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Effective Immunity Boosters

Why Are They More Important Than Ever To Help Your Body Maintain Its Strength & Fight Off Viruses

The current health crisis continues to preoccupy nations across the world, with countries like the U.S., Spain and Australia still battling rising numbers of infections and populations seeking new ways to boost their immunity. 

While it is true that there is no ‘miracle’ solution that will protect the body against novel viruses, working to improve one’s immunity is key, since it can stave off diseases such as the flu – which can, in turn, weaken the body against other pathogens. 

A single path to a stronger immunity doesn’t exist. Rather, this aim can only be achieved through a combination of approaches, many of which work on different processes in the immune system.

The Importance of Diet

Choosing a Mediterranean-style diet comprising lean proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy Omega-3 fats is vital when it comes to strengthening the body against disease. 

One reason is that this type of diet (which shuns sugary and refined foods and embraces antioxidants) results in a greater ability to fight off the free radicals that cause aging and disease. 

Another good reason why the Mediterranean diet works is its high quantity of fiber. One study by researchers at the University of Illinois found that soluble fiber found in oats, apples, and nuts “changes the personality of immune cells – they go from being pro-inflammatory, angry cells to anti-inflammatory, healing cells that help us recover faster from infection.” 

Insoluble fiber is found in a bevy of foods – including nuts, seeds, lentils, citrus fruits, strawberries, carrots, barley, bran, and more.

Green Vegetables & Immune Systems

Healthy foods contribute to a well-functioning immune system in more ways than one. One study published in the journal Cell Press showed that green vegetables produce a ‘chemical sign’ that the immune system needs to function optimally. These foods enable immune cells called IELs (located in the gut and skin) to carry out their work. In the study, researchers deprived healthy mice of vegetables for two to three weeks and were surprised to find that up to 80% of their vital IELs had disappeared. To boost levels of these cells, consume a diet that is rich in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. 

Also, stock up on Shiitake mushrooms. A study by University of Florida researchers showed that consuming this superfood results in better functioning of gamma delta T-cells. These cells can recognize signs of infection or cancer, produce immune molecules, and kill target cells.

Studies on Probiotic & Fermented Foods

Many other studies show that specific foods can improve the immune response. One study published in the journal PLOS Genetics, for instance, showed that consuming lactic acid bacteria (which can turn milk into yogurt and cabbage into sauerkraut) has anti-inflammatory effects. This bacterium also has compounds that bind to specific proteins on the cell and signal our immune response in a positive way. Another study by scientists at the National University of Singapore showed that probiotic beer can neutralize toxins and viruses and to regulate the immune system.

Meal Time is Sacred

What you eat is only one part of the puzzle; when you eat is equally important, as found in research undertaken at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. The gut, it seems, has a memory; it ramps up its protective mechanisms at specific times of the day – i.e. when it expects a meal. Therefore, aiming to stick to a regular mealtime schedule is vital. Eating sets of key processes in the gut; it causes a specific hormone called VIP to commence the activity of immune cells, in response to incoming ‘bad’ bacteria. 

Foods to be Avoided

You might find it easier to concentrate on the foods you need to consume, than those which you should avoid. 

In general, you should aim to shun refined foods that are high in sugar and made with unhealthy fats such as sunflower or corn oil. It is also important to prepare home-cooked meals ‘from scratch’, instead of relying on readymade sauces and other ingredients. 

Researchers at the University of Bonn found that the immune system reacts to fast foods (i.e. those which are high in unhealthy fats and calories) as if they were a bacterial infection. Inflammation becomes higher after consuming these items and this is the case even after you make the switch to a healthy diet. Fast food genetically reprograms immune cells, said the scientists, and four weeks down the line.

Ketogenic Diets

Yale researchers found that mice fed a ketogenic diet were more adept at fighting off the flu virus than those fed a high-carbohydrate diet. This is because diets that are high in lean meat, fish and non-starchy vegetables activate T cells in the lungs that enhance mucus production from airway cells that can effectively trap the virus. “This study shows that the way the body burns fat to produce ketone bodies from the food we eat can fuel the immune system to fight flu infection,” researchers stated. The good thing about ketogenic meal plans is that, unlike extremely strict carbohydrate-cutting diets, they permit the consumption of fruits and vegetables, which are important sources of fiber.

Low Calorie Diets

Scientists funded by the USDA Agricultural Research Service found that people who follow a low, or very low-calorie diet, not only lose weight, but also significantly strengthen their immune response. 

In the study, men and women aged between 20 and 40 were asked to consume diets that were restricted by either 30% or 10% for a total period of six months. Researchers used a skin test called DTH (delayed-type hypersensitivity), which measures the whole body’s immune response level, finding the latter to be enhanced after the diet phase. They also investigated the effects that calorie restriction has on T-cells, finding that the latter also proliferated at the end of the six-month period.

