Having a good night’s sleep, keeping physically active and managing stress in our lives are all crucial parts of the bigger picture, when it comes to helping our immune systems, work at their best. So too, is the way we look after our skin, the supplements, and tonics we take, and of course, the choices we opt for as meals, snacks, and drinks.
The general need to eat ‘healthily’, is something we hear about so often, that it can become part of the mood music of our daily lives and, against the colossal marketing expertise and budgets of the processed food industry, can be hard, to put into action.
How much more tempting it always seem to say ‘yes’ when offered a muffin in a coffee shop, for instance, rather than reaching instead for the banana. How much easier to grab a chocolate bar instead of searching out a small pack of nuts as a snack. And how much more convenient to order a ready-made meal to be delivered, than to cook from scratch.
If, however, we can stand back and take the decision to opt for food that is good for our bodies rather than the profits of the processed food industry, then everything in our bodies benefit, including our immune systems.
Nourished with nutrient-packed foods, a sprinkling of appropriate supplements and combined with the powers of natural herbal extracts, in tonics creams and sanitisers, our bodies can then better fight seasonal infections from the common cold virus to flu. Here’s how.
Stopping the Bugs Getting In
Noses, throats, mouths, and lungs
One of our first lines of defence against infections, whether viral, bacterial, or fungal, comes by the ‘physical barriers ‘in our bodies being in peak condition. These barriers include the moist linings of our noses, mouths, throats, and lungs.
Vitamin A, plays a key role here, helping to keep such linings smooth, supple, and better able to block the entry of invading bugs.
Whole milk and eggs give us this nutrient directly, but we can also convert the orange pigment, beta carotene, found in delicious choices like mangoes and apricots, carrots, and sweet potatoes into vitamin A. Beta carotene is also hidden away in broccoli and kale, spinach, and watercress, although the more dominant dark green pigment chlorophyll, disguises its presence.
It is also important to also consider safe ways of keeping our hands clean, to limit the transfer of bacteria and viruses from the environment around us, to our mouths, eyes, and noses in the first place.
While liberal use of anti-bacterial gels has become common place, concerns over long-term effects of some their ingredients, may lead us to seek natural alternatives. Harnessing the intrinsic antiseptic properties of plant extracts from, for example, lavender and tea tree oils in natural disinfecting sprays, is one way of doing so.
It may not seem immediately obvious, but our skin also forms part of our physical barrier to infections. Vitamins C and E are vital for helping to maintain its barrier properties, from the inside. Oranges and grapefruit, peppers, and dark green vegetables, all help to top up our vitamin C. For vitamin E, we need to look to foods like wholegrains, nuts, and seeds, wheatgerm, olive oil and avocado.
Eating sufficient good quality protein is also necessary for our bodies to maintain healthy skin production. We can get protein through tucking into pulses like soya, cannellini, and red kidney beans as well as chickpeas, lentils, and tofu. Eggs, milk, poultry, and lean red meat are animal-based sources. It is a good idea to include a protein-rich food at each of our meals.
How we take care of our skin on the outside, also counts when it comes to optimising immunity, because by reducing the risk of dryness and cracking, we also reduce potential entry points for infections. Vitamin E, plus herbal extracts such as chamomile, chickweed, neem, and aloe vera can help to improve our skins condition when applied in creams and serums.
Fighting Infections from the Inside
If invading viruses and bacteria do make it past our physical immune barriers, then our internal immune system springs into action. Complex and clever, this system includes antibodies, and ‘natural killer cells’, whose job is to deactivate and make safe, invading bugs.
Vitamins C and E along with B2 and B6 are all vital, for making both antibodies and ‘natural killer’ cells. Regularly including foods like oats and soya beans, peanuts and mushrooms will boost our intakes along with eggs, milk, and yoghurt. Vitamin B12 is vital too, and it is important to remember since it is only found in animal foods, when following a vegan lifestyle, foods fortified with this nutrient and B12 supplements are a daily must.
Meanwhile, a supplement of vitamin D is recommended for everyone during winter months in the UK, because many of us simply do not make enough in our skin during summer, to see us through the cold season. Vital for strong bones, a lack of this nutrient has also been linked to a worse outcome, when we are laid low by infections. We need to aim for 10 micrograms daily, from October, through to April.
As well as vitamins, minerals are important for our internal immunity, including iron. Although we have a daily goal of 14.7mg daily, many women in the UK struggle to hit this target. Nuts, seeds, and dark green vegetables, plus dried apricots, figs, and pulses are some of the best plant-based foods for this mineral, along with egg yolks, oily fish like sardines and lean red meat. Taking a daily supplement of iron of between seven to 15mg a daily, can help to keep underlying intakes steady.
Selenium can also be below optimal in the UK and along with the mineral zinc, is needed to make both natural killer cells and antibody-producing ‘T’ cells. The good news is that Just three to four Brazil nuts a day are all we need to meet daily needs of selenium, while fish, eggs, and meat also contribute. Wheatgerm, wholegrains and dairy foods, plus meat and shellfish meanwhile, are the best foods to include for zinc.
Fascinatingly, our internal immune systems also appear to thrive when we have plenty of fibre in our diets. Present in wholegrain starchy carbohydrates, fibre moves, undigested, from our small intestines, into our gut (also known as our colon or large intestine). Here, it becomes food for beneficial bacteria. Having had their fill, these bacteria produce products that attach on to our gut wall and trigger reactions that benefit the overall health of our immune systems. Taking beneficial or ‘good’ probiotic bacterial directly in probiotic yoghurts and in supplement form, may help to enhance this process.
When it comes to the world of medical herbs, looking for tonics containing extracts of Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and cat’s claw is an option. Both boast natural anti-viral properties, while extracts from the astralagus plant, have been shown to help regulate immune cells in our bodies.
What Do Immune Optimising Meals Look Like?
When you look at the types of foods, needed to optimise the health of both our physical barriers and internal immune systems, we can see a pattern emerging. Wholegrains, lean protein, and vegetables and fruits are all vital pieces of the overall jigsaw, and thankfully, putting these pieces together, is easier than it seems.
At breakfast time for example, having oats with soya or dairy milk in porridge or a Bircher muesli is a great starting point. You can then serve with berries or a banana to add some fruit. Alternatively, eggs on wholemeal muffins, with roasted tomatoes on the side tick the immune optimising boxes as will a smoothie made with milk or soya milk, your favourite fruit, and a wholemeal muffin with a nut butter, on the side.
At lunchtime, a mixed bean salad with peppers and wholegrain couscous is a simple choice. Or you can try tuna with a watercress salad in a wholegrain wrap. For dinner, something like a wholegrain pasta with a lentil and mushroom or Bolognese sauce make a tasty dinner, as can, for instance, a tofu and vegetable stir fry served with brown rice.
If you keep in mind that you need a wholegrain carbohydrate, a nutritious protein and some vegetables and fruits, you can design endless meals, to fit this template.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)