We have been reading a lot of advice from varying sources about how we can “boost” our immune system to improve our health. Unfortunately, a lot of the claims we have come across are not supported by scientific evidence and will likely only cost you money, time and energy without providing the sought after health improvements. There are, however, some free, straight forward, evidence based things you can do to support your immune system, which can be beneficial when applied regularly and consistently over longer periods of time. There are no quick fixes, just healthy habits.
The first proven way to strengthen your immune system is to exercise regularly. The great news is that research has consistently shown that both resistance and cardiovascular exercises are beneficial for your immune system so you can choose what works best for you, starting from the fitness level you are currently at. If you would like to start with gentle cardio, try and set a step-target (8,000-10,000 steps a day) or time target (45 minutes to 1 hour of brisk walking a day), take the stairs wherever possible and combine it with something you enjoy like listening to music or a nice podcast. If you prefer strength training but are short on time, try and add in some body weight exercise snacks in between things you do on a regular basis like doing some squats, lunges, planks or push ups after you brush your teeth or while you boil your kettle. Unless you are overtraining or are unwell, try and increase your daily activity levels to strengthen your immune system.
The next tip that is frequently overlooked is sleep quality and quantity. Sleep is incredibly important for supporting your immune system and we often forget to make this an integral part of our self-care. The benefits range from improved immune function to emotional and physical well-being to cognitive function and hunger regulation. It really is an incredibly important element. Try and go to bed at the same time each night, sleep between 7-8 hours, keep your room dark, cool and quiet and turn off your electronics an hour before you go to sleep. Also give yourself some time to ease into the day in the morning before reaching for your phone by adding in a quick 5 minute meditation or stretching routine to centre your thoughts and start your day on the right foot. You will be amazed by how transformative this can be!
In terms of nutrition, a healthy, well balanced, portion controlled diet consisting of lots of vegetables, fruits as well as wholegrains, legumes, lean proteins and healthy fats remains the key to optimal health and immune function, unless other underlying factors are at play. Pay special attention to the amount of fibre in your diet as fibre is the prebiotic that feeds the probiotics in our microbiome and emerging data shows that a healthy microbiome is important for optimal immune function. Try and get at least 30g of fibre through your diet on a daily basis. This can easily be achieved by increasing your vegetable, fruit, wholegrain and legume intake. Frozen and canned options are absolutely fine as long as nothing else has been added so try and focus on supporting your immune system with the best options available to you at any given time. Quick and easy meal options include half a plate of mixed vegetables with beans / lentils / chickpeas / chicken / fish and brown rice / wholegrain bread / wholegrain pasta and a drizzle of olive oil / tablespoon of seeds or nuts. Most importantly, start reading ingredient labels to see what is in the foods you’re consuming and try to start paying attention to portions if weight is an issue for you.
Finally, make sure you dedicate some time during the day to self-care. This can be incredibly hard with a busy schedule but is essential for your physical and emotional well-being. Try and engage in some form of enjoyable activity like reading, meditating, yoga, drawing or knitting – whatever makes you feel good and gives your mind and body a chance to unwind. Even 10 minutes can have a great impact. All of these little habits really add up and your immune system will be strengthened in the process. Always remember: Your health is your greatest asset.
NHS Nutritionist & The DRC Lead Lifestyle Nutritionist
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