How to boost your immune system against Covid-19 and other winter bugs
How to boost your immune system against Covid-19 and other winter bugs
Eating a Mediterranean diet, adding crushed garlic to food and dosing up on Vitamin C, could all help you fend off coronavirus - believe it or not.
The immune system protects the body from dangerous elements like viruses and bacteria that cause illnesses. An immune system is surprisingly complex and needs to be strong and refined enough to fight various diseases and infections. Yet, it is not so strong that it overreacts unnecessarily, causing allergies and other autoimmune disorders to develop.
To operate in such a delicate balance, one must tightly control the immune system. Antibodies are most naturally found in our blood, and it helps us to fight infection. Monoclonal antibodies (MABs) therapies impersonate natural antibodies. MABs work as immunotherapy in diverse ways; some Monoclonal antibodies work in more than one way:
● It provokes the immune system to combat and kill virus cells
● It acts on cells to boost the immune system attacks on virus cells However, despite its complexity, various everyday lifestyles and habits can be worked upon to improve the immune health that a body needs for fighting off an infection or an illness. Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist at the University of Sussex and author of Immunity: The Science of Staying Well, says: "This is a serious infection and no amount of lifestyle intervention will make you invincible - but there are plenty of small things you can do that may strengthen your immune system." And, when it comes to Covid, antibodies are not the only weapon in the body’s protective armour. T-cells also play a role, by killing infected cells and B memory cells rapidly produce new antibodies once threatened with a virus.
HOW THE IMMUNE SYSTEM WORKS?
● Pathogens: Microbes that can contaminate and poison the body, causing illness.
● Antigens: Proteins identified on the surface of pathogens.
● Antibodies: Antibodies are healthy proteins that can locate and bind with particular antigens. When an antibody identifies the antigen of an invading pathogen, it binds itself to it firmly. Once attached, it acts as a light, signalling other immune system elements to combat the attacking viruses. We have set out a list of things you can do right now to ensure your body is fighting fit against coronavirus - all of which also apply to fending off the 'super cold' and winter bugs that have come back with a vengeance after the pandemic meant 18 months without our usual exposure to germs.
Be cautious whatever your age Dr Ross Walton, a viral immunologist currently developing vaccines for flu, says while the elderly are indeed more at risk, most people's immune systems are actually already in decline. ‘Your thymus gland is where the body’s T cells [white blood cells that fight infection] are produced, and this starts to atrophy in your 20s,’ says Dr Walton. ‘But that’s only one reason everyone should be cautious, the other is that healthy, relatively young people have a responsibility to stay well so they can avoid spreading an infection that could kill someone more vulnerable’.
Wash your hands with plenty of water There’s handwashing and there’s handwashing during a pandemic. When you wash your hands, it’s more about the water than the soap. ‘Warm water is better, but getting a lot of water over your hands whilst you’re rubbing them together is much more important than the amount of soap used.’ Indeed, unless it’s antivirucidal, an antibacterial soap won’t kill the virus, anyway. As for gels, look for 60 per cent alcohol, as this will have antibacterial and antivirucidal activity (but they won’t work at all if your hands are heavily soiled or greasy).
Eat a colourful Mediterranean diet Eating a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet rich in different coloured fruits and vegetables, will give you the best chance of getting the wide variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients your body needs to fight infection, says Dr Claire Bailey, a GP with a special interest in immunity and author of Clever Gut and Blood Sugar Diet. The more colours you include, the more nutrients you get. ‘Have the fruits and vegetable whole and ideally with the skin on as this contains essential fibre that feeds the healthy bugs in your digestive tract, crucial to fighting infection.’ Broccoli, red peppers, and blueberries are particularly recommended.
If you get symptoms, dose up on vitamin C There’s little evidence showing vitamin C prevents infection but ‘what the evidence does show is that once a cold has hit, vitamin C can shorten the duration of symptoms,’ says Dr Macciochi. ‘Our immune cells have a high need for vitamin C when they are working hard to fight infection, so if you find yourself with symptoms, this is the time to start dosing up on vitamin C’. Oranges aren’t the only source to consider, it’s also kiwi fruits, red peppers, spinach, grapefruit, cauliflower and Brussel’s sprouts as well as organ meats. But for high doses, try Tonic Health (30 sachets for £22 from tonichealth.co) which contains more vitamin C, zinc and vitamin D than comparable products on the market.
Don’t lose sleep over it ‘Adequate sleep is the bedrock of your whole immune system,’ says Dr Macciochi. 'If you’re not sleeping, no other lifestyle measure will make such difference because while we sleep the hormone melatonin stimulates new immune cells.’ The NHS suggests that you should be getting between six and nine hours a night but keeping to a healthy sleep schedule can be difficult. To help, Dr Guy Meadows, founder of The Sleep School, recommends sticking to a rigorous routine, avoiding caffeine after lunch, and only drinking alcohol in moderation.
Exercise throughout your day and build muscle Yet another reason to take that lunchtime walk. ‘Regular and often is the key for exercise and immunity,’ says Dr Macciochi. ‘Movement throughout the day is essential for your lymphatic system, which relies on movement and muscle for stimulation. It’s essential to helping your immune cells perform their surveillance function of moving around the body fighting germs that might be trying to get inside your tissues.’ Strength training is essential to immunity as you age.
