When it comes to any kind of tips for a healthy immune system, many people immediately think of herbs and nutritional supplements to boost the immune system. There always seems to be a new supplement on the market, that everyone should be taking for their immune health or for some other reason. While these are a valuable addition to your health care routine, without getting the basics of immune system care addressed, in some situations, these remedies can have little to no value.
We can get so caught up in quick fixes and the next new-fangled supplement, that we forget to slow down and look after our health with simple, cost-effective methods.
In this article, I’m discussing, good, old-fashioned tips for a healthy immune system; the kind of stuff that our grandmothers would have taught us, yes, they are still valuable today.
Sleep and a Healthy Immune System
Let’s start with the most basic way to support the immune system – sleep.
While many of us try to jam as much stuff into our days as possible, the downside of this is that we often don’t have enough time for rest and don’t spend enough actual time in bed, sleeping.
While you might think that skimming a few extra hours off your time in bed might be a wise and productive way to get ahead of things, it can harm your immune system in the long term.
Studies show that sleep plays a vital role in the function of our immune system T cells1. It turns out, a night of good night sleep can help to enhance the function of these T cells so that they can identify, seek out and destroy invading pathogens or viruses. These studies also suggest that sleep improves immune system memory, where these antigen-specific T cells recognise a pathogen that it has come across previously and can launch a response.
If you’ve ever had a cold or flu that’s wiped you out and you’ve spent a couple of days in bed sleeping, then you would know how valuable sleep is for the immune system. It’s those immune system T cells doing their work.
So, tuck yourself into bed and cosy up for decent night sleep, your immune system will thank you for it.
Does Sugar Influence the Immune System?
Sugar is hidden in so many commercially available foods these days; it can be tough to avoid for some. While many people understand the relationship between diabetes and sugar consumption, it’s a little harder to see how sugar can influence the immune system.
When I’m talking about sugar, I’m referring to the obvious sugars in sweet foods such as cakes, biscuits, soft drinks, and lollies and the hidden sugars in most processed and packaged foods.
There are theories that high sugar consumption influences the nutritional status of a person; it is said to strip the body of various vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C, which plays an important role in immune health. Now, this is more of a long term influence of a high sugar diet, this depletion of nutrients will become evident after long periods of high sugar consumption, so when you think you might be getting away with a sugar-laden diet, it might just come back and influence your immune health in a more subtle way.
However, the most alarming influence of sugar on the immune system is its direct impact within a short period of time. A famous study from the 1970s showed the effects of sugar on phagocytes in the immune system2. In this study, sugar was found to reduce the activity of phagocytes, therefore reducing the capacity of the immune system to destroy invading pathogens.
A phagocyte is a white blood cell that engulfs and consumes bacteria and other debris in the body. They are the cleaners of the immune system, and when their efficiency is compromised with sugar consumption, the immune system can suffer.
This particular study identified this influence of sugar to be apparent within a short period of time after consuming sugary food and continued for several hours afterwards.
So with sugar consumption, there are short and long term adverse effects on the immune system. In the short term, up to around 5-6 hours after eating sugary foods, your white blood cells are compromised and with long term sugar consumption, your body can become depleted of nutrients essential for immune system function.
Two great reasons to cut right back on sugar for immune system health.
Vegetables and a Healthy Immune System
So, it turns out that your mum was right: you should eat your vegetables!
Now, you might be wondering: is there any scientific reason for me to eat vegetables? You have heard that they are meant to be good for you, but is it really true?
Fibre is by far one of the most essential components within your average vegetable that influences the immune system. We often hear information that fibre is good for your digestion and overall health, but how fibre could help the immune system?
A majority of your immune system is located in your digestive system; you have probably heard of all of the good bugs that live in your gut; well, these guys play a significant role in your immune system. Each of the different good bugs in our gut, play a different role in taking care of your health, especially your immune system.
These good bugs in your gut, also called the gut microbiota, need to feed on something. Can you guess what that could be? Yep, that’s right, they need food to survive, and insoluble fibre from vegetables and plants (think fibrous fruits, whole grains and seeds) is what they need to thrive3.
While I’m on the subject of vegetables and the immune system, it is good to note that it’s not just the fibre that is doing you good. It’s the whole components within vegetables that influence your overall health and the immune system. Many nutrients, vitamins and minerals affect NK cells, a type of white blood cell that plays a role in the immune system’s identification and eradicating viral pathogens4.
There are so many reasons to eat more vegetables, especially to promote a healthy immune system, many more than capable in the scope of this short article.
Putting it all together for Immune Health
While supporting the immune system, might seem like something simple that you do once. In reality, what we do every day can influence your immune system; the amount of sleep you get, the amount of sugar and processed foods you eat, and the fibre rich vegetables you include in your diet.
This article is not all-encompassing; you can do so much more for your immune system health. I think getting the basics right, it a great start.
- Besedovsky, L., Lange, T. & Born, J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch – Eur J Physiol 463, 121–137 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
- Albert Sanchez, J. L. Reeser, H. S. Lau, P. Y. Yahiku, R. E. Willard, P. J. McMillan, S. Y. Cho, A. R. Magie, U. D. Register, Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 26, Issue 11, November 1973, Pages 1180–1184, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/26.11.1180
- Schley, P., & Field, C. (2002). The immune-enhancing effects of dietary fibres and prebiotics. British Journal of Nutrition, 87(S2), S221-S230. doi:10.1079/BJN/2002541
- Johanna W Lampe, Health effects of vegetables and fruit: assessing mechanisms of action in human experimental studies, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 70, Issue 3, September 1999, Pages 475s–490s, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/70.3.475s
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