It is always important to support our immune systems, but of course this is something that is of particular concern at the moment with the coronavirus pandemic hanging over us.
Here are a few tips on how you can support your immunity during these troublesome times.
The food we eat should provide us with the nutrients our bodies require to maintain functioning of the various body systems, and that includes the immune system. Now is a more important time than ever to ensure we don’t ‘waste’ our calorie intake on foods and drinks devoid of nutrients.
What NOT to eat
Sugar and heavily processed foods are not only devoid of nutrients, but we expend nutrients processing and digesting them, leading to a net loss.
Studies have also found that high sugar in the blood reduces immunity and blocks vitamin C: one of our most important antioxidants and supporters of the immune system.
‘White’ foods like white bread, pasta and potatoes release glucose into the blood more quickly than whole-wheat equivalents, leading to spikes in blood sugar and the afore mentioned issues.
What to eat instead
Try to eat a wholefoods diet as much as possible, including:
- Vegetables. If you can’t get fresh, tinned or frozen are fine. Try to get as many different colours as possible as this will provide you with a range of nutrients and antioxidants to support the immune system.
- Mushrooms are great to include if you like them; they are a source of vitamin D and beta-glucans, both of which support the immune system.
- Fruit does contain sugar so should be consumed in moderation, but on the other hand it is also a great source of vitamins and antioxidants. Avoid too much dried fruit which is higher in sugar; instead opt for two pieces of fresh, whole fruit per day.
- Wholegrains. For example, brown rice, quinoa, oats, and good quality wholemeal bread. Not only do these release sugars slowly into the blood, helping to keep energy levels stable, but they are also a source of zinc which supports the immune system. Oats are a great one since they are also a source of immune-boosting beta-glucans. If you are working from home during the lockdown perhaps now is a good time to get into the porridge for breakfast?
- Good quality protein. For example, lean meat like chicken or turkey, oily or white fish, organic eggs, beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, quinoa, hummus. Good quality meat is a source of zinc as are beans, which are also a source of fibre and lots of vitamins and minerals beneficial to health.
- Oily fish is the best source of omega 3 we can get from our diets and is also a source of vitamin D: two micronutrients important for immune health. Oily fish includes salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring (I like to think “SMASH”). If you eat fish, try to include 2-3 portions per week. Tuna is also an oily fish but since it is a larger fish, it accumulates toxins from the ocean so should be consumed less often – once a week is fine.
- Flax or chia seeds. These are a plant-based source of omega 3, particularly important for non-fish eaters. They are also high in fibre and a source of protein. Try adding them to your morning porridge.
- Brazil nuts. Probably the best dietary source of selenium: another mineral that is supportive of the immune system
Keep Calm and Carry On
Prolonged states of stress reduce our immune response leading us more susceptible to infection. In fact, there is a whole field of science dedicated to studying the relationship between our state of mind and immunity, called psychoneuroimmunology.
It may be easier said than done, but during these times, it’s particularly important to try to combat stress. Try some of these tips.
- Focus on the positives. I think many of us feel guilty about appreciating some of the positives that come with the lock down. Perhaps you are quite enjoying working from home or the peace of the city. Appreciating these positive aspects of a difficult situation doesn’t mean belittling the seriousness of the situation itself.
If the situation is causing you stress, whether financial or anything else, try to focus on the positive fact you are doing everything you can to deal with it.
- Stay connected. Keep in touch with friends and family regularly. Positive relationships are important during these difficult times.
- Keep up a routine. Embracing a routine can have a positive impact on mental health. Try to get up, shower and dress as you normally would, and eat and sleep at regular times.
- Destress. What else can you do to destress? Could you try a short mediation through an App like Headspace? Do some yoga? Cook a nice meal?
- Laugh. It’s often said laughter is the best medicine and in fact it has been found to decrease stress and increase immunity, so it is particularly important at the moment. So don’t feel guilty laughing at all the silly memes going around at the moment! Again, remember this is not belittling the situation itself.
Be mindful of your alcohol consumption
It’s tempting to get stuck into the wine and beer while we are locked down. But alcohol disrupts the immune system so should be reduced as much as possible. It also disrupts blood sugar levels and adds to stress.
Could you find alternatives to alcohol like some sparkling water with fresh lemon or lime?
Tea and Coffee
Some new research suggests there are benefits to drinking coffee to our health. But high amounts of caffeine can raise cortisol, our stress hormone, leading to a weakened immune system. If you drink coffee, try to keep it within moderation.
