Our immune system is an incredible network that functions to support our health. It is influenced by many different elements. Our diet, lifestyle, stress levels, environment and the people we come into contact with all play a role. The wonderful thing is that this allows us to influence and support its optimal function in a variety of ways. Whilst the following ideas are not exhaustive, I hope this offers some guidance on the many ways that you can fortify the health of your body and strengthen your immune system.
Nourish with nutrients
They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. While this may not necessarily be true, there is some merit in the impact our diet has on our immune system. The food that we eat can serve us an array of nutrients that help our body and our immune system to function optimally. Having a variety of foods within our diet is important, it is also important to look out for key nutrients central to immune system function such as zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D. If you are unsure if you are receiving enough of these nutrients from your diet alone, you may want to consider supplementation. You can reach out to our team of naturopaths instore to discuss what is the best option for you.
Zinc is a trace mineral that is abundant throughout the body. It has a central role to play in our immune system, acting as a precursor to white blood cells. These are the cells of the immune system which protect the body. Because of this, high zinc levels can strengthen our immune system, and low zinc levels can weaken it. Zinc is found in a variety of foods such as oysters, beef, oats, pumpkin seeds, cashews and black beans. If you suffer from reoccurring infections or have white spots on your nails this may be an indication of zinc deficiency. We all have different requirements for zinc, and it is important to be aware that other nutrients such as iron can affect zinc absorption. You can avoid this by eating foods high in one or the other at different times.
Vitamin C is well known as an immune system supporter, and rightly so. Vitamin C can help to reduce the severity of infection, and the duration that it lasts. Unlike many other vitamins, vitamin C cannot be produced or stored in the body, so it is essential to consume some vitamin C daily. Food such as berries, citrus fruit, kiwifruit, red capsicum, and tomatoes are great sources of vitamin C. These are best eaten fresh and raw as vitamin C depletes easily when exposed to oxygen, water and heat. When taking a supplement, consume no more than 1000mg at a time, as this is all the body can absorb. If you are unwell, you may want to consider taking several doses of vitamin C per day. It is important to take a high-quality supplement to maximise the benefit.
Vitamin D supports both our innate and adaptive immune systems to function optimally. The innate immune system is what we are born with and the adaptive is what we develop after exposure to diseases. Also known as the sunshine vitamin, we can increase our vitamin D levels by allowing our skin to have direct exposure to sunlight. This means being out in the sunshine without wearing long clothing or sunscreen. This is best done in the morning and afternoon when it is safest to do so. Vitamin D can also be found in salmon, tuna, sardines, eggs and mushrooms. To optimise your vitamin D intake, you can leave mushrooms in the sun during peak sunlight hours to increase their levels of vitamin D.
Choosing nourishing foods not only offers an abundance of vitamins and minerals that support our immune system, but it can also offer fibre, prebiotics and probiotics that support the health of our digestive system. This is important as around 70% of the immune system is located within the gut. Consuming plenty of fibre-filled whole grains, legumes, fresh fruit and vegetables and reducing animal products can beneficially impact the gut microbiome, the friendly bacteria within our gut. Introducing fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kombucha helps to increase and diversify the microbiome. If you suffer from recurrent infections, have digestive issues or have had antibiotics, taking a probiotic supplement may be beneficial.
Hydration is very important
How we choose to hydrate our body can also affect our immune system. When we are hydrated, our mucus membranes are supple and bacteria and viruses are less likely to be able to attach to them. Our body is also better able to cleanse and remove waste products, so that is functioning optimally. Water is extremely hydrating whereas beverages that contain caffeine such as coffee or black tea can be dehydrating. As a rule of thumb, for every coffee consumed, your body needs two glasses of water to rehydrate. If you find it difficult to drink water, you could try experimenting with different temperatures, drinking herbal tea or adding a hydration boost. To calculate how much water you should be drinking, multiply 0.033 litres per kg of body weight.
Create a calmer environment
Our nervous system is intimately linked to the immune system. This is because stress can reduce the white blood cells that fight infections, weakening its defences and increasing the risk of infection. Whether chronic or intermittent, stress causes the body to rapidly use nutrient stores, reduces the digestion of the (hopefully) nourishing nutrients we are eating and disrupts the gut microbiome. If you are finding yourself stressed throughout the day, you must prioritise your nervous system. There are numerous ways we can do this, how you choose to support yourself should be based on what brings you the most release and the most enjoyment. This may look like taking time to do some yoga, tai chi, meditation, breathwork, dancing, laughing, journaling or having meaningful conversations about how you are feeling. It is also important to look at stress triggers and address these. It can feel empowering to be informed, however, if you find yourself feeling more stressed out after reading the news, or looking through social media, swap this time for one of the activities above.
Closely interlinked to stress, poor quality sleep also lowers the function of our immune system. It is during our sleep that our cells repair themselves so that they also remain in good health. The amount of sleep needed is different for everyone. It commonly sits between 7-9 hours however you will know you have had the right amount when you wake feeling refreshed. If you are struggling to go to, or stay asleep, consider eating some protein such as nut butter before you go to sleep, having a hot shower or a bath with magnesium-rich Epsom salts before bed, limiting your screen time, reducing caffeine and alcohol and ensuring your room is dark, quiet and a suitable temperature.
Many herbs can help to build and support a strong immune system. They offer an array of nutrients, phytochemicals and constituents that act as anti-virals, anti-bacterials, anti-microbials and immune-modulators.
Elderberries are the richly coloured fruit of the Elder tree. They are full of anthocyanins which give the berries their deep purple colour and antioxidant effect that helps to improve the immune system response. Elder has been used medicinally for over a thousand years and the berries have antiviral and antibacterial effects which have been shown to shorten the length of and reduce cold and flu symptoms. Elderberries are delicious as a syrup. You can follow a recipe here, or take in the Wild Dispensary Immunity tonic.
Olive leaf is another herb that has been used medicinally for over a thousand years. The tree itself can withstand major environmental stressors, pollutants and weather events due to the constituents found
within, that strengthen the tree and protect it against viruses and bacteria. The olive leaf offers the same assistance to our immune system, working as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial.
Echinacea has beautiful flowers, however, it is the root that is most beneficial as a medicine. New Zealand grown echinacea in particular has extra-potent attributes that help to modulate the immune system. This modulation enables that immune system to be activated or suppressed depending on what your body needs.
We all have an immune system and its function is unique to every one of us and should be treated in that way. Take what information feels true to you, and which you are ready and able to implement into your routine. This information is generalised and the herbal medicine recommended may not be suitable for you, especially if you are taking medication or have health conditions. If you would like to know more, need help finding a supplement that is right for you, or would liked a tailored herbal formula, please reach out to one of our naturopaths. We can support you via phone or email. If you require more focused 1:1 support, you can book in with one of our practitioners here.
Written by Natasha Lubas - Naturopath & Medical Herbalist