Three ways to support your immune system
Can we stop for a minute to appreciate your immune system?
That network of organs, cells and chemicals works together to keep you well – and it does an incredible job. You generally don't have to think about it at all. Every time you get a paper cut or rub your eye, your immune system springs into action to defend against unwanted visitors.
Researchers aren't exactly sure how your immune system works, but they have figured out a few things. They know it helps if you eat more fruit and veggies, exercise and sleep, and have less stress, alcohol and caffeine. There's also some promising research about what else you could be doing to give yourself the edge against winter ills and chills.
Load up on vitamin C – the antioxidant powerhouse
Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid, as it’s also known) is widely used to support immune health – and no wonder. Even before researchers had worked out what it was, they’d seen how eating fresh produce could prevent scurvy – a disease thought to have killed about two million sailors.
This is one incredible vitamin. It supports healthy collagen that literally holds your body together, connecting your bone, cartilage, blood, nervous and immune systems. It also helps make several hormones and chemical messengers used in the brain and nerves. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C can defend the body against free radicals, supporting the body's immune defences.
It's also linked to boosting the functions needed for a strong immune system.
Iron absorption, immunity and vitamin C
A key part of vitamin C’s immune-support action may be its role in iron absorption, which you need to create good numbers of immune cells. Iron is fundamental to your immune system, but low iron is the most common nutrient deficiency around the world, especially for women and vegetarians. Taking in Vitamin C alongside your meals can significantly increase how much iron you absorb, especially non-heme iron, the kind found in vegetables rather than meat.
Where to get vitamin C
But – and there’s always a but! – because vitamin C dissolves in water, your body has trouble storing it. That means you need to take it in almost daily from:
- Fruit and veg – especially kiwifruit, strawberries and citrus, capsicum, tomatoes, potatoes and cruciferous veg like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower.
- Supplements – if you or your family are struggling to get enough vitamin C in your diet, it’s simple to give yourselves an immune-supporting top-up with a daily supplement. Regardless of whether you get your vitamin C from food or supplements, your body absorbs it just the same.
Eat it fresh!
Light and heat break down vitamin C, so cooked capsicum will have less of the good stuff than raw, for example. The fresher the produce, the higher the vitamin C content, too.
It’s also good to know that when you boil your veg, a lot of the vitamin C will end up in the cooking water – fine if you’re making soup, but not if you tip the water down the drain. Quick-heat methods like stir-frying and blanching help lock in the goodness.
Again, supplements make this easy – a good brand will come in light-protective packaging with clear use-by dates, so you always know it’s power-packed.
Get a boost of echinacea – immune system double-action
A humble little daisy, echinacea is one of the world’s most popular herbs. Originally used by Native American tribes to treat everything from wounds to typhoid, it’s best known today for its powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. That’s a lot of ‘anti’ delivered by echinacea’s impressive collection of active compounds. These include the antioxidants phenolic and caffeic acids, aklomide’s (which enhance their activity), and rosmarinic acid and polyacetylene known for being anti-inflammatory. Research shows it also boosts numbers of white blood cells, which help fight infections.
Many studies have found that echinacea may help your immune system and therefore help you feel better faster. One review of 14 studies suggested that taking echinacea could lower the risk of developing colds by more than 50%! It could also shorten how long you’re sick by one and a half days.
Where to get echinacea
- Grow it yourself – echinacea is easy to grow – sow some seeds in a cool area of your garden to get that immune-supporting benefit straight from the source. When it’s time to harvest, pull out the plants, roots and all, finely chop and soak in alcohol for at least six weeks before straining.
- Make it simple with a supplement – since it’s hard to guess the levels of those powerful active compounds, it can also be more reliable (and a lot simpler) to buy a supplement, tincture or tea.
Love your guts with powerful probiotics
Probiotics are getting a bit of a buzz recently. They’re known as the ‘good’ bacteria in the lower intestinal tract where they help us digest food and regulate the immune system. The research is still in its early days, but things are looking promising. One recent review suggested that taking probiotics is linked to fewer and milder respiratory tract infections.
And what are these wonder bacteria? There are billions of bacteria species in your gut, but the most famous probiotics are:
- Acidophilus, found in fermented foods like yoghurt and miso, which, according to one meta-analysis, could support the immune system
- Bifidobacterium, in all sorts of foods, including yoghurt, miso, tempeh, pickles, kimchi, sourdough bread and even wine! It could reduce inflammation and support the immune system.
- Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus – also in fermented foods, both have been linked to a better-supported immune system.
Where to get probiotics
- Fermented foods – given how often bacteria can make us sick, it seems strange to seek out foods that are packed with them! But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you eat fermented foods including yoghurt, kefir, pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi.
- Supplements – when getting probiotics from food, you need to be sure it has been stored carefully so the bacteria are still alive. That can make it tricky, which is why many people prefer the consistency of taking a supplement.
When you put incredible in, you get incredible out
Understanding how to support your immune system this winter isn’t rocket science – good sleep, good food and good exercise. Put the good stuff in and you’ll give your body the best chance.
When life is busy, that’s easier said than done, so just do what you can. A five-minute walk is better than no walk at all and a vitamin C tablet will fill the gap if you’re living on flat whites!
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