Green tea is a great alternative, it is packed full of antioxidants like polyphenols which boost the immune system, and still contains a small amount of caffeine if you need that boost. It is also a source of theanine: an amino acid which aids relaxation.
Should I take supplements?
Frustratingly, stocks of vitamin and herbal supplements are currently very low due to the panic buying we have seen since the Coronavirus outbreak, which means it’s not an ideal time to think about a new supplement regime. That makes it all the more important to eat well; the majority of nutrients we can obtain from our diets as long as you eat a varied, wholefoods diet with plenty of different colours, as described above. On the other hand, if you do have vitamin supplements in your cupboard, now could be a good time to take them, to give yourself an extra boost.
Vitamin D is one supplement I regularly recommend my clients; particularly during the winter months, since our main source comes from the sun which we lack her in Scotland. If you have vitamin D in your cupboard, keep taking it during the lockdown since we are getting outside far less than usual.
Vitamin C is one you may have read about in the news recently. There have been conflicting reports recently about its role in supporting the immune system and whether it can be used to tackle Covid-19. A number of past studies have suggested vitamin C intake may shorten the duration of the common cold, but evidence has been inconclusive. Doctors in China are currently working on a study to investigate whether high doses of vitamin C may be used in treatment of Covid-19 and results are due to come out in September this year.
Whatever the results of such studies say, it is an undisputed fact that vitamin C is an essential nutrient for human health and as one of our key antioxidants it plays a very important role in our immune health.
Vitamin C also plays a role in reducing stress, and being stressed has been found to deplete the vitamin, so now could be a good time to take a supplement if you have one to hand.
Echinacea is a herb traditionally used to support the immune system; although not enough research has been carried out to confirm its benefits. Again, if you have it in your cupboard and this is something you have taken before, you may like to take it during the pandemic.
Please consult with your GP or other health professional before taking any supplements if you have a health condition or take medications.
It’s thought that moderate exercise can aid immunity by increasing circulation of immune cells, raising respiratory rate and core temperature. It also reduces stress.
However intense exercise may increase inflammation and risk of infection, therefore it’s wise to keep it in moderation, especially if you aren’t used to doing a lot.
If you are able to get outside for a daily walk that is great. But if you are self-isolating indoors there are still ways you can get exercise. Try looking up online exercise videos; many gyms are offering these while they are closed, and many are free. I have been really enjoying the free online fitness, yoga, Pilates and meditations classes offered by Tribe Yoga which you can access here. And don’t forget that tasks like gardening and cleaning burn calories and count as exercise. No excuse for not getting those jobs done!
Sleep is an essential element of good health and that includes our immune health and mental health. Studies have found that poor sleep reduces antibodies required for immunity and people who don’t sleep well tend to be more prone to illness.
If you are prone to insomnia try some of the following tips:
- Reduce caffeine from tea, coffee and chocolate from afternoon onwards. The caffeine may be disrupting your sleep.
- Reduce screen time. Don’t spend time looking at screens for 3 hours before you go to bed. Instead could you read a book or do a meditation exercise?
- Eat less in the evenings. Eating a large meal late at night can disrupt sleep since your body is working on digestion instead of sleep. Could you have a lighter evening meal or eat earlier?
- Reduce sugar, especially in the evenings. As well as the issues discussed above, it is stimulating and disrupted blood sugar levels may disturb your sleep.
- Reduce alcohol which disrupts sleep.
- Save worries for the morning. If you are prone to waking up in the night, try not to focus on the problems in your life, which always seem worse in the dark. Worrying about them, or about the fact you can’t sleep, will only keep you awake. Could you visualise yourself shutting away your problems into a mental filing cabinet to be addressed in the morning? And instead try making a mental list of 10 things you are glad of in your life.
Reduce exposure to toxins
If you smoke, try to cut down as much as you can. Smoking exposes you to 7,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic to our health, disrupting our immune systems. While vaping has become a popular alternative to smoking, recent research has found that this damages DNA and increases risk of bacterial and viral infection.
You can also reduce exposure to toxins by switching to organic foods where possible, buying eco cleaning and beauty products, and avoiding walking or cycling on roads with heavy traffic. The latter may not be as applicable under current circumstances!
I am carrying out nutrition consultations over the phone during the lockdown and this is working well. If you would like to discuss your personal nutrition requirements further, please just get in touch.
Please contact me for a full referenced version of this article.