We know that no one likes to be ill, but there’s lots you can do to support your immune system to keep you healthy
What is your immune system?
Your immune system is a network of cells, organs, proteins and antibodies that work to protect you against bacteria, viruses and parasites. Whilst we usually only think of our immune system when we feel ill, it’s actually working every day to keep us safe.1
What are the best ways to keep your immune system healthy?
Your immune system is made up of lots of individual parts, which all work together to protect you from infection. Due to its complexity, even scientists don’t fully understand how it all works, but they do know that following a healthy lifestyle will help support each function of your immune system.
Top tips for supporting your immunity2:
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and minimise your intake of processed foods
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Reduce stress
- Follow good hygiene practices
- Cut your nails (it may sound like a strange one, but longer fingernails can become a breeding ground for germs)
- Avoid smoking
- Limit your alcohol intake
And there are a few things you can do to stop germs spreading, if you do get ill:
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue and away from other people
- Don’t reuse tissues
- Don’t go into work (and avoid public places, if you can)
- Regularly clean surfaces and door handles around your home
- Wash your hands regularly to minimise the spread of germs
The best vitamins and minerals for your immune system
There are a few key vitamins and minerals that are known to help support your immune system3. If you eat a healthy, varied diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, you should be able to get all the nutrients you need.
Vitamin A – this supports the normal functioning of the immune system as it’s thought to help develop a type of white blood cell that produces antibodies. Some sources of vitamin A include eggs, dark green leafy vegetables and cod liver oil.
Vitamin C – this can help support cellular functions needed by the immune system. Oranges, orange juice, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries and red/green peppers are your best source.
Vitamin D – this will help to keep your immune system strong, with the ability to fight off infections quickly. As most vitamin D is received from sunlight, the UK Government recommends a daily supplement between October and March.
Zinc – this contributes to the normal function of the immune system and can be found in seafood, red meat, chickpeas, eggs, pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Be careful not to consume more than the recommended daily allowance, which is 9.5mg for men and 7mg for women.
What are the best foods to boost your immune system?
Whilst eating a healthy, balanced diet is vital in supporting your immune health, there are several foods that are thought to give it that extra little kick4.
Cinnamon – can reduce bacteria’s ability to multiply, and if you do end up suffering from a cold, it should help it to clear up quicker. Sprinkle some over hot chocolate or a cup of tea, or try mixing it with raw honey, which has similar properties.
Citrus fruits – are great for vitamin C, which can help to fight off infections. Vitamin C can’t be stored by your body, so you need to try and incorporate foods that are rich in vitamin C every day. Try oranges, lemons and limes.
Watermelon – these contain citrulline, which helps keep your heart healthy, and they’re rich in vitamins A, C and B6 too. Their red flesh supplies your body with lycopene, which helps keep your immune system balanced.
Broccoli – when it comes to choosing your five-a-day, make sure broccoli becomes a firm favourite as it’s bursting with nutrients like vitamins A, C and E and contains choline which is good for your gut. Instead of cooking your broccoli, try to eat it raw if you can, as it’s more nutritious this way. Similar vegetables that are classed as super foods when it comes to your immune system include sprouts, kale and cauliflower.
Chicken – zinc is needed for white blood cell production so your body can fight off infection and for healthy skin, hair and nails. Zinc can be found in seafood (like oysters), eggs, chickpeas, mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and cashew nuts, so eat these more regularly.
Garlic – raw garlic is brilliant at giving your body’s immune system a helping hand. It has natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, helping you ward off illness and recover quicker. Raw garlic can increase the number of t-cells in your blood, which in turn fight viruses. Crush or slice garlic cloves and add to salad dressings as garlic’s health powers are best when it’s raw.
Yoghurt – instead of pouring milk on your cereal in the morning, why not add a dollop of yoghurt instead? You need to choose a yoghurt that contains live cultures or ‘friendly bacteria’ as these help your immune system fight against bad bacteria in the gut. They can also encourage your body to produce more white blood cells.
Mushrooms – these are an interesting food ingredient, because – just like us – they synthesise Vitamin D when they are exposed to UV light. You should therefore choose wild mushrooms or mushrooms grown in UV light. They are the only plant source of vitamin D, which supports your immune system.
Bell peppers – these contain lots of vitamin A, which can help repair your body’s mucosal barriers (easily damaged by infection).
Chillies – fresh red and green chillies are incredible health boosters. They contain lots of vitamin A and C (nutrients which can boost the immune system) and capsaicin which can help clear congestion and phlegm.
Elderberries – these are full of flavonoids and they can help stop viruses in their tracks. Even if you do develop a cold or flu, you may find that your body recovers much more quickly if you’ve been eating elderberries.
When you go shopping, the easiest way is to pick a wide range of fruits and vegetables that are lots of different colours. Not only will your plate look more tempting, but you’ll be getting all your immune-boosting nutrients as well.
Exercise to support your immune system
Whilst exercise is known to improve your overall fitness levels and feelings of wellbeing, there is some scientific thinking that regular, moderate exertion could also give your immune system a boost5. One theory is that exercise could help remove bacteria from your lungs, whilst another considers whether a rise in body temperature (during and after physical activity) could prevent bacteria from growing.
Some recommended exercises include:
- Walking 20-30 minutes every day
- Going to the gym 3-4 times a week
- Enjoying a game of golf regularly
Exercise should always be included as part of a healthy lifestyle, but consult your healthcare professional before changing your current activity levels.
Supporting your immune system whatever your age
We’re all born with an immune system but not every baby’s immune system is healthy and functions as it should. Some babies and young children can be more prone to picking up bugs, especially when they start nursery or school.
A healthy diet, physical activity, good hygiene and sleeping habits can all help support a child’s immune system.
Everyone’s immune system changes throughout their life. As you get older, your immune response starts to decline, which means you’re more susceptible to infection6. Good nutrition and some levels of physical activity become even more important for elderly people, to ensure their immune system remains in good working order.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP/healthcare professional before trying any remedies.
Last updated: 1st February 2020