Why You Need to Make Immune Health a Priority
In light of the upcoming flu season and recent viral infection dominating your newsfeed, the task of supporting immune health, while always important, has become increasingly discussed. As we are hearing, avoiding infection, whether it be by ‘the Rona’, or another virus such as those that cause the common, run-of-the-mill cold, is not always possible. Certainly, we can reduce our chances of becoming infected (you know…wash your hands, cough into your elbow and all that), but at the same time, we would be wise to ensure our immune system is in tip-top shape to minimise symptoms duration and severity in the event we do catch a dreaded lurgy.
Is the immune system really that helpful?
Imagine you had your own personal army of body guards, who stood guard outside your house every day and night, and prevented invaders from breaking and entering and potentially hurting you. Would that help you feel safe? Essentially, you do have this, only not for you house for your body. Like your own protective army who never sleep and are on constant alert, your immune system certainly deserves your respect. It knows when there is something inside your body that should not be there – and will do its best to eradicate it in its mission to keep you well.
How does it defend against unwanted infections?
All the cells that make up your body have a way to tell the immune system, “I belong here. I’m not going to do any harm” it’s like they are wearing a name-tag that reads “self” so the immune system will leave them alone. Likewise, any foreign invader such as viruses, bacteria, or other infectious bugs, carry a tag which reads “non-self” and triggers the immune army to jump into action. Within its army, there are a several different types of soldiers – those on the front-line who have generic weapons that don’t discriminate against the invader, then more specialist soldiers who take time to create the perfect weapon to target that specific invader. Once the specialist soldiers attack the invader, they also create cells to “remember” it. Those “memory cells” hang out in your blood, now primed to face that enemy again – they will recognise it and respond quickly, so the illness isn’t as severe and you recover more quickly. There are several key things you need to do, to give back to this personal army who gives so much for you.
What can I do to keep my soldiers strong?
Eat more vegetables; Eat less sugar
Following weight loss surgery, you typically eat less and want to keep your meals small. When you are eating less calories, however, it becomes even more important to make every calorie count! Foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients (e.g. think processed foods such as pasta, sugar, baked goods, chips, lollies, sugary drinks including processed fruit juice), don’t do your immune system any favours. As one example, an study looking at sugar consumption found when healthy individuals consumed a 100 g dose of sugar (equivalent to say 2.5 cans of coke or roughly three 50 g Cadbury chocolate bars) it negatively altered the function of their neutrophils - one of the primary immune cells on the front-line.
These cells were 50 % less effective at engulfing and gobbling up bacteria, in the following two hours after consuming the sugary drink.1
On the flip side, vegetables are rich with micronutrients such as vitamin A and C, and other plant compounds such as carotenoids and flavonoids that stimulate immune activity and keep your army fighting fit, and fibre which supports healthy bacterial balance in your gut. Both the diversity and the density of nutrients in vegetables play an important role in supporting immune health. Several studies show significant reduction in all-cause mortality (meaning death of any cause) associated with 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day with the strongest benefit coming from raw vegetables.2 Make sure every meal includes some form of vegetable – and eat these first so you fill up on the most nutritionally rich foods first.
Sleep more, Stress Less
We live in a sleep-deprived society. Ask yourself – do you get the recommended 7- 8 hours of sleep per night, every night? Sleep loss has been linked to changes in brain health, poor mood,3 and an increased risk of various diseases. Not surprisingly, it also negatively affects immune function.
Sleep studies have shown that with sleep deprivation comes an increase in inflammatory markers (which can make the symptoms of infections feel more severe) as well as an increased susceptibility to the common cold.4 Similarly, chronic psychological stress, such as that you might experience when socially-isolated, or with the loss of a job for example, also increases inflammation and disrupts immune function.5,6
If that’s not enough to motivate you to try and relax catch some more Zzzz’s, a study published late last year also found that better sleep quantity and quality is associated with improved short term and long term outcomes after bariatric surgery.7
Likewise, good mental health has also been linked to improved outcomes in post-weight loss surgery.8
Strategies to support a healthy stress response, include physical activity, meditation, yoga, talking to friends and ensuring adequate nutrition. Magnesium, is one mineral in particular that can support both sleep and calm the stress response.
Consider supporting immune health with targeted nutrients
When used appropriately, nutritional supplements address common nutritional deficiencies and provide a targeted boost, particularly during cold and flu season.
As it relates to immune function, Immune cells contain 10 to 100 times more vitamin C than other human cells.25 This significantly higher concentration suggests vitamin C is extraordinarily important to the function of these immune cells studies have shown that vitamin C increases the action and effectiveness of front-line soldiers and the specialist assassins.
Even a mild zinc deficiency, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is fairly common at approximately 31% worldwide, contributes to a weaker, specialist immune response.Studies using oral zinc supplementation repeatedly show a significant reduction in duration of infection, with most of the research exploring effects of zinc on the common cold.28
Research demonstrates vitamin D modulates immune cells. And stimulate the production of antimicrobial compounds produced by certain immune cells.29 Several studies have shown vitamin D plays a positive role in reducing respiratory infections and in prevention of influenza and influenza related complications.32
EXERCISE FOR IMMUNITY
Remember to keep up regular exercise at this time when many of us are embracing our personal space, staying closer to home and less likely to be at the gym or exercise class. Exercise is really important for maintaining immunity and good health.
It is important to engage in all forms of exercise with regularity, including
- Aerobic exercise (the type that gets your heart pumping) for improved cardio fitness and circulation e.g. stair climbs, running or walking briskly, skipping, bike riding;
- Resistance exercise (weights/strength training that makes your muscles work) to support muscle building and improve overall strength; and
- Stretching and flexibility training to maintain optimal mobility and support relaxation.
If you need a little exercise inspiration, chat to friends for ideas or look online (e.g. YouTube) for your favourite types of exercise or classes and related resources, or try something new.
If you do get sick, it is recommended to reduce the intensity of your exercise or have a break for a few days, allowing yourself time to rest, rejuvenate and get well.
Defending the system that works so tirelessly to defend you is of critical importance always, but is now gaining the recognition it deserves. Look after your immune system and yourself through eating less sugar and more veggies, making time for sleep and relaxation, topping up your nutrient status and getting active in the confines of our current environment!
- Sanchez A et al. Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. Am J Clin Nutr. 1973;26:1180–1184.
- Oyebode O et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause cancer, and CVD mortality: analysis of health survey for England data. J Epidemiol Commun Health. 2014;68(9):856-862
- Kecklund G et al. Health consequences of shift work and insufficient sleep. BMJ. 2016;355:i5210.
- Okun ML. Biological consequences of disturbed sleep. Jpn Psychol Res. 2011;53(2):163-176.
- Dhabhar FS et al. Acute stress enhances while chronic stress suppresses immune function in vivo: a potential role for leukocyte trafficking. Brain Behav Immun. 1997;11:286–306
- Dhabhar FS. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunol Res. 2014;58(2-3):193-210
- Zuraikat F, et al. Can healthy sleep improve long-term bariatric surgery outcomes? Results of a pilot study and call for further research. Obesity Society. 2019: 27(11): 1769-71.
- Van Hout GC, Verschure SK, van Heck GL. Psychosocial predictors of success following bariatric surgery. Obes Surg. 2005; Apr: 15(4): 552-60.