Sleep is often the first thing that is sacrificed when we’re busy and stressed out – but cutting back on your 40 winks increases your chance of infection. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines. These cytokines are needed even more when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you're under stress. Sleep deprivation decreases production of these protective cytokines. On top of this, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don't get enough sleep. Aim for at least 7-8 hours of good quality sleep each night to give your body the best fighting chance against bugs and illness. This is especially important when you’re also under physical or mental stress.
2. Chill out
As with sleep deprivation, being under long term psychological stress lowers your immunity. In fact, studies have shown that the stress of bereavement, a trauma, or day to day pressures such as caring for a sick relative can lower the immune response. However, short-term stressors, also known as ‘acute stress’ for example public speaking or taking an exam can actually boost the immune system. So to keep your immune system at the top of its game, it’s important to control long term stressors, but don’t be afraid to take yourself out of your comfort zone. If you’re struggling to keep stress under control, techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga have been shown to help.
3. Up the anti (oxidants)
The main immunity vitamins C, A and D will help to protect the body against colds, gastric infections and other symptoms of low immunity such as mouth ulcers, cold sores and skin conditions. Vitamin C is found in most fruit and vegetables – particularly citrus fruit, berries and dark or brightly coloured veg. Vitamin A is usually obtained in the form of beta carotene from orange, red or purple fruit and veg, or dark green vegetables like kale, spinach and broccoli. The best source of vitamin D is daylight, but over the winter months, eggs, dairy products and oily fish can provide a much needed back up.
4. Decrease the intensity of your training
While exercise can boost the immune system to a certain extent, it’s a J-shaped curve, meaning that exercising at a moderate intensity can boost immunity but over a certain threshold, intense exercise can actually compromise your ability to fight infection. The key message here is to listen to your body – don’t train if you’re feeling under the weather and mix up the intensity of your physical activity so that you include lower and higher intensity workouts in your routine.
Happiness is one of the biggest natural immune boosters there is – all very well in theory right? But even if you’re not feeling particularly upbeat, evidence suggests that the simple act of smiling releases substances linked to increasing immunity cells in the body. So even if you’re not feeling at your best, force out a smile and you’ll immediately feel better and be looking after your health!
Written by Ruth Tongue