A guide to boost your winter immune system.

A healthy immune system is the cornerstone of good health. In our fast paced world, there are a multitude of factors that can challenge our immune system, including diet, lifestyle, exercise, sleep, stress, exposure to toxins both environmental and consumed in food and drugs to name a few. If our immune system is not firing on all cylinders it can have a huge impact on how our body copes with these challenges, and be the difference between wellness and illness.

Our immune system is a complex network made up of more than white blood cells. It includes our skin which acts as a physical barrier to harmful microbes. Our lymphatic system also plays a large role in immunity and includes the lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes and lymphatic organs such as the spleen, which help to remove toxins from tissue within the body and transport potentially harmful microbes to cells that can help disarm them. Organs such as our stomach and liver also help defend us from harmful bacteria. Our stomach produces stomach acid which kills many harmful bacteria and our liver contains cells which destroy harmful bacteria and systems that de-activate potential toxins. Our intestines play a huge role in protecting us from harmful substances in food and it is said that around 80% of our immune system is located in our gut. Other chemical messengers within our body also play a role by directing the cells of our immune system into action.

So how do we know if our immune system isn't working? Some of the obvious first signs include niggling sore throats, colds and repeated infections that become more frequent, worse or just won't go away. Sometimes there are no warning signs and serious illnesses such as cancer can occur.

As we age, our immune function may decline and it becomes more difficult to fight off infection. As well as an under-functioning immune system, it can also start to overreact and attack our own tissue such as in the case of auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and where we react to chemicals or eating certain foods, or inhaling allergens such as dust or pollen.

The good news is that there are a number of simple changes that we can make to boost our immune systems and maintain good health to fight off, or at least reduce the severity of certain illnesses.

1. Limit / Avoid in the Diet:

Sugar - studies show that sugar can hamper white blood cells from attacking bacteria. This includes honey and sugar in sweets, chocolate, cakes, drinks and hidden in some ready-made foods.

Alcohol - the sugars in alcohol can have the same impact as above

Fats - there is conflicting evidence regarding the intake of fats both saturated and unsaturated essential fatty acids with regard to their effect on the immune system. However, the general consensus is that reducing saturated and transfats in the diet can be beneficial for the immune system. Therefore limit red meats and full fat dairy and avoid food fried at high temperatures (it can creates free radicals), cakes, pastries and biscuits containing trans fats. Omega-3 fats such as those found in oily fish, flaxseed and hempseeds have anti-inflammatory properties.
2. Dietary Recommendations

Aim for at least 5 portions of antioxidant rich fresh fruit and vegetables every day (preferably organic to reduce exposure to pesticide residues). Eat a rainbow! Rich sources include kale, raw spinach, tenderstem broccoli, alfalfa sprouts, steamed spinach, broccoli, beetroot, sweet potatoes and avocado, prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums

Snack on a daily handful of unsalted/unroasted/unsmoked nuts and seeds which are rich in minerals zinc and selenium

Foods rich in cysteine and glutathione eg white meat, fresh tuna, pulses, nuts, seeds, garlic and onions

Try some warming freshly made soups - they are rich in nutrients and can be easier to digest.

Home-made soups using organic ingredients are even better.

Protein is essential when the body is under attack - choose fresh fish, chicken, turkey and lean meats. For vegetarian sources choose pulses, tofu and whey products.

3. Reduce body stress

Excess stress can have a negative effect on health. Cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands alongside stress has the effect of dampening down the immune system. This is why we often fall foul of colds and infections when we're stressed out. Try and reduce stress levels and/or make sure you have a relaxing outlet for stress. Relaxation, meditation, massage - whatever works for you.

It is also important to have an outlet for psychological stress. If you find yourself worrying or having negative thoughts, you may find benefit in therapies such as Emotional Freedom Technique or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, by talking to a counsellor, or receiving a therapy such as Reflexology or Reiki.

