Lately, we’ve all been wondering if we are doing enough to keep our bodies strong and warding off illnesses.
One critical way to ensure that you have a fighting chance is to boost your immunity.
The immune system is made up of organs, cells, tissues and processes that fight against germs and toxins trying to enter our body.
You can bolster your immune system by making good lifestyle and food choices; and you’ll see results by being consistent.
Your body will feel healthier, you’ll have more energy and you’ll spend less time waiting to see the doctor for a common ailment.
It’s important to note, however, that no matter how strong an immune system is, you cannot stop bacteria and viruses from entering your body.
In order to avoid contracting a dangerous disease like Covid-19, you should still practise social distancing, wear a mask and wash your hands frequently.
So just to be clear, the tips below are not to protect specifically against Covid-19, but to help you boost your immune strength to fight off all types of infections.
Adults need an average of seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
Teens need eight to 10 hours, and younger children and infants up to 14 hours of sleep daily.
A lack of sleep or poor quality sleep has been linked to a higher frequency of falling sick, leading researchers to believe that sleep and immunity have close ties.
Also, sleeping for longer periods when sick, lets your immune system fight illnesses more effectively so that you heal faster.
In a study involving 164 healthy adults, those who had less than six hours of sleep per night were more susceptible to colds, compared to those who had at least six hours of sleep.
To avoid having trouble falling asleep, there are several things you can do:
- Keep your room completely dark, e.g. close the curtains fully, remove any night lights or use a sleep mask.
- Keep your bed time consistent, even during weekends and holidays.
- Exercise regularly, even if it’s just brisk walking for 20 mins a day.
- Limit screen time (TV, phone, laptop) at least an hour before bed in order to prevent the impact of blue light from disrupting your circadian rhythm (your body’s natural wake-sleep cycle).
Whole plant foods like vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit are rich in antioxidants, vitamin C and fibre.
Eating more of these nutrient-dense foods helps to lower your risk of infections.
This is because the antioxidants in the foods decrease inflammation by battling unstable compounds known as free radicals.
Chronic inflammation has been found to occur more frequently in patients with heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and certain cancers, so it’s important to find effective ways to reduce inflammation.
At the same time, whole plant foods are high in fibre and feed your gut microbiome (the community of healthy bacteria in your gut).
A robust gut microbiome can improve your immunity and help keep harmful pathogens from entering your body via your digestive tract.
Additionally, other nutrients found in whole plant foods, like vitamin C, may help to reduce symptoms of the common cold.
Eat foods like papaya, broccoli, spinach, garlic, ginger, bell peppers and kiwi fruit.
Healthy omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties.
These fats could be a key weapon in fighting against illnesses, considering that chronic inflammation prevents your immune system from performing at its best.
Healthy fats can be found in foods such as olive oil, salmon, chia seeds, sunflower seeds and almonds.
Olive oil, in particular, is highly anti-inflammatory, and has been known to decrease the risk of chronic problems like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The anti-inflammatory properties of these healthy fats may be critical to helping your body fight off harmful disease-causing bacteria and viruses, so try to get more of it in your diet now.
We are learning that immunity and gut health are intertwined.
Your digestive tract contains beneficial bacteria (probiotics) that you can increase in amount by eating fermented foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and natto.
This may help strengthen your immune system by helping it to identify harmful microorganisms as a healthy ecosystem of gut bacteria teaches your immune system how to tell the difference between good bacteria and bad bacteria (pathogens that cause problems).
In a three-month study in 126 children, those who drank 70ml of fermented milk every day were found to have less childhood infectious diseases by about 20%, compared with a control group.
Another study of 152 people infected with a rhinovirus found that those who supplemented with the probiotic Bifidobacterium animalis had a much better immune response and lower levels of the virus in their nasal mucus.
A high intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates contribute to obesity, heart disease and other conditions that disrupt your immune system.
According to an observational study in around 1,000 people, obese people who were administered the flu vaccine were twice as likely to still get the flu, compared to non-obese individuals who received the vaccine.
Curbing your sugar intake can decrease inflammation and aid weight loss, thus reducing your risk of chronic health conditions.
Strive to keep your added sugar intake to 5% or less of your daily calories, which is equal to about two tablespoons of sugar for a 2,000-calorie diet.
Moderate exercise can give your immune system a boost.
Studies indicate that even a single session of moderate exercise can boost the effectiveness of vaccines in people with compromised immune systems.
By making it a regular routine, moderate exercise helps your immune cells to regenerate often and reduce inflammation.
Some types of exercises you can do include brisk walking, indoor cycling, jogging, swimming and hiking.
Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
Dehydration paves the way to making your body susceptible to falling sick.
Without enough water, you may experience headaches and hinder your physical performance, focus, mood, digestion, and heart and kidney functions.
Hydration itself doesn’t protect you from germs and viruses, but dehydration increases your susceptibility to illness.
To know that you are drinking enough water regularly, the colour of your urine should be a clear, light yellow.
Plain water is the best option to stay hydrated – it is free of calories, additives and sugar.
You will need more fluids if you exercise a lot, work outside or if the weather is hot.
Reducing anxiety and stress will help to improve immune health.
In the long run, stress increases inflammation and messes with your hormonal balance and immune cell function.
Long-term stress is especially taxing on children, weakening their immune response.
Activities that are often recommended to help people manage stress include exercise, journaling, drawing or painting, meditation, outdoor walks and other mindfulness practices.
If you feel a need to express how you feel to someone, then seeing a certified counsellor or therapist can help.
Two things to note about supplements: the first is that they are not a replacement for a well-rounded diet, and the second is that they don’t guarantee that you will be free from getting sick.
Some studies however, have found that supplements may fight off viral infections, or at least give your immune system a helping hand in staying strong.
If you would like to take supplements, choose wisely.
Here are some vitamins and minerals to consider taking that may help improve your immunity:
- Vitamin E
This vitamin is a powerful antioxidant that helps the body fight off infection, and is found in foods like nuts, seeds and spinach.
A peer review of 575 people with the common cold, who took more than 75 mg of zinc per day, reduced the duration of their cold by one-third, compared to those who didn’t take the supplement.
- Vitamin D
A deficiency in this vitamin may increase your chances of getting sick, so supplementing may counteract this effect.
- Vitamin B6
This vitamin is vital to supporting biochemical reactions in the immune system.
Vitamin B6-rich foods include chicken, cold water fish such as salmon and tuna, green vegetables and chickpeas.
The bottom line is that improving your lifestyle and making better dietary choices can help strengthen your immune system to fight off harmful pathogens and keep you healthy and well.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and a functional medicine practitioner. For further information, email email@example.com. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.