Tess Ström: seven tips to support your immunity in times of stress

The Clinic’s nutritional therapist, Tess Ström, with some tips to support your immune system during times of stress and make sure you are in the best position possible to navigate the challenges of isolation and lockdown.

Tess Ström, Nutritional Therapist

I have been getting a lot of questions about how we can protect ourselves from COVID19 infection. First of all, I need to emphasise I am not a medical professional so cannot give you any specific advice on how to deal with COVID 19 itself. What I can say is that no natural remedies or medicines for that matter will prevent us from getting the virus. However, by ensuring that our immune systems are as robust as possible, if we do contract an infection, we may have a better chance to fight it off.
There are many ways that we can support our immune system, both through nutrition and through lifestyle measures, so let’s review them. Being a nutritionist, you may expect me to focus on foods or supplements as a first instance; however, my number one piece of advice is actually to get your sleep in order.

Sleep

Poor sleep is one of the biggest factors affecting our immune system. A study by University of California in 2019 found that the number one factor determining whether or not someone would develop the common cold after having been subjected to the virus was sleep – or lack thereof.

Sleep increases production of killer T cells. T cells are white blood cells that play an important role in the immune system particularly in its response to viruses. Sleep deprivation leads to these cells being less capable of responding to infections. The immune system’s response time is also negatively affected by sleep deprivation, meaning the body is slower at reacting to an infection.

So what can you do to ensure sleep is good, apart from the usual sleep hygiene of making sure your bedroom is dark and not too warm and that you keep TV, computers/iPads and phones out of the bedroom or at least properly switched off? You can also consider factors that can increase anxiety. One good measure is to give yourself an electronic curfew: no media for at least 90 minutes before bedtime. This lowers exposure to electromagnetic radiation and bright screens which can contribute to environmental stress and inhibit immune function.

Instead, try to do something to help relax you such as meditation, reading or even better, enjoy some sex! Make a gratitude list, or if anxious write down your worries and thoughts in a journal instead of taking them with you to bed. Staying positive in these challenging times is what is going to help us get through this.

Keep your schedule consistent. You may not have to get up early for the morning commute but going to bed late or having a long lie in will throw your body clock out of sync and will likely make you feel more tired in the long run. This can negatively affect your immune system as well as your mental health.

Also avoid or reduce your intake of stimulants such as caffeine: they can stimulate anxiety and affect sleep, particularly if consumed after lunch time. A Morning coffee is fine but do not escalate intake and avoid it completely in the evening. If you must have a glass of wine, ideally give your body one hour per glass of wine before going to sleep. Do not use alcohol as a sleep aid: although you may find that it helps you get off to sleep it does in fact negatively affect the quality and length of sleep for most people.

Having a hot bath 90 minutes before bed reduces our core body temperature which aids sleep. Adding a magnesium rich salt such as Epsom salt to your bath can also help relax both body and mind even further.

A very simple breathing technique to quickly slow down heart rate and relax you is the 4-7-8 technique. This is even used by Navy Seals! Breathe in to count of four, hold for count of seven and breathe out to a count of eight. It’s really good. Try it!

Limit intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates

Sugar lowers the reactivity of white blood cells and thereby dramatically reduces the immune system’s ability to kill bacteria and viruses. It has been found that eating 100g of sugar or drinking 1 litre of a sugary drink or fruit juice literally disables the immune system for 4-5 hours. If someone constantly consumes a high sugar, high carbohydrate diet, imagine the effect that would have on their immune system! Additionally, sugar has the same chemical structure as vitamin C, which means eating sugar directly competes with vitamin C. This means that less vitamin C enters into white blood cells compromising the proper functioning of these vital immune cells. A lot of people turn to orange juice as they believe it is a good source of vitamin C. However, it is also a concentrated source of sugar, so is definitely not a good choice. Instead enjoy a whole orange.

Avoid junk food

It has been found that a high fat and high calorie diet leads to inflammation and has a similar effect on the immune system as a bacterial infection. Instead focus on whole foods; plenty of colourful vegetables, some fruit, some protein (animal and / or plant based – eggs, fish, seafood, meat, chicken, turkey, beans, lentils, quinoa, seeds and some nuts) and healthy fats (oily fish, avocado, nuts and seeds, olive and coconut oil). The best way of consuming colourful vegetables, which will ensure you are getting enough immune supporting micronutrients and antioxidants, is to eat the rainbow. Green, red, yellow, white, orange, blue or purple: they all contain different nutrients with various therapeutic effects. Try to consume as many colours as you can every day.

