First of all, what exactly is the immune system? The immune system is an interactive network of organs, white blood cells and proteins that work together to protect your body from outside invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or other foreign substances. In order to make sure this vital network is functioning properly, there are a number of ways we can support immune system function.
How to support your immune system function
Improving your immune system function doesn’t happen overnight, but once you make dietary and lifestyle changes your immune system function should start to improve. Some key tips for supporting your immune system function are:
Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables: Vitamin A and C rich foods such as butternut squash, carrots, sweet potato red peppers, citrus fruits, broccoli, kiwi and leafy green vegetables are great sources and can help to improve the health of your immune system by providing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Exercise regularly: Incorporating physical activity into your daily and weekly regimen is extremely important to support immune system function.
Get adequate sleep: When you aren’t getting enough sleep, your immune system won’t be able to function properly. Aim for 7-8 hours of good quality sleep every night.
Try to minimise stress: Stress can suppress protective immune responses and exacerbate pathological immune responses. Incorporate meditation or mindfulness practices daily.
Maintain a healthy weight.
If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation: Consuming too much alcohol can negatively impact gut health, decrease immune system function and make you more susceptible to harmful pathogens.
Take protective measures to avoid infection: Wash your hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds each time, and cook meats thoroughly.
Supplements for immune system function
Probiotics are good bacteria that help you digest the nutrients you eat, which in turn supports your digestive health and immune system function. As chronic inflammation is a driver of many diseases and health conditions, the fact that probiotics also have an anti-inflammatory effect in the gut, where 80 percent of the immune system lies, is key for immune health.
Probiotics have been shown to support the stimulation of the immune system and research suggests that some probiotic organisms may enhance nonspecific cellular immune response, including the activation of macrophages and natural killer (NK) cells, as well as induce different cytokine responses.
A 2005 study stated that Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria strains may have potential for preventing a wide scope of immunity-related diseases due to their anti-inflammatory effect.
Vitamin C improves the health of your immune system by providing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Studies show that getting enough Vitamin C, along with Zinc, in your diet may help to shorten the duration and reduce symptoms of illnesses like the common cold and respiratory infections. Supplementing with 1000mg of Vitamin C and 30mg of Zinc were shown to be effective.
Zinc is known to play a central role in immune system function, and zinc-deficient people experience increased susceptibility to a variety of pathogens. Zinc’s role in the immune system includes, but is not limited to, supporting the barrier of the skin (the immune system's first line of defence), supporting gene regulation, playing a role in the development and function of the cells mediating nonspecific immunity, such as neutrophils and natural killer cells, and also functioning as an antioxidant.
Supplementing with Zinc may also help to reduce cold-related symptoms and shorten the duration of the common cold when administered within 24 hours of the onset of common cold symptoms.
Vitamin D helps to modulate the innate and adaptive immune system and a vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased autoimmunity as well as an increased susceptibility to infection. Research proves that Vitamin D works to maintain tolerance and promote protective immunity.
The UK government advises everyone to supplement with Vitamin D throughout the months of October to March, with doses not exceeding 4,000IU daily. The need for supplementation is because our bodies cannot make enough vitamin D from the sun during these months.
Your best chance at keeping your immune system healthy and preventing illness is to eat a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet, get plenty of good quality sleep, exercise regularly, stop smoking, limit your alcohol consumption, and reduce stress. Supplementing with immune supporting vitamins and herbs can also help to keep your body protected and healthy.