‘Muscle produces chemicals that work on our thymus gland [where immune cells are made] and can help its functioning as we get older.’ It's not only your muscles that will benefit from exercise - such as walking. Regular exercise can help lower your "immune age" and keep your immune system healthy. Reducing blue light exposure in the evening – limit the use of mobile phone / TV before bed. Install an app that blocks blue light on your smartphone and laptop Avoid/reduce caffeine intake in the evenings Optimize your sleeping environment –darkness, temperature, comfortable pillow and mattress Don’t eat late – Eating late at night can negatively affect both sleep quality and the natural release of melatonin Avoid alcohol – it alters nighttime melatonin production, which plays a vital role in the body’s circadian rhythm Drink two litres of water ‘Hydration is critically important but vastly overlooked,’ says Dr Walton.
‘So many metabolic functions rely on it.’ Indeed, if you get dehydrated, it can change the mucus layer in your respiratory tract and your digestive tract that has antibodies that trap germs and stop them getting into your cells, Dr Macciochi points out. The NHS recommends six to eight glasses a day. Oh, and tea and coffee are diuretics (meaning they quicken the body’s expulsion of water through urine), so they don’t count. Echinacea might help Dr Walton’s team conducted studies on echinacea that found a reduced incidence of the common cold in children who took it as well as a decrease in the number of secondary respiratory infections kids got after getting a cold.
That suggests the herb could work as both a preventative measure and something to take when you get symptoms. Indeed, there is a body of scientific evidence showing echinacea’s effectiveness including a 2020 study published in Viral Research, albeit only done ‘in vitro’ (ie in test tubes), that showed it could work as a barrier against cold and flu symptoms. Some 25 pieces of published scientific research - including Dr Walton’s - were done using a particular form, A. Vogel Echinaforce drops. ‘There are many different active ingredients in echinacea,’ says Dr Macciochi. ‘And many studies isolate certain ones, so you need to know the one you’re buying is the one that was used in the studies.’
Try a throat spray Some throat sprays could also help shorten the duration of your symptoms. One is ColdZyme (£10.99 from Boots, other pharmacies and Amazon), a mouth spray designed to be used at the first sign of a sore throat to help prevent a full-blown cold from developing. It works by forming a protective barrier over the throat, making it more difficult for the cold virus to cause illness. According to one double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study on ColdZyme published in November 2017, using ColdZyme could reduce the number of days patients showed symptoms by half, from six and a half to just three.
Get enough vitamin D Pooled data from 16 clinical trials involving 7,400 people show that taking vitamin D supplements reduces the risk of experiencing at least one respiratory infection including influenza and pneumonia by a third with positive benefits seen within 3 weeks. In those with low vitamin D status, the protection was even greater reducing the risk of respiratory infection by almost a half compared with placebo. Another analysis published in 2017 in the British Medical Journal looked at 25 studies and involved around 11,000 people from 14 countries. It found that vitamin D supplements reduced the risk of acute respiratory infections by 11 percent compared with placebo.
A cheek spray is great for fast absorption of vitamin D into your bloodstream. Try Healthspan’s Super Strength Peppermint Vitamin D Spray £4.95. And top up on zinc ‘We can’t make zinc in our bodies, we have to get it from our diets,’ says Dr Macciochi. ‘Yet it plays a role in hundreds of reactions in our bodies and is extremely important to fighting infection.
There’s some evidence that taking extra zinc in the winter months is helpful at preventing infection but zinc is not something to take all the time as it can cause toxicity.’ Food sources include red meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds and dark chocolate. If you’re opting for a supplement try Healthspan Elite Defence Zinc Acetate Lozenges £10.99. Eat sourdough bread and other gut-friendly fibre A healthy gut is the best chance your body's immune system has for fighting off Covid or other viruses and infections. ‘Your gut bacteria – or microbiome – is crucial to immunity,’ says Dr Macciochi. ‘This breaks down your food in the digestive tract and produces metabolites known as ‘post-biotics’ that are helpful for our immune systems.’ But keeping your gut happy doesn’t only involve eating fashionable fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir.
‘These are important as they are the sources of healthy bugs,’ says Dr Bailey. However, what is even more important is getting the fibre foods that feed those healthy bugs and encourage them to grow.’ Sourdough is one of the healthiest things you can eat for your microbiome and a great source of fermented fibre which as the best of both worlds, she explains. ‘Look for the slow-fermented variety from artisan bakers ideally made with a more ancient grain such as spelt, or einkorn.’ Other gut-friendly fibres include fruit and vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Add crushed garlic to your food Those delicious bulbs of heaven contain a compound called allicin that has been well studied for its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects, explains Dr Macciochi.
‘But this is only released when the garlic has been crushed and left to sit for a while, before use in cooking.’ Meanwhile, some studies have tried to take this active ingredient out of garlic and make it into a supplement, but they haven’t been shown to be effective. Incorporate natural inflammasome inhibitors into your diet As well as natural and supplemented sources of vitamins C and D and zinc, look to add ingredients such as turmeric and matcha into your food and drink. Covid causes an overproduction of cytokines (small proteins) in your body, which increase inflammation and, in turn, can damage, thicken and scar lung tissue. Ingredients with high anti-inflammatory properties have always been thought to be a good boost to your immune system and now, according to a 2021 study, they can also help reduce the risk of developing severe Covid symptoms.