Support your immune system with nutrients and food

Around 70% to 80% of our immune system resides in our gut, so by ensuring your digestive system is healthy you are also supporting your immunity. Gut bacteria for instance has many roles, one being that it teaches T cells to recognise the difference between the body’s own tissue and foreign substances such as virus and bacteria. Furthermore, the health of the gut lining is vital for optimal immunity. The gut lining is what keeps antigens (this can be anything from bacteria, parasites, viruses, yeast infections, food allergens) from leaking into the blood stream from the gut. If this gut lining is compromised, antigens will leak into the blood stream and eventually set off immune reactions which will compromise health. This is why it is so important to nurture the gut lining.

One nutrient that is particularly good for this is Vitamin A. The best food sources for this are offal (liver and kidneys – but only consume if organic), meat, eggs, oily fish and butter. Betacarotene in fruit and vegetables can also be converted to vitamin A for most individuals. Betacarotene rich foods include carrots, sweet potato, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, peppers and cantaloupe melon.

Fermented foods contain friendly bacteria which can be very beneficial to gut health. However, if you are suffering from digestive issues such as bloating, wind, pain, these foods can make symptoms worse so may not be suitable for you. If you are not used to consuming these foods, start with small amounts, even just a teaspoon can be sufficient and then gradually build up. If you have done this and three to four weeks down the line you are still experiencing symptoms, you may like to consult with a nutritionist.

Consuming a good amount of fibre mainly in the form of vegetables feeds friendly bacteria and can also help support the immune system.

Vitamin C is a strong antioxidant that helps to mop up toxins from the body. It protects the structural integrity of cells and tissues and aid in increasing the production of T cells. Most people think of oranges for vitamin C but you also find it in good amounts in broccoli, tomatoes, kiwi and red peppers among others. As mentioned previously, orange juice is not a good source of vitamin C due to its high sugar content.

Vitamin D is another important nutrient for the immune system, it helps to strengthen cells and gives them the ability to fight disease. The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight. Just 15 minutes with sun exposure on clean skin (no sunscreen) can help increase levels. During the winter months we have to rely on fortified foods and for some supplements are needed. It is important to know your vitamin D levels before supplementing. Consult you GP or a therapist such a nutritionist or naturopath to find out correct dosage for you.

Zinc also plays an important role in a healthy immune system, including maintaining a strong barrier membrane in the respiratory tract and protection against pathogens. Good food sources of zinc are seafood, lamb, beef and lamb, chickpeas, spinach, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, mushrooms.

Keep hydrated

Our mouth, sinuses, throat, lungs, stomach, and intestines are coated with a thin layer of mucous. By trapping toxic elements and infectious microbes and transporting them out of the body this mucous layer helps protect us from infections. Keeping this mucous layer moist helps it to function properly. A good way of doing this is to make sure you stay hydrated, so keep sipping on fluid, ideally warm such as water, herbal teas, green or red tea throughout the day. Alcohol, sugary drinks, coffee and normal tea are all dehydrating so keep intake down.

Eat beneficial herbs and spices

Garlic and turmeric are some of my favourite foods to use for immunity. Both have been found to stimulate white blood cells so enhances the functioning of the immune system. The therapeutic properties in ginger also support the immune system through its strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

Exercise

We have all been told that exercise is good for us and it is, in many ways. The immune system is boosted by increased overall fitness, enabling the body to better fight off colds and infections. Even walking for half an hour a day can reduce the risk of catching a cold by half, due to an increase in white blood cells. Do remember that exercise is a preventative measure however, so if you already have an infection exercise can be too strenuous on the body. It is also wise to avoid excessive volumes and intensities of exercise as this is understood to create immune suppression.

Taking these steps to support yourself and your immune system at all times, but especially at times of stress, while help to ensure you are at your best. I hope this advice is useful, and don’t forget: The Clinic is still here to support you, please do get in touch if we can help in any way.

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