March 14, 2020
From hand sanitisers at the entrance to hospitals to the ‘catch it, kill it, bin it’ mantra of hand-washing and tissue usage in response to the coronavirus, we’re all aware of the importance of keeping bugs and bacteria at bay when our health is vulnerable, or we’re caring for someone who is unwell or elderly. A devastating consequence of fighting illness is that, when our immunity is low, typically minor infections can have an outsize impact. That’s especially true in our later years, as our immune systems get weaker as we get older. While no ‘superfood’ can make us immune to bacteria and viruses, what we eat can have an impact on our body’s resistance and may help us to recover more quickly if we do fall ill. Here are some tips to help…
1 Feed your microbiome
Trillions of microbes live on and in our bodies – many of them producing antimicrobial chemicals that help to kill off bugs that infiltrate our body’s defences. Our gut, in particular, is rich in ‘friendly’ bacteria, which create a barrier against disease and actually control our immune response, helping to fight both short-term infection and the inflammation that can cause chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and diabetes.
Fibre-rich foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, are proven to increase the diversity of the microbiome, and the more varied the microbes in your gut, the better your resistance to disease. If you don’t have a problem with your digestion, then introducing more plant-based foods is an easy way to increase the amount of fibre in your diet and boost your antioxidant intake at the same time (see Add more antioxidants, below).
The problem with eating a lot of fibre is that it’s bulky and quickly fills up the stomach – a problem if you have a poor appetite and need enough calories and nutrients to sustain you during illness or treatment. Eating a lot of fibre when you’re unused to it can also lead to bloating and cramps, which can be particularly difficult if you’re living with a digestive condition or treatment has made your gut sensitive. In this situation, eating stewed and mashed vegetables can make them easier to digest. Pulses are also rich in fibre, so a soft and gently spiced lentil dhal is great for gut health and a wonderful comfort food when you’re feeling poorly.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi have also been shown to boost the microbiome and, in turn, improve immunity. Again, they can be tricky to eat if your gut is very sensitive, so eat small amounts as a condiment while your body adjusts to them. Kefir and kombucha are fermented drinks, which can be less traumatic for the gut to handle. If you don’t like their tangy taste, try mixing them with one of our Nourish Drinks for a creamier flavour.
Find out more about fermented foods here
2 Avoid alcohol
While the occasional glass of alcohol shouldn’t affect your immunity too much, heavy drinking has been show to impact on immune cells in two ways. It can make microphages, our first line of defence, less effective. And if bugs do pass through that barrier, we need lymphocytes – our infection-fighting white blood cells – to continue the battle. Unfortunately, excess alcohol seems to reduce numbers of lymphocytes in our body.
3 Add more antioxidants
One reason fruit and vegetables are so loved by nutritionists is that they’re packed with vitamins and minerals that are essential for the body’s immune system to function effectively. Vitamin C is well known as a cold and flu fighter but because it is water-soluble, it can’t be stored in the body. The best approach is to include fresh fruit and vegetables as part of your daily diet. If eating a lot of fibre is an issue, try cooking them to make them easier to digest. Soups are a great source of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
See our favourite soup recipes, here
4 Dose up on vitamin D
Vitamin D is used by the microphage barrier, bolstering our immunity. Most of the vitamin D in our body comes from exposure to sunlight, something we don’t get enough of in the winter months or if we’re unwell and not spending much time outdoors. It means many of us in the UK are deficient in this essential infection fighter. Fortunately, vitamin D is also found in dairy foods and oily fish, so eating these can top up your levels. Or you could take a daily supplement to ensure you’re getting enough.
Try our Roast Mackerel with Potatoes & Thyme recipe, here
5 Eat to sleep better
Evidence suggests that lack of sleep can make us more vulnerable to bugs, so a good night’s rest can be crucial to boosting immunity. Fluctuating blood sugar levels can disrupt sleep patterns, so try to eat regular smaller meals or sip a Nourish Drink between meals for sustained energy throughout the day. A starchy evening meal also seems to help the body wind down at the end of the day, so you’re more likely to fall asleep at a reasonable time. A glass of warmed milk or Nourish Drink is an excellent pre-bed soother, or try our recipe for Lavender Milk.