Health is wealth, or so they say. Is it time to reinvest in your family’s immunity?
Like any parent, my family’s health is a major preoccupation – right up there with how many times the baby woke last night and wishing there was a seventh series of Schitt’s Creek. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a priority made even more critical. With every sniffle now suspect, we want the people we care for to be in full health.
One of the most effective things we can do to keep bugs at bay and our families healthy is to improve immunity. According to the Better Health Channel, our immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins that defends the body against infection. It’s an ingenious defence system that remembers every pathogen it encounters, enabling it to fend off future attacks quickly and efficiently.
Age, lifestyle factors and underlying medical conditions can compromise immune function. The good news is that small changes we make to our daily hygiene habits and lifestyle can have a significant impact on our health and immunity.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
“What we eat today is almost unrecognisable from our ancestors’ diets,” says Grant Schofield, professor of public health at Auckland University of Technology. Ultra-processed food – the packaged products that make up around two-thirds of what we buy at the supermarket – is much higher in sugar than anything our ancestors ate, resulting in much higher amounts of glucose entering our bloodstream.
“By accident, it turns out that immune function and the amount of glucose in your blood are inversely related, so the more glucose you’ve got, the worse your immune system works,” explains Schofield. “On top of that, we don’t go outside much, so our vitamin D is low, and the ultra-processed food is low in nutrients – especially things like zinc and selenium and vitamin B – so we don’t get the bits and pieces we need to run the immune system.”
Michael Mosley is a qualified doctor, television presenter and author. In his latest book, COVID-19: What you need to know about the coronavirus and the race for the vaccine, Dr Mosley recommends switching to a Mediterranean-style diet to support immune function. According to Dr Mosley, we should eat more foods that support immune function, such as:
* Natural healthy fats such as olive oil, full-fat dairy, avocado, nuts and seeds;
* Protein, choosing oily fish, eggs and tofu over processed meats; * Lots of colourful vegetables, especially the leafy dark green varieties; and
* Wholegrains and pulses that are high in fibre.
Adopting a Mediterranean-style diet and cutting down on ultra-processed foods has the additional effect of nourishing the microbiome – the colonies of bacteria that reside in your gut. A healthy microbiome reduces systemic inflammation and is essential for maintaining good health and a robust immune system. You can give your gut flora an extra boost by incorporating delicious fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi into your diet.
Sleep is an often-overlooked part of the immunity puzzle. In a study that looked at the impact of sleep on the effectiveness of the flu vaccine, people who slept well produced more antibodies than those who slept poorly. “A decent night’s sleep doubles the ability of your immune system to produce antibodies against new threats,” says Schofield.
“There is a very clear link between poor sleep and vulnerability to viral infections,” writes Dr Mosley. His tips for getting a better night’s rest include sticking to a sleep routine – waking up and going to bed at the same time each day – and practising breathing exercises to manage stressful thoughts that keep you up at night. The problem of poor sleep is another reason to restrict our use of devices in the evening. Blue light from devices has a destructive effect on the body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin. “For kids,” says Schofield, “the hormone you need to get a good night’s sleep is completely zeroed by looking at devices.” For adults, exposure to blue light halves our melatonin stores. If we want to sleep well to bolster our immune function, we should switch off devices well before bedtime.
Despite its bad reputation, stress plays a critical role in our wellbeing. “Stress is good because without it you can’t improve,” says Schofield. “That’s also true of the immune system.” Stress, in the form of exposure to a virus like the common cold or the physical demands of a workout, has a positive impact on our physiology.
Unmanaged stress is another issue altogether. “Stress that you don’t have control over or time to adapt to – like too much exercise for your fitness level or a toxic workplace – disrupts the immune system and makes it function worse,” says Schofield, who sees stress and sleep as “two sides of the same coin. The effects that a poor night’s sleep has on cortisol, insulin resistance and immune function are exactly the same as a high level of uncontrolled stress.”
Regular exercise is an excellent stress management tool, with the added benefit of improving overall health and your immune system. “It pumps up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, including BDNF [brain derived neurotrophic hormone] and endorphins,” writes Dr Mosley. Aim for a mix of cardio and strength training to get the most out of your workouts.
After the taxing year that was 2020, it’s vital to give yourself space to reflect and recover. Take time out to go for walks, spot clouds with your kids and play board games in the evenings – whatever it is that helps you unwind. And it’s never too late to try meditation. Dr Mosley recommends 10 to 15 minutes a day, three or four times a week, which “has been shown to reduce stress and cortisol levels”.