It’s flu season and almost everyone I know has been fighting some sort of illness (potentially because I keep giving to them). I’m a notoriously ill human – I was the child who was off school every other week, constantly calling my mum in to pick me up and provide heinz tomato soup on tap. My health only seemed to get worse as I grew up, nothing too serious, but I definitely spent at least 50% of my time at uni feeling sorry for myself in bed unable to achieve anything with my days. In fact one of the main reasons for starting this blog was as an attempt to stop racking up crazy medical bills and improve my health in a natural way.
In the 6 months since I drastically changed my lifestyle, this week was the first time I’d felt remotely unwell – it may not seem a lot but that is quite a record for me. Furthermore, the severity of illness has significantly lessened. Last year a measly cold would have had me bed ridden for days; I became a professional sick person, unable to go to lectures, and only getting out of bed to drink hot chocolate or get sympathy from my housemates. But this time, thanks to a combination of healthy diet and exercise, I haven’t been completely dehabilitated this flu season. Granted I feel a bit shitty, but I’m a fully functioning person of the world who can still get on with life (I’m just complaining about things a whole lot more). So I thought I’d use my new found health as a platform to give an update on how my change in lifestyle has helped so far.
The idea of an quick fix to boost the immune system is enticing. Many products like Actimel or vitamin supplements often claim to improve immunity but in reality, it’s not that simple. There are many types of cells that produce different responses to virus and bacteria, so cannot all benefit from the same nutrient or chemical. To understand how to improve the immune system, we must thing of it as a complex machine, rather than a stand alone response. To really strengthen our immunity it is not good enough to make improvements in one area and not others. Eating a healthy plant-based diet won’t have the same health benefits if you spend all your time in bed leading a sedentary life. Similarly, becoming a crossfit master isn’t going to produce as impressive results if you are continuing with diet that consists of only sugar and fat.
Strengthening the immune system requires a long-term lifestyle change, to ensure that benefits occur in each part of the system:
Diet & Immune System
The gastrointestinal tract has around 80% of your immune system within. It comes into contact with the largest amount and number of different molecules than any other part of the body. It’s role is to decide how block damaging and pathogenic organisms from being absorbed, while still letting in nutrients required for survival. So it is unsurprising that all food that passes through the gut has huge influences on immunity.
The most effective foods to support healthy gut functioning are high in a variety of nutrients and vitamins that support the intestinal lining. You’re probably sick to death of hearing about magical antioxidants but the truth is they are a great source of nutrients to aid immune functioning. They provide a natural source of vitamins that increase production of natural killer cells and helper T-cells to fight bacteria. Key antioxidant foods include blueberries, mushrooms, green vegetables, bone broth (or chicken soup), oily fish and green tea.
Exercise & Immune System
It’s no secret that exercise is good for you. I think it’s commonly misunderstood that the main purpose of exercise is to lose weight – I’ve spent the majority of my life only really feeling the need to exercise when I’m feeling particularly body conscious. Actually fitness has a whole range of benefits that I’ve recently discovered, almost none of which are related to weight loss. In the last few months I’ve started running and doing the 12-week Kayla Istines workout. It’s a high intensity 28 minute workout that you do 3 times a week with the aim of targeting all muscles in the body for short but high intensity periods. It literally zaps all your energy until your a sweaty shaking mess on the floor but pays off big time. Not only have I’ve noticed really fast improvements to my muscle tone but I’m full of energy, less stressed and sleeping better. The effects on my psychological wellbeing have been vast – I’m feel incredibly happy and a lot less anxious on the days when I exercise, which is no doubt attributed to endorphins.
In terms of physical health I think exercise has played a huge role in my enhanced immune system. There’s an extensive amount of research showing that regular exercise boosts immunity. There are a few theories as to why, some believe that exercise increases the production of macrophages which fight bacteria in the lungs, where as others believe that rise in body temperature inhibits bacteria growth. Whatever the physiological reasons, studies comparing active and sedentary individuals have demonstrated that people who walked just 40 minutes per day reported half as many sick days compared to those who didn’t exercise. So I can’t recommend exercise enough, there are so many benefits other than weight loss that improve your day to day life (namely, not being embarrassingly out of breath when you walk up the stairs).
Stress & Immune System While there’s no doubt that a plant-based diet and radical change from sloth to gym bunny have vastly improved my immune response, I’ve also a firm believer that these changes are somewhat psychological. The relationship between the body and brain is understated. A huge number of illnesses such as, hives, eczema, headaches and even heart disease have been linked to emotional stress. Chronic stress can have grave effects on immune functioning by diminishing the immune response and lowering white blood cell count. For example, widowers are more likely to get ill the year after experiencing major loss than those who don’t. This seems pretty intuitive, it’s no coincidence that library-coughing grows loudest around exam time – extensive periods of stress completely frazzles our immunity.
Life has been pretty great for the last 6 months, which I think has largely contributed to my health improvements. However, in times of stress one of the best thing I can recommend to do is mindfulness – 10-15 minutes a day of focusing the mind on your body sensations and breathing, rather than allowing thoughts to ruminate and make you anxious. The effects of mediation on both physical and mental health are huge – the ability to control thoughts can prevent stress hormones from skyrocketing, which in turn strengthens immune functioning.
So… that’s a pretty good summary of how this lifestyle change has benefited me both physically and psychologically. Not to say that it hasn’t been hard or that I’ve stuck to it 100% – I’m still a chocoholic who has an unhealthy number of pajamas days, but the overall changes have had more benefits than I ever imagined. I hope this rather long post has highlighted how a combination of diet, exercise and mental wellbeing are needed to improve immunity. Here’s an example of the kind of meals you should be eating to have boost your immune system over time.
Courgette, leek and edamame in tahini and basil sauce:
Ingredients (serves 1)
2-3 courgettes per person
1 cup edamame
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 handful basil leaves
1 handful parsley
Juice 1 lemon
2 tablespoons tahini
1 tablespoon honey
1 handful pine nuts
1. Using a spiriliser (or grater if you don’t have one), shred courgettes into spaghetti
2. Chop onion and 1 garlic glove – fry in coconut oil until soft
3. Slice the leek and add to pan until soft
4. Add edamame and courgetti – lightly fry for 3-4 minutes and season well.
5. Meanwhile make the dressing: combine parsley, basil, tahini, 1 garlic clove, lemon juice in a food processor
6. Mix in the dressing and sprinkle with pine nuts before serving.