Have you ever noticed that when you've been working hard, as soon as you get a day off you end up sick? This is a strange consequence of living under stress.
Perversely, cortisol the stress hormone suppresses your immune system, and then when you finally relax your depleted reserves are more vulnerable to illness. So, whether you're working hard outside of the home, raising children, or just not looking after yourself as well as you could, it's worth putting in a little extra effort into supporting your immune defences.
What Builds Immune Strength?
Getting the right nutrients is a good start to building your immunity. This means eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, getting enough protein and avoiding foods that deplete your nutrient status.
Of particular importance are fruits and vegies full of vitamins A and C. These include all the orange vegetables containing lots of beta-carotene, carrots, pumpkin and sweet potato along with green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach. Fruits like rock melon (cantaloupe) and apricots are also high on the list which is good news when these summer fruits start appearing in the markets.
You'll know if you're having too much beta-carotene as your skin takes on a slightly orange tint. Don't worry if this happens, it's not dangerous and also quite hard to do for most people. Just cut back on the carrots for a while 😉
Eating the minimum recommendation of 5 serves of veggies and 2 serves of fruit each day is good insurance for your immune resilience.
What Does 5 Serves of Vegies Look Like?
Fitting your quota of vegies into your day doesn't have to be hard. A serve is 1/2 cup of cooked vegies or 1 cup of salad greens. Chickpeas, beans, lentils and tofu also count towards your vegie quota, so a 1/2 cup serve of these with a meal gives you a source of vegetarian protein, fibre to build your immune-enhancing digestive flora and a tick in the vegie column. Definitely worth adding to your diet if you can.
So, imagine you ate these vegies as part of your meals today:
- Grilled tomato and 1/2 cup cooked spinach
= 1.5 serves of veggies with your eggs at breakfast.
- 1 cup of sweet potato, pumpkin and rocket salad with 1/2 cup of chickpeas
= 2 serves of vegies with lunch.
- 3/4 cup of cooked vegies in a stir fry with your choice of protein (meat, eggs, nuts and seeds, lentils or beans, tofu, tempe or cheese)
= 1.5 serves of vegies with dinner.
Look at that, you just ate your 5 serves of vegies! That wasn't too hard, was it?
Look After Your Digestive Flora
Your digestive tract is actually home to 75% of your immune cells. Keeping your digestive bacteria healthy and happy goes a long way to strengthening your immune system.
What happens when your digestive bacteria are in a bit of a mess is that your immune system gets busy dealing with the inflammation and unhelpful bi-products caused by poor digestive flora balance, and doesn't have as much left over to deal with invading pathogens.
Keeping your digestive system cool, calm and collected means that you will have greater resistance to whatever's going around and that you will be more capable of bouncing back sooner.
Get Plenty of Sleep
While life is terribly exciting and none of us want to miss out on a second, it really is a good investment to shut your eyes for at least 8 hours every night. One of the best rewards you can give your body is a good night's sleep.
Taking time to wind down in the evening and putting a limit on bright lights and screens can help get you there easier too. If you find yourself nodding off in the evening, take that as a hint to put yourself to bed earlier. Catching that moment in your sleep-wake cycle also takes advantage of your natural rhythm that may otherwise take another 90 minutes to come around again. Sleep, it's not optional when it comes to supporting your immune system.
Avoid Sugar (and Alcohol)
The immune system has been found to be impaired by up to 75% for 4-6 hours after eating refined sugars. Yes, this is scary!
If you are feeling unwell or run down it is easy to turn to the biscuits, chocolate or even ice cream for a pick-me-up energy boost, but this is a false economy. While you might feel better temporarily as the pleasure centre of the brain lights up in much the same way as narcotic drugs like cocaine triggers, and glucose floods your system, the energy boost quickly bottoms out, leaving you more depleted, and even worse, more at risk of immune compromise than before.
It's easy to recognise the sugary treats in the form of lollies and cakes but also look out for the hidden sugars will also punch your immune system in the face. This includes having too much fruit juice, sweetened soy milk or big serves of high-GI fruits like dates or other dried fruits.
What if you think you have a sugar addiction?
The best way to tackle a sugar addiction is to add in replacements before you reduce and eliminate sugars altogether, which is sometimes the most effective way to go. Have fresh fruit on hand, invest in some stevia to sweeten drinks, or try naturally sweet carob or liquorice root as another way to get your sweet hit.
Snacks like nuts, carrot sticks and protein based snacks including eggs, chickpea salads and dairy, such as yoghurt which includes bonus probiotic bacteria for your digestion, along with flax meal (also called ground linseed) and a few raspberries can help satisfy cravings. Also, remember to exercise and drink plenty of water.
What's That About Alcohol Being Bad For Immunity?
Unfortunately, along with sugar, there is overwhelming evidence that alcohol suppresses the immune system, including early responses to bacteria and viruses and the tumour surveillance system – the defences that keep cancer cells from multiplying. Having more than recommended levels of alcohol, which by the way is 1 standard drink for a woman and no more than two standard drinks for a man, decreases your ability to activate germ killing cells.
Putting movement into your day is a wonderful way to stay well. It promotes good blood sugar, which reduces inflammation and reduces stress. And it doesn't have to be all gym sessions or exercise classes either. Remember, people who have a lot of incidental movement along with their regular exercise routine, have been found to be healthier and happier than those who are mostly sedentary and have a regular exercise routine.
Manage Your Stress
Self care is always worth doing and it is good to know what works for you. How do you cope with increased demands on your time or worrying situations? Having a think about the things that reduce stress for you is a good plan for your immunity. I often suggest clients write themselves a little note with all the things that help and paste it where they can see it. This way, when stress hits you'll have a list of ready ideas to go to.
Your list might include any of the following:
- Talk to a friend or book some time with a counsellor.
- Go for a walk in nature.
- Have a nap!
- Breathe deeply into your belly and exhale fully, in and out through your nose.
- Listen to your favourite music.
- Watch a comedy on TV, even better if you do it with a friend.
- Stretch. Get your yoga mat out and ease out all the physical tension that goes with feeling stressed.
- Book a massage! In fact, you can do that here.
These are just a few of my favourite ideas. Make a list of your own tried and true gems for you to go to in times of need.
So where does that leave us ? If you're concerned about your immunity, make good choices. Be moderate in your alcohol and sugar consumption, eat plenty of vegies and get lots of sleep. If you've been under the weather for a while and finding it a little tough to get on top of things, picking up every sniffle that goes around, you might need a bit more support. Come chat to us about how you can strengthen your immune system naturally. Give it a little love and you'll find many bonuses – improved quality of life being one of them.