Firstly, what is the immune system? Well, the immune system is our bodies defense barrier for protecting us against harmful bacteria, viruses and diseases. It is made up of T-cells that help kill off virus-infected cells, B-Cells that help to produce antibodies and others that all circulate around the body to fight off different types of infection. They are all stored in the Lymph Nodes until the type of antigen is identified so that the right type of cell can take action.
There is also a system of controllers that is there to prevent too much activity. Unfortunately, this sometimes fails and the immune system actually attacks the body. This results in conditions like eczema, asthma and multiple sclerosis occurring.
So how can we help boost our defenses to get through the winter months with no cold or flu symptoms and at the same time, protect ourselves from a whole host of potential illnesses?
Keep Stress At Bay
Our immune system buckles under the strain of severe stress and raised levels of stress hormones known as cortisol and noradrenaline make our bodies more susceptible to heart disease and infections.
It's ok to experience short mild bursts of stress, such as before a performance or an exam, as this has been shown to raise the blood level of immune cells but living with the world's troubles on your shoulders, where your sleep pattern is affected is a no no! Optimism, laughter and light meditation are a great way to help ease this weighed down feeling.
A healthy and varied diet is quite simply the best way to help your immune system. Vegetables and fruit play a major part in our diets as they contain immune friendly phytochemicals. Citrus fruits, berries, green vegetables and tomatoes all contain Vitamin C. Dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, carrots and orange coloured fruits all contain Vitamin A. Shellfish, meat, seeds and dairy all contain Zinc. All of these vitamins and minerals seem to boost our defenses, so should be an important part of our daily diet.
It is quite common for pregnant women and women in their 20's and 30's to have an Iron deficiency, which has an immune suppressive effect. Foods that are high in iron are red meat, liver, fish, beans and pulses, apricots, fortified breakfast cereals and tofu. Orange juice helps the body to absorb Iron, so always try to remember to include a glass with these foods.
So as you can see, vitamins and minerals appear to help boost our defenses.
Nurture Your Gut
In our gut, we have trillions of bacteria that collectively are known as gut flora and they help us to digest our food.
Our friendly flora's biggest threat is Antibiotics. This is because they strip our gut of our good bacteria. Probiotics are known to boost the number of good bacterias in our bodies, so if you find yourself having to take a course of antibiotics, reach for the probiotic yoghurt drinks which are full of these little guys!
Keep To A Healthy BMI (Body Mass Index)
Being overweight or obese affects every single part of our bodies and includes the immune system. People who are obese are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses more than people who are of a healthy weight and in some cases these illnesses will be more severe.
The reasons for this aren't exactly clear but it is known that fat cells trap the fat soluble vitamins A, D and E and they also churn out harmful substances. This means that obese people are at high risk of being particularly deficient in Vitamin D.
It is also important to try and avoid processed foods as these can lead to deficiencies in Vitamin C and Iron.
Yo-yo dieting and drastic weight loss plans are also most definitely not the answer. Yo-yo dieting reduces the action of our bodies natural bug killing T-Cells. A healthy eating plan is the only way to lose weight without jeopardising your health.
Studies have shown that people who sleep for less than seven hours a night are three times more likely to catch a cold than people who sleep for longer.
A recent study also suggested that those who get less than six hours sleep per night or who have a fragmented sleep pattern, have an increase in Atherosclerosis.
It's not just short sleep patterns that are harmful because being exposed to light during the night time can also cause problems. This is because the production of Melatonin (the sleep-inducing hormone) that acts as a powerful cancer fighting antioxidant, isn't as high and a lack of it also suppresses our immune system.
For tips on how to get a good nights sleep take a look at the following related articles.
Enjoy The Sun
Vitamin D plays an enormous part in the activation of the body's T-Cells. It's the T-Cells that destroy invading bugs and also help in keeping our immune system under control so that it doesn't work overtime and attack our body. If this happened, illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Type 1 Diabetes could occur.
90% of our vitamin D intake is taken directly from the sun beaming down on our skin. Obviously we should get this during the summer months and store it up ready for the winter months but as the climate changes and we become more aware of protecting ourselves against skin cancer, this isn't that easy. Because of this a quarter of us are actually deficient in vitamin D by spring. A way to help this is to expose your face, hands and arms to the sun at least twice a week. How long you need to this for is quite simple. If you aim to expose your skin for a quarter of the time it would normally take you to burn without sunscreen, you can't go wrong.
Find out more about vitamin d and whether you are getting enough in our other article - Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?
Keep Yourself Active
Keeping physically active is a great way to keep yourself healthy as it mobilises the immune cells. If you are not active, these cells will just stay dormant in your organs and blood vessels.
A study of 1,000 people has shown, that those that were more active and did five aerobic sessions a week, actually reduced the number of days they suffered from a cold by half.
This doesn't mean you have to go to the gym or put yourself through an hour of dance/aerobic classes. Simple activities like swimming, a brisk daily walk or jog will all make you sweat lightly and become slightly breathless. This is all it takes to help boost your immune system.