Many people get sick at the start of autumn and winter. Whether it’s a cold or the flu, we all seem to catch it when it’s going around. Fortunately, there are things you can do to boost your immune system and get back on track or, better still, avoid getting sick in the first place.
How does the immune system work?
The immune system (from the Latin word ‘immunis’, meaning ‘untouched’) protects the body from harmful influences from the environment such as viruses or bacteria. It kicks in as soon as these pathogens enter the body. The immune system is made up of various kinds of cells and tissues, each with their own function. The skin is an important part of our immune system, providing the first line of defence against foreign invaders. If our skin is healthy and intact, it is more difficult for bacteria and viruses to enter our body. The intestines are also an important part of our immune system. The ‘good’ bacteria in our intestines neutralise the pathogens that enter the body through our food. Our immune system also produces immune cells and antibodies that target and neutralise pathogens. As long as our body’s system of defence is running smoothly, we don’t notice that our immune system is fighting off pathogens and removing them from our bodies. Unfortunately, our immune system cannot always kill off what attacks us and we fall ill.
Strengthening your immune system
The stronger your immune system, the more resistant your body can be against disease. To function well, the immune system requires balance and harmony. Quite a number of researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise, stress, medication, herbal supplements and other factors on the immune response. There’s every indication that a healthy lifestyle contributes to a strengthening of the immune system. Your immune system simply functions better when your body is in optimal condition. You can make sure your immune system stays in good condition by following these tips:
- Don’t smoke
- Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholemeal products, and cut back on saturated fats
- Exercise regularly
- Keep your weight in the healthy range
- Keep your blood pressure in check
- Limit your alcohol intake
- Get enough sleep
- Observe good hygiene: wash your hands regularly, especially before preparing or eating food
The effects of food on the immune system
The intestines play a crucial role in fighting off pathogens, so it’s only logical that food can naturally boost your immunity. People with unhealthy eating habits are more prone to infectious diseases than people with a healthy and varied diet. If certain nutrients are lacking from your diet, for example because you don’t like vegetables or prefer white bread to wholegrain bread, you can take a vitamin supplement to ensure the proper nutritional balance. This is good for your immune system and many other processes in your body.
Using herbs and supplements to boost your health
Some herbs seem to strengthen and support the immune system, although there’s no conclusive scientific evidence to support this claim. Aloe Vera, for instance, possesses skin healing properties, and works well for wounds and skin infections. Fresh garlic seems to protect against infection and inflammation. In fact, laboratory studies confirm that raw garlic has antibacterial and antiviral properties. However, it’s too early to say whether these properties work for humans and, if so, exactly how much garlic one needs to consume in order to reap the benefits. Probiotics and their health benefits have been hot topics over the last few years, and there are numerous probiotic drinks and supplements available that top up our levels of friendly bacteria. It is thought that probiotics support the good bacteria living in the gastrointestinal tract, increasing our ability to defend against the pathogens we’re exposed to. However, there’s little evidence to support the many health claims made for them.