Exercise - Moderate exercise can help boost the immune system and promote a feeling of wellbeing for example yoga and t'ai chi, walking. Excessive exercise and overtraining can have the opposite effect and can suppress the immune system temporarily. Exercise is very beneficial to keep the lymphatic system moving.

Sleep - A good night's sleep is essential for good immune function as this gives the body the opportunity to repair and renew itself.

Try to reduce exposure to external toxins for example car fumes, cigarette smoke, agricultural chemicals, chemicals in domestic cleaning products, drugs, heavy metals etc. These will all add further burden to your immune system.

Massage - Lymphatic Drainage massage and Indian Head Massage are two massages best suited to help boost sluggish lymph vessels. Did you know one third of all your lymph nodes, where bacteria are cleared from the lymph fluid, are from the chest area upwards? This is why Indian Head Massage is particularly good for the immune system.

Some say that laughter is the best medicine and there are reports that a good belly laugh helps to boost your sense of wellbeing and therefore support your immune function by reducing stress levels. Watch some funny films or get together with fun friends.

Wash hands regularly to avoid the spread of bacteria.
4. Take Helpful Supplements

Multivitamins - taking a good quality multivitamin and mineral formual can help provide nutrients that are beneficial for immune health and fill the gaps that are present in many of our diets.

Antioxidants - they provide essential support to the immune system to fight the oxidative damage caused be free radicals. If you feel your diet is deficient and if your multivitamin doesn't contain good levels of vitamin A, C, E, D, zinc and selenium you may wish to supplement with an antioxidant formula.

Echinacea - This herb has been used widely to optimise immune system function. It may be useful in reducing the severity and duration of symptoms of the common cold. It also has an anti-bacterial effect and can help optimise resistance to infection from bacteria, parasites, fungi and yeasts like candida albicans.

Pycnogenol - This extract contains over 40 bio-available (ie our bodies can absorb them easily) nutrients from pine bark. It is a rich source of bioflavonoids, fruit acids and other antioxidants.

Garlic - Garlic has been used traditionally to optimise immune function and has some anti-cancer properties due to the presence of allicin which may be able to help fight tumours. It also has anti-viral properties and may be useful in optimising the treatment of candida albicans.

Probiotics - The probiotic strain acidophilus may help maintain a healthy immune function as it produces acids which help inhibit some disease forming organisms, for example E.coli. It also has some antibiotic and antiviral properties.

Rhodiola - This herb is an adaptogenic herb which can help us adapt to stresses and therefore may also help support our immune function, particularly during periods of stress.

Astralagus - another adaptogenic herb which can also help to optimise the immune system function by stimulating white blood cells and chemicals necessary to fight viral infections.

Lysine - cold sores are a common sign of a stressed immune system. Application of this can support healing of cold sores.

L-glutamine - This amino acid is important for maintaining a healthy immune system function by stimulating white blood cells and antibody activity to prevent harmful bacteria entering the body. It may also be effective in supporting treatment of certain autoimmune conditions as it helps the production of glutathione.

Ayurveda encourages the use of hot and spicy tastes to keep the body temperature high. Spices such as ginger, turmeric, black pepper, green chillies and garlic are great for this. If you feel like you are coming down with a cold, try mixing dry ginger and turmeric powder in equal quantities and taking ¼ teaspoon with warm water after each meal for 2 to 4 days. In addition, if you already have a sore throat or cough, then try gargling hot water with a pinch of turmeric powder and rock salt at least 4 or 5 times a day. This should help relieve the symptoms more quickly.

Alternatively, use the qualities of essential oils to help fight your cold or cough. Massage blends of essential oils with a carrier oil onto the forehead, throat, back and chest area. Essential oils can also be breathed in under a towel over a saucepan or oil burner. Add a few drops into water to breathe or add them into the bath before adding hot water.

I hope these tips are of use to you and I look forward to treating you! al Covo offers prestigious well-being and massage treatments and training in Southampton.
Steve x