In yet another year upended by COVID, many of us are focused on keeping ourselves and our families as healthy as possible and free from illness. While all of us will get rundown and sick at some point, there’s a few strategies we can all adopt to help strengthen our immune systems, so we aren’t knocked for six by these nasties. To help keep you and your family fit and healthy, follow these six immunity-boosting tips.
- Eat more plant-based foods: A balanced diet with loads of plant-based foods like fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, nuts and legumes will boost your intake of antioxidants which helps reinforce the immune system and prevent disease1. On the other hand, Westernised diets that contain nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods that are rich in kilojoules, sugar, saturated fats and salt have been shown to induce inflammation and alter immune system function, making illness more likely2. Up your intake of plant-based foods by enjoying meat-free Mondays and filling half of your lunch and dinner plate with vegetables.
- Exercise regularly: Exercise increases blood flow, helps clear bacteria out of your airways, reduces stress hormones, strengthens antibodies to help fight infection and improves the effectiveness of immune cells by reducing chronic inflammation. A 2019 scientific review linked moderate-intensity exercise to lower rates of upper respiratory tract infections including colds and flus3. Make exercise part of your daily routine, aiming for 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each day.
- Get adequate sleep: Sleep gives your body the time it needs to rest and recharge. Research shows that during nightly sleep certain components of the immune system work better, helping a sick or injured person to heal. During sleep, your body releases proteins called cytokines, which play a role in supporting an immune response4. With inadequate sleep, your body creates less cytokines reducing your ability to respond to infection. Sleep also improves the effectiveness of immune cells known as T cells, which kill virus-infected cells in the body5. Although sleep requirements vary from person-to-person, 7-9 hours of good quality sleep a night is recommended for most healthy adults.
- Schedule in downtime: There’s a connection between mind and body, with people who report higher levels of stress having higher cortisol levels and lower levels of immune cells in the blood6. Stressful thoughts have been found to lower levels of immune antibodies – a protein that attaches itself to foreign bodies and destroys them. While you might not be able to eliminate stress completely from your life, you can work to managing your stress by scheduling in some downtime each day. Whether it’s listening to music, meditating or catching up with friends, all can help manage your stress.
- Don’t worry, be happy: Always look on the bright side of life, as a positive attitude can improve your immune system. In fact, research shows happier people are less likely to catch a cold than people who are depressed, angry or nervous8. Positive emotions decrease stress hormones and activate immune cells boosting the immune system. Negative emotions on the other hand release stress hormones, which suppress immune activity and increase the likelihood of ill-health. Boost your mood by writing down three things you’re grateful for each day, and make sure you laugh often.
- Build your social network: Having strong relationships are important for your immunity. People who feel connected to friends have stronger immunity than those who feel alone9. Spend time nurturing connections with the people you care about, and your immunity will thank you for it.
- Carddock J, Neale E, People G & Probst Y. Vegetarian-based dietary patterns and their relation with inflammatory and immune biomarkers: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Adv Nutr 2019;10:433-451.
- Christ A, Lauterbach M, Latz E. Western diet and the immune system: an inflammatory connection. Immunity 2019;51:794-811.
- Nieman D and Wentz L. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sport Health Sci 2019;8(3):201-217.
- Besedovsky L, Lange T & Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch 2012;463(1):121-137.
- Dimitrov S, Lange Y, et al. Gas-coupled receptor signaling and sleep regulate integrin activation of human antigen-specific T cells. J Exp Med 2019;216(3):517-526.
- Morey J, Boggero I et al. Current directions in stress and human immune function. Curr Opin Psychol 2015;1(5):13-17.
- Kalokerinos, E. K., von Hippel, W., Henry, J. D., & Trivers, R. (2014). The aging positivity effect and immune function: Positivity in recall predicts higher CD4 counts and lower CD4 activation. Psychology and Aging, 29(3), 636–641
- Cohen S, Alper C, Doyle W et al. Positive emotional style predicts resistance to illness after experimental exposure to rhinovirus or influenza a virus. Psychosom Med 2006;68(6):809-815.
- Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Skoner DP, Rabin BS, Gwaltney JM. Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. JAMA 1997;277:1940–1944.