Resilience and immune balance

healthy meal

Back in the day, before I knew much about body systems and health, every winter for me would herald bouts of bronchitis, sinus infections and colds & coughs that would last months. Battle would commence with endless cough syrups and concoctions promising better health and symptom relief. On a trip to New York I came across a juice bar with a superfood booster called ‘Immunity Now’, if only I thought! What I realise now is that these were sticking plasters for the problem and the underlying issues remained unresolved and I was SICK OF BEING SICK! 

Infact, boosting our immunity (and it’s number 1 tool inflammation) is not what we want to do. Encouraging the immune system to overreact and increase inflammation is unhelpful. What we need to do is balance and improve immune resilience so that it is ready to come to the rescue when we need it. 

Becoming a Nutritional Therapist has made me change my views and mindset as well as my food. We ARE in control of so much that can change our resilience to winter illness and that can support and balance our immune systems. As we go into the winter months this year in particular, our immune systems are critical. 

The good news is that I’ve put together some tips for how you can start to support your immune health right now:

It all starts in the gut

Did you know that around 80% of our immune system resides in the gut? Our gut bacteria are a community of microbes that live in the intestines and, when they are in balance and healthy, play a huge role in keeping the immune system in good order1.

 Think of the immune system as a battalion of soldiers guarding a castle and the gut bacteria as terriers snapping at their heels to keep them on their toes! 

As well as this, you can think of the small intestine as a bit like a fast-flowing water chute, with handles to grab on to along the sides. If the beneficial bacteria are abundant and attaching to all the available sites, it leaves much less opportunity for virus and disease-causing bacteria to get a hold.  

So how do we support our gut bacteria? Essentially a diet high in FIBRE, a rainbow of fresh vegetables and fruits, lots of water and as little processed and sugary food as possible. Introducing fermented foods such as live yoghurt, sauerkraut or kefir can be beneficial too because they add live bacteria into the gut. 

If your gut bacteria are out of balance you might be suffering from symptoms such as bloating, stomach pain, food sensitivities, brain fog or anxiety. Stool testing and personalised nutrition to correct imbalances can be key tools if you want to explore the state of your little bacterial friends further! 

Nasal Breathing

Easy and free! Breathing through your nose promotes another line of defence against airborne pathogens. Not only can bacteria get trapped by mucus and hairs, but nitric oxide here can kill any unwanted invaders2

Vitamins and minerals

Simply put, micronutrients are absolutely essential for the immune system to function properly. Deficiency of vitamins and minerals (such as A, C, D, zinc and iron to name but a few), can predispose you to infection3. Eating a wide, varied diet with good quality whole foods is key. Vitamin C is particularly important in fighting viral infections4, good food sources include dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, kiwi fruit, berries and citrus. 

Herbs & spices like turmeric, ginger and garlic are also a great source of nutrients (as well as important food sources for gut bacteria) so these are good to add in everyday cooking too.

Anyone in the UK will know that the sunshine can be really hard to come by, which can contribute to low vitamin d levels. Making sure your levels are optimal can be a really good way to help balance the immune system. 

Sleep

Sleep deprivation can increase susceptibility to infection, and it has been shown that 7-9 hours sleep a night can support immune function5. There are many reasons that we often don’t get good sleep and reading things like this can make us feel more stressed about it… don’t panic. If you can, go to bed a bit earlier, turn off your screens, have a bath, do a little pre-bedtime breathing or yoga, it might help. 

Treat yourself as your own best friend

Change is all around us. Anxiety and stress is rampant. Just be kind to yourself and think, if your BFF told you they were feeling worried and couldn’t sleep or concentrate, that they were feeling low and stressed, what would you say to them? You might give them a hug and tell them to cut themselves some slack. Stress affects our immunity hugely6 and as well as practical things like deep breathing, exercise and getting out in nature, just being gentle and not expecting too much of ourselves might also be key to our health and wellbeing.  

  1. Lazar, V. et al. (2018) ‘Aspects of Gut Microbiota and Immune System Interactions in Infectious Diseases, Immunopathology, and Cancer’, Frontiers in Immunology, 9, 1830
  2. McKeown, P. (2015) The Oxygen Advantage: The simple, scientifically proven breathing technique that will revolutionise your health and fitness. Piatkus: London 
  3. Maggini, S., Pierre, A. and Calder, P.C. (2018) ‘Immune Function and Micronutrient Requirements Change over the Life Course’, Nutrients, 10(10): 1531.
  4. Carr, A.C. and Maggini, S. (2017) ‘Vitamin C and Immune Function’, Nutrients, 9(11), p. 1211
  5. Asif, N., Iqbal, R. C.F. (2017) ‘Human immune system during sleep’ Am J Clin Exp Immunol, 6(6), pp. 92–96.
  6. Dhabhar, F.S. (2014) ‘Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful’, Immunologic Research, 58(2-3), pp.193-210