Exercise an Effective Immunity Booster

Nutrition is not the only effective approach to enhancing immunity; so, too, is physical activity. University Bath researchers recently stressed the importance of staying active, even during times in which social isolation is necessary. 

In an analysis published in the journal Exercise Immunology, they stated that over the past four decades, many studies have shown the ways in which exercise positively affects the immune system. This is the case both for moderate and strenuous workouts. They added that even in times in which viruses are a big threat to human health, exercise – provided it is carried out in isolation or at a safe distance from others – helps maintain the immune system.

How Much Should You Exercise a Week?

Aim to work out for at least 150 minutes per week, undertaking activities such as walking, running, or cycling. Resistance and strength exercises are also important for muscle maintenance. In times in which exposure to viruses is risky, maintain good personal hygiene when exercising, including thoroughly washing hands before and after exercise. Scientists recommend supporting regular activity with good quality sleep. Aim to achieve between seven and nine hours, and ensure you aren’t waking up more than once during the night. To enhance your sense of sleepiness, make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and silent. 

Why is Sleep so Important?

When you are chronically sleep-deprived, your immune system suffers – as found in research undertaken at the University of Washington. The scientists made their discovery by taking blood samples from 11 pairs of identical twins with different sleep patterns. They found that the twin who slept less had a depressed immune system. Lead researchers, Nathaniel Watson, said, “The results are consistent with studies that show when sleep deprived people are given a vaccine, there is a lower antibody response and if you expose sleep deprived people to a rhinovirus they are more likely to get the virus.” The CDC reports that over the past century, Americans are sleeping up to two hours less than they used to – which has detrimental effects on their immunity.

Keeping Stress at Bay

Human mental health and wellbeing is also inexorably tied to immunity. Research published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity showed that stress can change the balance of healthful gut bacteria. The latter affect immune function, which explains why, at times in which we are experiencing stress, the immune response becomes dysregulated. The researchers stated that stress changes “the composition, diversity, and number of gut microbiota,” and the numbers of potentially harmful bacteria (like Clostridium) proliferate.

Natural Stress Busting Methods

In the same way that human beings exercise to boost their physical and mental health, so, too, should they take a proactive approach to stress reduction. Some of the most successful activities against stress are holistic ones – including yoga, mindfulness meditation, and Tai Chi – found in study after study to lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol. In one study carried out at Coventry University, scientists found that these ‘mind-body interventions’ actually ‘reverse’ the molecular reactions in our DNA that cause illness and depression. The researchers explained: “These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed.” In other words, these activities lead DNA processes along a road to better wellbeing.

Do Supplements Work?

While consuming a healthy diet is the key road to a healthy gut and immune system, supplementation can be useful in some cases, though it is always important to ask your doctor about the suitability (and appropriate dosage) of particular supplements for you. One study undertaken at Tufts University showed that providing zinc supplements to seniors in nursing homes increased their serum zinc levels and strengthened their immunity, staving off infection. Another study by researchers at Imperial College London showed that one 2.5mg dose of Vitamin D could be sufficient to strengthen the immune system and fight off tuberculosis and similar bacteria for at least six weeks. The study found that a high incidence of Vitamin D deficiency in some areas in London put people at risk for this disease – which kills around two million people annually.

Creatine Powers Up Cells

University of California-Los Angeles Health Services researchers found that creatine – often taken as a supplement by bodybuilders and other athletes – serves as a molecular battery for immune cells. It stores and distributes energy so that killer T cells (the soldiers of the immune system) can carry out their vital work. The study showed that in lab tests, mice that were deprived of creatine were less capable of fighting cancerous cells, than those with healthy amounts of this natural substance. 

Too Much of a Good Thing

As mentioned above, it is always important to consult your doctor about the suitability of supplements, because some vitamins can have a harmful effect on the immune system when taken in high amounts. This is the case for Vitamin A, for instance. Research by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology showed that too much of this vitamin causes your immunity to ‘forget’ past infections, causing cells to produce less cytokines – proteins which keep microbes at bay.

At times in which viral disease is threatening the health and wellbeing of millions of people across the globe, it is only logical that human beings are aiming to keep their immunity strong. 

Doing so should ideally involve a multi-faceted approach that begins with a healthy, Mediterranean style diet that shuns refined and sugar-rich foods. It should also involve regular physical activity – around 150 minutes per week, if possible. 

Keeping stress at bay is important, since chronically high levels of cortisol weakens the immune system. Stress levels can be reduced through mindful activities, as well as time spent in nature, art therapy, and many other activities currently used by professionals to help tackle tension and anxiety. 

Finally, in some cases, supplementation can be helpful. It is always important to check with your doctor first, since some vitamins can be detrimental to the immune system when present at high levels.

Resources & further reading:

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