It seems like just about every vitamin and health product on the market these days claims to ‘boost your immunity’. It’s an appealing marketing stance – after all, who wouldn’t want enhanced protection against infection?
Cruise the Internet and you’ll find a wealth of generic articles (each a suspicious clone of the last) on how to boost your immune system. Look closer, however, and you may notice that little or no scientific proof is given and that many of the assertions are couched in less-than-confident language such as “one study suggests”, “there appears to be a connection”, “there is some evidence” or the all-purpose “it is widely known”.
When studies are cited, they often don’t clarify whether they’re based on human trials, mice in a laboratory or a few cells in a test tube. So perhaps the first rule when researching effective ways to bolster your immune system is to be sceptical about product claims. There is no single magical panacea for immunity health.
Usually, your immune system does a superb job of protecting you from all manner of nasty viruses, parasites, fungi and infectious bacteria. It’s a stalwart barrier against germs – the castle wall that keeps sickness and infection at bay. But now and then, the castle wall is breached and pesky germ invaders march in to test your body’s defences.
The best way to keep your immune system working at peak performance is to adopt healthy-living strategies that provide the reinforcements your body needs to fight infection. While immune system function is quite complicated, the things you can do to help it out are simple. The same positive lifestyle habits that improve your general health will also benefit your immune system.
Real-world tips for a healthy immune system
Winter is prime cold and flu season and there are a number of steps you can take to ensure your immune system is given the best chance to do its job during the chillier months. Here are six of the easiest:
1. Practice good winter hygiene to avoid infections
Infectious diseases occur when tiny organisms move from one person to another. Personal hygiene plays a huge role in reducing these transmissions. Thoroughly and regularly wash your hands and dry them completely (germs love wet surfaces). Cover your coughs and sneezes – airborne droplets travel much further than you think.
If no tissue is available, cough or sneeze into your elbow – not into your hands. Wash and bandage any cuts immediately. Disinfect commonly used household surfaces. Fridge door handles, mobile phones and TV remote controls are a good place to start. The bottom of purses (including ‘man bags’) – which often rest on the floor – can pick up their fair share of germs too.
2. Adopt safe food handling habits
Much of your immune system is housed in your digestive tract and many infections are caused by food-borne pathogens, so it’s vital to store and prepare food properly. Use a separate cutting board for raw meat. Before cooking poultry, meat, fruit, vegies or fish, rinse them under running water. Raw produce should always be rinsed before serving. Do your defrosting in the microwave or in the fridge – not on the kitchen bench.[i]
3. Ask your doctor about an annual flu shot
Influenza symptoms can range from mildly annoying to seriously debilitating. Certain groups of people have a higher risk of serious health complications if they catch the flu, including pregnant women, people over the age of 65 or those with compromised immunity, asthma, chronic lung conditions, heart disease or diabetes. Having an annual flu shot is an effective preventative measure against the flu virus, and something you might want to consult your doctor about. Make sure all your normal vaccinations are up to date too.[ii]
4. Eat healthy this winter
When people talk about cold and flu prevention in winter, vitamin C tends to get all the publicity, but zinc is just as important – and being low in zinc intake is far more common in most of us (especially women and children) than a shortage of vitamin C. Zinc helps in the function and development of infection-fighting white blood cells. It is mainly found in seafood and lean red meat, with smaller concentrations contained in nuts and whole grains.
A steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables is a vital and too often neglected part of a healthy diet, providing antioxidants and vitamins to keep cells ticking along efficiently. Fresh, brightly coloured produce is full of nutrition, so don’t be afraid to crank out some hearty winter soups this year (pumpkin, broccoli, sweet potato, etc.) or add some red capsicum, pink grapefruit or celery to your juicer concoctions.[iii]
5. Don’t let yourself get dehydrated
Hydration affects every aspect of health, from digestion and circulation to temperature management and brain function. Staying hydrated helps your body flush out toxins and allows cells, organs and systems to work properly. Water is the best beverage, but with a million plastic water bottles being used in the world every minute[iv], you might want to invest in a filter for your tap water instead – the environment will thank you.
6. Get some sun
We tend to stay cooped up indoors a lot more during winter, but it’s important to get out of our enclosed, germ-rich spaces and into some fresh air and sunshine occasionally. Humans get 90% of their vitamin D from the sun, and insufficient vitamin D has been linked to higher rates of numerous diseases including heart disease, multiple sclerosis and assorted cancers. Vitamin D is also essential for healthy bones. Globally, more than a billion people are deficient in vitamin D.[v]
The trick, of course, is to get enough sun for health without getting too much. Skin cancer is a problem in Australia, so moderation is the key. The Cancer Council has information on the relationship between Vitamin D, sun exposure and health.[vi]