As the government predicts record levels of flu this winter, it’s going to be crucial that we all keep our immune system on top form. Our naturopathic nutritionist Rhi Hepple outlines some of the ways you could be compromising your immunity
It’s that time of year again when our immune systems are working super-hard to keep us healthy and fit. Naturopaths believe that stagnation and chronic inflammation are where illness begins. Inflammation within the body is a natural protective mechanism in response to trauma, infection or from a foreign invader such as a virus or bacteria.
The lymphatic system is an important part of the immune system and its primary function is to transport lymph fluid which contains the infection-fighting white blood cells. So it’s essential for us to have a strong immune system for us to fight off infections. Inflammation is not always a good thing if our immune system is weak or compromised. Vitamins and minerals are essential to have a strong immune system and we get them from the food we eat. If we don’t have the nutrients there in the first place to keep our immune system strong then it can become stressed and produce too much inflammation, or the immune system starts to fight off its own cells by mistake and that is when inflammation creates a chronic problem.
Our body has an amazing ability to heal and detoxify so there needs to be movement within it for us to heal. Nutrients must pass into the cells and toxins need to be eliminated. This is all possible if the nutrients are there in the first place and the body is eliminating efficiently. If our diet is lacking in nutrients or we have habits that are depleting the nutrients that are there or our elimination processes are inefficient then stagnation occurs.
Here are some ways you could be sabotaging your immune system…
We’ve forgotten why we need to eat food! It’s not just about stopping us from being hungry and satisfying our taste buds. Whatever passes through your mouth will have an impact on how your body works. Eating junk food all the time is eating food that is void of nutrient value and you are depriving your body of everything it needs to work. In terms of immunity the body needs foods high in antioxidants to help us fight off disease such as essential vitamins A,C, D and E as well as essential minerals like iron, zinc, folic acid and selenium. Eating foods rich in these strengthens our immune response and help us fight off disease.
Alcohol is processed in the liver by vitamin-dependent enzymes so excessive alcohol consumption will need a greater amount of these enzymes. As alcohol is a diuretic (making us urinate more often) it also depletes our stores of essential vitamins and minerals such as A, C, D, K, the B-complex vitamins and also zinc, iron, magnesium, potassium and selenium. Heavy drinking can damage the intestinal wall causing poor absorption of nutrients leading to further vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Alcohol also suppresses the body’s ability to multiply its white blood cells in response to a bacterial or viral invasion, making it harder for our body to fight off infection.
Studies have shown that eating sugar has the potential to weaken your immune system by 75% for up to six hours. This is not a new theory but came about from a leading expert in microbiology, Dr Linus Pauling, in the 1970s who found that not only does vitamin C strengthen our immune response but that sugar can slow down our ability to fight off infections. Glucose (sugar) has a similar chemical structure to vitamin C and can be mistakenly substituted by the body if vitamin C is in low supply and glucose is in high concentration in the blood cells.
When we metabolise sugar it has an acidic response in the body. Our blood naturally needs to be slightly alkaline. So if we eat and drink too many acidic foods our blood will be too acidic which will affect cellular functions, deplete our body of essential minerals, increase inflammation and encourage disease.
Although coffee does have some antioxidant benefits, overdoing it with your coffees throughout the day will suppress your immune system. Many of the chemicals in coffee can also irritate the stomach lining which can contribute to too much stomach acid, which can lead to digestive issues. Coffee and tea, mostly black tea but also green tea, contain tannins which can decrease the absorption of iron which we need to enhance immunity. Caffeine is also acidic and, as mentioned, having an overly acidic pH can encourage disease and inflammation. As it is a diuretic, like alcohol, it can also deplete our stores of essential vitamins and minerals and naturally dehydrate us.
Being dehydrated affects every cellular function. Our body naturally detoxifies and if we are chronically dehydrated then this severely impairs our ability to get rid of toxins. But you will notice that if you are dehydrated then you will not be eliminating efficiently through your kidneys and bowels. Poor elimination will affect the digestion and therefore absorption of nutrients. Then if our body can’t release these toxins they may get reabsorbed into the bloodstream. As our colon has the greatest number of immune cells within the body it is vital to have a healthy digestion and being hydrated is key.
When we are stressed the hormones we produce can over time suppress our autoimmune response. They lower our killer-fighting cells and have an acidic response in the body. As we live in a very stressed world it can be difficult to escape from the pressures of work, life, family, money worries and so on, but what we can do is change how we respond to stressful situations. Even taking a 10-minute break from the desk with a brisk walk round the block has been shown to reduce our stress-hormonal response. Even better if you can get to the park, see the sea or walk in the forest as it has been shown that being in nature can dramatically reduce our negative emotions, reduce our blood pressure, decrease our heart rate, reduce muscle tension and lower our stress hormones. Yoga, meditation, exercise, reading a favourite book or taking a long scented bath are just some simple ways to reduce our stress response, physically as well as emotionally.
Not enough sleep
Poor sleep can really weaken our immune system. It lowers our resistance to germs and can also really affect our digestive health. Lack of sleep can decrease our production of antibodies and cytokines, a protein that helps to fight off infections and inflammation. The optimal amount of sleep for an adult is 7-10 hours a night and 10 or more hours for school-aged children.
Drug-induced nutrient deficiencies are becoming more and more common as we become a nation of pill-poppers. The side-effects of many drugs such as blood pressure regulators like beta-blockers, which are diuretics, can lead to deficiencies in magnesium, zinc, potassium and B vitamins. Antacids or proton pump inhibitors reduce the production of stomach acid but this will also impair digestion and can affect the absorption of essential vitamin and minerals that are needed for our immune system. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and oral contraceptives will deplete the stores of B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, zinc and vitamin C. Antidepressants affect our stores of the B-complex vitamins and so on. So if there is a need to take medication it’s advisable also to take a good-quality multi-vitamin and mineral, in addition to a healthy diet to support your health needs.
Smoking damages the immune cells within the lining of the lungs that effectively gobble up any invaders. Cigarette smoke actually paralyses the cilia which are cells in the lining of the lungs that propel bacteria. It also weakens our ability to produce antibodies to fight against infections and increases inflammation. Smoking will deplete our absorption of vitamin C, essential for keeping our immune system strong. Our immune-supporting white blood cells need 50 times the concentration of vitamin C than would normally be found in our blood cells when there is a need to engulf viruses and bacteria to break them down and detoxify them.
Not enough sunlight
Vitamin D is essential for a strong immune system by transforming our white blood cells into killer T-cells that will fight infections. Our body gets most of its vitamin D supply by converting it from the sun’s rays. So, yes, sitting out in the sunshine for short periods is good for your health as well as your mood.
Germs love a dark, moist environment so the worst thing you can do, especially if you feel as if you’re about to come down with a cold, is to hole up in a dark room! Allowing your lymphatic system, containing your infection-fighting white blood cells, to stagnate will encourage those bad boys to increase. So actually at the first sign of feeling like your immune system is compromised, go outside for a brisk walk, take lots of deep breaths and, although rest is essential for healing, so is gentle exercise to keep the lymphatic system and circulation moving to encourage the movement of disease. Dry body brushing, hot and cold showering and also massage are great ways to stimulate the lymphatic system too.
For a full review of how well your immune system is functioning and ways that you could improve your immunity through diet, this is a good time of year to book an appointment for nutritional advice with Rhi