This is a hot topic right now, in light of the current COVID 19 pandemic. Whilst there is much rhetoric around vaccinations and treatment, there seems little government or media attention focused on prevention. However, in my opinion, the best medicine for any disease is prevention rather than cure.
The one factor, which most specialists agree on, is that the current virus seems to exploit people who are vulnerable. If you strip it back, what that really means is people who are unhealthy. Shouldn’t then the emphasis be on doing what we can to be healthy?
Our immune system is an interactive network of organs, tissues, white blood cells and proteins, which protects us against viruses, bacteria and dangerous foreign invaders. We rely on this complex system to neutralise and remove pathogens and fight against our own cells that have changed due to illness.
Other than specific genetic disorders which can compromise our immune system, there are common lifestyle factors that can disrupt our finely balanced immune system leaving us more susceptible to infection and disease. Some of the most common lifestyle factors that can effect our immune system are are:
- Excessive mental, physical, emotional and spiritual stress
- Eating poor quality, processed foods
- Frequent use of antibiotics
- Poor sleep
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Lack of sun exposure
- Medical drugs such corticosteroids
- Chronic inflammation
The importance of gut health and microbiome
Believe it or not, the health and balance of our gut bacteria plays a huge role in the effectiveness of our immune system. Most of the lifestyle factors listed above play a negative effect on the bacteria that colonise our gut, called ‘microbiome’. Taking antibiotics, for example, can disrupt the balance of the good bacteria in your gut. One of the important roles of our microbiome is to direct and orchestrate our immune system; when our gut health becomes compromised the immune system becomes like a ship without rudder.
A leaky gut can lead to many health issues
Not only does stress, antibiotics, alcohol, medications and sugar play a role in damaging the balance of our gut flora, but it can also lead to a more permeable gut membrane called ‘leaky gut’. Without going into the deeper science, the end result of a leaky gut is inflammation in the body. It’s this inflammation that is then linked to diseases such as diabetes, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease and an over active immune system.
A poor quality diet
A poor diet is probably the next in line as culprit for a compromised immune system. Your immune system, like every other part of your body, is literally made from the food you eat – particularly protein. When coaching clients, one of the first steps is to remove processed foods such as refined white flour, sugar, dairy and salt.
If your diet doesn’t contain high quality food, how can you expect to have a fully functioning immune system? A poor diet is like removing an important cog from a finely tuned machine.
Exercise should be about function not burning calories.
One of the most common mistakes I see as a health and lifestyle coach is people over exercising. It’s very common for people to use exercise to compensate for a poor diet and lifestyle. Although exercise is a fantastic way to remain functional and strong, it is by nature a type of stress. The stress response to exercise is the same response to any other form of stress, so it’s important to factor in whether your total stress levels are high, and whether you’re able to support your ability to adequately repair through good quality sleep and good nutrition.
Here are some lifestyle tips that can help support your immune system.
1. Manage mental and emotional stress – be mindful of your thoughts and feelings. Prioritise times of relaxation and ‘no mind’, which means reducing the amount of information exposure and therefore thinking time. Meditation, stretching, yoga, Tai chi, walking in nature, all take the load off our hormonal systems and push us into a repair and restorative state.
2. Rethink your diet – consider only eating natural foods, buy the best quality you can afford, organic, grass fed, free range are best.
3. Try and get to bed on time – a good night’s sleep is commonly overlooked. Sleep is our major pathway to restoration and having a robust immune system. Attempting to hack your immune system by taking supplements is a waste of time if you’re not sleeping well. Do what you can to get 8 hours of quality sleep; 10pm – 6am is good, give or take 1 hour.
4. Conscious diaphragmatic breathing – spending just 2-3 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing relieves stress by stimulating the restorative branch of your nervous system. Not only does mindful breathing have a calming effect on your body, it’s a free tool to help manage your thoughts.
5. Spend more time in nature – there are so many benefits of being in nature. Not only does sun exposure help synthesise vitamin D, but being connected to mother nature has a grounding and restorative effect as well as being exposed to microbes which support our own microbiome.
6. Get dirty! This may sound contradictory to conventional advice, but our immune system needs exposure to microorganisms that are found in soil. We have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria, viruses and pathogens. Over cleaning and using antibacterial sprays is bad news, as they disrupt our ever-changing and adapting ecosystem. Washing your hands with good old soap and water is best – stripping your skin with alcohol wipes and sprays is not.
7. Consider taking a good quality spore based probiotic. This is especially important for those who have taken antibiotics in the past, especially over a long period of time. I use a product called Megaspore, which has been proven to heal a ‘leaky gut’.
8. Some herbs and vitamins are known to support our immune system – herbs such as Echinacea, Zinc and elderberry.
9. Drink plenty of mineral water – Being dehydrated decreases cellular function, detox pathways and lymphatic function. Aim to drink 0.033 x body/kg of water per day.
The takeaway message is that some simple lifestyle choices can dramatically bolster your immune system. It’s easy to see ourselves as a mass of muscles and bones but in actual fact we’re all living ecosystems, a bit like a forest constantly adapting to its environment. To be resilient and adapt to your environment you must get the fundamentals right.
When you’re healthy and your immune system is firing on all cylinders, possible threats such as viruses and bacteria are tackled with little trouble.
If you would like to find out how health and lifestyle coaching may help you improve your immune system, get in touch we’d love to help.