Updated: May 26
We are going through times of uncertainty and fear in relation to global and personal health. One of the most empowering things you can do when so much feels out of your control is to manage your own health by focusing on nutrition and lifestyle.
Here are 8 things you can do to take charge of your health and support your immune system:
1. Eat real food
Your body needs real, unprocessed food to stay healthy. Focus on eating natural, unrefined, unprocessed food as much as you can and cut out (or at least cut back on) sugar.
This obviously depends on what is available in the supermarkets at the moment but where possible focus on eating meat, fish, eggs and vegetable sources of protein like tofu, beans, lentils and chickpeas, nuts and seeds as well as a broad range of fruit and vegetables. Frozen vegetables can be a great option at the moment and why not look to start growing your own – it’s an ideal time if you are at home.
It’s also a good time to get the recipe books out or find recipes online (Amelia Freer has some good recipes on her website www.ameliafreer.co.uk) to inspire you.
2. Eat food to keep your gut happy
Did you know that up to 80% of your immune system resides in your digestive system? The muscosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) in the gut is part of the first line of immune defence so striking the right balance between beneficial bacteria in the gut and potentially pathogenic bacteria is key. Adding prebiotics (food for bacteria) and probiotics (strains of beneficial bacteria) helps to re-populate the gut with the types of bacteria we want and crowd out the bacteria we don’t want.
How do we do this?
Poor diets, too much sugar, stress, antibiotics amongst other factors can all have a detrimental effect on the balance of bacteria in the gut. Even if you don’t have any obvious symptoms, digestive health is vital and so it is worth the extra effort to take care of it.
Here are some gut friendly choices to get you started
- Organic, probiotic, natural yoghurt also called “live” yoghurt. (always buy full fat yoghurt as the 0% or no-fat options have increased levels of milk sugars) Remember its sugar intake you need to be most wary of, not fat!
- Fermented products such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha or kefir. I recommend www.happykombucha.co.uk for kits to make your own kombucha or water/milk kefir
- Miso soup or miso bouillon paste (you can add these to soups and stews)
- Oats (soak them first, as you would to make overnight oats to make them more digestible)
- Onions, garlic and Jerusalem artichokes
- Green bananas
Obviously see what you can get from the shops but any of the above would be a good choice!
3. Cook with herbs and spices
Not only do herbs and spices add flavour to your dishes, they are also immune modulators.
Garlic is a powerful superfood. It is antimicrobial, thanks to the active ingredient allicin, which helps fight viruses and has been used for thousands of years to support the immune system.
To get the most from allicin, crush, chop or grate the garlic cloves and allow them to sit for a few minutes which releases the allicin. Once formed, it is fairly heat resistant.
Most culinary herbs contain anti-inflammatory properties due to their phytonutrients, but oregano and thyme are particularly rich. Spice up your cooking with turmeric (alongside black pepper) and ginger too as they are well documented immune modulators.
4. Say no to sugar
Even if you don’t consider yourself a sugar addict, it’s worth taking a look at how much you do consume and trying to swap sugary treats for something more wholesome.
Sugar fans the flames of inflammation and affects the ability of white blood cells to fend off viruses and bacteria. In fact, the immune system stays depressed for hours after consuming sugar according to recent studies. If you really miss that chocolate hit, try a few squares of pure, dark chocolate with a higher cocoa content of 75% or higher.
5. Drink more water
Staying well-hydrated is important for health in general. When it comes to bolstering your immune defences, it helps to flush germs from your system and helps your blood to carry plenty of oxygen to your body’s cells and allows the cells to absorb important nutrients.
6. Drink herbal tea
Green tea (as well as chamomile) can help to support your immunity as it contains antioxidants that prevent free radicals from causing damage across the immune system.
7. Say hello to the sun
Spending sufficient time in sunlight is a vital immune support. Vitamin D is made by your skin absorbing sunlight so planning an hour or two outside is a good idea. However, you need to expose your bare skin to the sun as sunscreen inhibits the process so use your judgement as the sun becomes hotter towards the summer and do this either earlier or later in the day when there is less risk of burning.
You can also boost your vitamin D levels by eating more of the following foods: oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring), beef liver, mushrooms, cheese and egg yolks.
It’s worth checking whether you are low in vitamin D and these days it’s easy to check this yourself with a finger prick test. You can get in touch with me for recommendations.
Most of the clients I see in clinic have low vitamin D levels especially during the winter months and so I generally advise a vitamin D supplement but I usually check levels first – better to test than guess.
8. Get enough sleep
Sleep is so important for the immune system. Implementing good bedtime practices are helpful such as;
· reducing caffeinated drinks from early afternoon
· stopping screen time at least 2 hours before bedtime or wearing blue light blocking glasses
· making sure the bedroom is completely dark
· using relaxing essential oils such as lavender and vetiver
· going to bed earlier to ensure that you get a good 7-8 hours sleep
· practicing relaxation techniques like meditation or finding a calming yoga sequence to do before bedtime
If we are to take any positives out of this current situation, it is maybe to use this time to look after ourselves more, to press the reset button and think about what changes we can make in our lives when they start to get really busy again as they inevitably will.