vicious cycle. Sound familiar? Try and focus on making small changes rather than the end goal. Exercise is a key factor when it comes to insomnia. Studies at John Hopkins Center for Sleep have proven that those who exercise will fall asleep more quickly and will experience better sleep quality and duration. Exercise shows more benefits than most prescription drugs. People who exercise have been shown to fall asleep 55% faster. There is still much debate over what time of day to exercise is best in relation to sleep. I believe it is completely personal and will vary from person to person. I would suggest keeping a sleep & exercise diary for a week. If you find a pattern emerges where evening exercise has a negative impact on your sleep, then set your alarm 20 minutes earlier in the morning and get your workout done first thing. Alternatively, you may find evening exercise will happily tire your mind and body allowing you switch off more easily when the lights goes out. Whatever time of day works for you, try and create a realistic, manageable routine that you can stick to.
Another easy change you can make is to reduce your caffeine. Caffeine can stay elevated in your blood for 6–8 hours therefore drinking large amounts of coffee after 3-4pm is not recommended. Also be mindful there can be high levels of caffeine in fizzy drinks, chocolate and puddings. Alcohol is another area of your diet to consider when it comes to sleep. Alcohol is a depressant which slows down the functioning of the central nervous system so it can make you fall asleep more easily due to the sedative effect. However, the sleep disruptions come later in your sleep cycle when the liver enzymes try to metabolise the alcohol.
There are things you can add into your diet to try and get that 7-9 hours uninterrupted sleep too. Melatonin is a unique hormone and research shows that it is essential for good sleep. It is produced by the pineal gland, located in the middle of the brain, and functions with the rhythms of the sun. There is the option to take Melatonin in supplement form, however for some people this can lead to side effects such as nausea, headaches and dizziness. Melatonin can be found in cherries, goji berries, eggs, milk, salmon, sardines, pistachios and almonds. Another dietary addition that you can use a potential sleep aid is magnesium. This magical mineral has wide ranging positive effects on the body, every cell and organ in your body needs this mineral to function properly.. including your sleep process. The Institute of Medicine suggests a dietary intake of 310–360 mg of magnesium for adult women and 400–420 mg for adult men. You can get plenty of magnesium through supplements or through drinking lots of water and eating foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts (particularly cashews, brazils and almonds,) oily fish, avocados, dark chocolate, legumes (for example lentils and chickpeas,) and bananas.
Eat immune boosting foods
There are many foods you can add into your diet to help boost the immune system. Spinach, garlic, citrus fruits, red peppers, broccoli, ginger, yoghurt, almonds, sunflower seeds, turmeric are all known to support immune function. Including these foods in your diet is easy and delicious. Add garlic, turmeric & ginger to soups & curries. Try yoghurt with nuts and seeds as a mid morning snack.
Similar to sleep, sometimes the thought of trying to reduce stress can just lead to more stress. However there are a couple of simple steps you can take and you may just be surprised by the outcome. Just a small change can have a huge helpful effect on your stress levels and this in turn will have a positive impact on your immune system and also your happiness and quality of life. This year, more than ever, lots of us have had elevated stress levels. When we are stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced leaving us more susceptible to infections. The stress hormone corticosteroid can also suppress the effectiveness of the immune system.
Exercise has long be proven to reduce stress levels. It’s does this by reducing levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Even just 15 minutes per day of physical activity will help… dancing, walking, jogging, or riding a bike are all easy and fun options.
Breathing techniques can also help to reduce your stress levels. Simple techniques that you can do in a few minutes while at home or at work can have surprisingly great effects. There are numerous techniques you can learn online. I would suggest started with something simple like the 4-7-8 technique. To try this technique: close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of 8. This is one breath. Now repeat 3 or 4 times.
Meditation can alleviate stress and anxiety by interrupting patterns of thinking that perpetuate stress. Listening to a guided meditation can take just a few minutes out of your day but can have a hugely positive impact on your stress levels. New research from Victoria University and Queen’s University Belfast reveals the link between meditation and improved mental health outcomes. The 2020 study found a clear connection between meditation, the endocrine system and health and well-being.
My personal favourite for reducing stress is Yoga. Just one Yoga class per week, whether in person, on zoom or on YouTube, has been proven to reduce stress levels. Yoga incorporates breath work, meditation and movement and can reduce blood pressure and lower your heart rate. It has been shown in multiple studies to reduce the feelings of depression and anxiety, it can improve your sleep and help combat fatigue. All of these mental health and emotional benefits in addition to physical benefits such as improved posture, injury prevention, improved heart health and reducing unnecessary inflammation in the body, there’s definitely lots of reasons to give it a try!
Also known as ‘the sunshine vitamin’ plays an essential role in the fight against certain diseases and illnesses. During the darker winter months we can become quite depleted so it is important to try and up our Vitamin D levels in other ways.
Three good sources of vitamin D from food are eggs, mushrooms and oily fish like salmon and mackerel. You can also opt to take a vitamin D supplement. This has been recommended by the NHS and Public Health England. They suggest taking a 10mcg (or 400 IU) supplement each day. There are many higher strength versions on the market but bear in mind that taking more than 100mcg per day may be harmful according to the NHS. Children up to the age of 10 should not take more than 50mcg per day.