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How to improve your immune system

Patsy Westcott / 25 July 2017

From having a nap to eating more wholegrains, these quick fixes will keep your body’s natural immunity strong against disease.

Rollercoaster ride
Anything that takes you just slightly out of your comfort zone, such as a rollercoaster ride, could count as 'good stress'

Our immune system works 24/7 to keep us healthy. But, as we get older, it does too, becoming less effective. ‘Fewer specialised white blood cells are produced and these are less likely to recognise invaders, leaving us more prone to infections,’ says Dr Patricia Macnair, specialty doctor in medicine for the elderly at Milford Hospital, Surrey.

How your immune system changes as you get older

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We also become more vulnerable to chronic internal inflammation, which leads to everything from heart disease to arthritis. The risk of developing allergies, cancer, dementia and many other illnesses also increases.

What is inflammation?

So it’s important to do all we can to keep our immune system on top form. Here are some of the latest techniques.

10 ways to boost your immune system

Stay in touch with friends and family

Research shows that the more socially connected we are, the less likely we are to fall ill. ‘Isolation can lead to chronic stress,’ explains stress expert, Professor Sir Cary Cooper, ‘which in turn is linked with lower levels of killer T-cells’. These destroy foreign cells, including cancer and virus-infected cells.

A recent study also found that people who are prone to worry, gloom and withdrawal are more prone to inflammation.

10 surprising ways to feel less anxious

So make sure you arrange regular get-togethers with family and friends, and join that film society or volunteer group. Professor Cooper also suggests using video chat services such as Skype and FaceTime to stay in touch with loved ones. ‘Seeing the other person helps to strengthen relationships,’ he says.

How to use Skype to stay in touch with family and friends

How to make video calls on your iPad

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.

Do high-intensity interval training

A 2016 Brazilian study found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) – short bouts of intense exercise, such as running or cycle sprints, interspersed with less intense exercise, such as walking or slower cycling – lowers levels of inflammatory chemicals and boosts anti-inflammatory ones. You can tailor HIIT to suit your capabilities and classes are available in fitness centres nationwide.

Regular moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk or swim, can make natural killer cells more efficient.

Regular moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk or swim, can also make natural killer cells more efficient, according to Dean Hodgkin, fitness expert at Ragdale Hall Health Hydro. ‘When cancer survivors exercise for several weeks after finishing chemotherapy, their immune systems “remodel” to become more effective,’ he adds.

Soak up the sun

Vitamin D, often called the sunshine vitamin because it is made in reaction to sunlight
on skin, is vital to immunity. It has been shown to help fend off infections, autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and Type-1 diabetes, and it may even protect against cancers of the breast, prostate, bowel and melanoma – the most serious type of skin cancer.

To up your vitamin D quota, you should expose your arms and legs to the sun without sunscreen for 10-15 minutes a day, ideally between 11am and 3pm, from late March to the end of September.

As we get older, it becomes harder to make vitamin D, so experts recommend that we should all take a daily 10 microgram supplement, too.

Vitamin D vs skin cancer: getting the balance right

Eat ‘good’ carbs

If you’re on a low-carbohydrate diet, be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Cutting out ‘good’ carbs, found in naturally starchy and fibre-rich foods, along with the ‘bad’ guys contained in refined cereals and cakes, could reduce your intake of important immune-boosting nutrients, such as vitamins A, C and D, folate, zinc, iron, copper and selenium, according to dietitian Helen Bond. But that’s not all.

Good carbs help to stimulate blood cells in gut tissues to fight against diseases, including cancer.

A paper to be published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition this September reveals that good carbs help to stimulate blood cells in gut tissues to fight against diseases, including cancer.

Wholegrain cereals – such as wheat, oats, buckwheat and rice – as well as potatoes, beans, peas and lentils, vegetables and fruit, are all excellent sources of good carbs.

What you need to know about carbs

Have a nap

Loss of, or disrupted, sleep are strongly linked to detrimental changes in the immune system, according to American research published recently in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. This is backed up by other findings that people with insomnia produced fewer antibodies when given the flu vaccine. The well-regarded European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Potsdam study, meanwhile, revealed that less than six hours’ sleep a night may even increase the risk of cancer. Taking a daytime nap could help reduce this risk, say researchers.

When is the best time to take a nap? Find out here

Pop a probiotic

Our gut is home to trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that help to increase resistance to autoimmune diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, MS and Type-1 diabetes.

‘Probiotics – friendly bacteria found in certain foods – are thought to enhance this activity and increase levels of antibodies with effects extending beyond the gut to other mucus membranes found, for instance, in the respiratory tract,’ says Michael Gleeson, emeritus professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University. ‘They also boost recovery from diarrhoea, ease some allergic and respiratory problems and promote anti-tumour activity.’

Get probiotics in pickles, kefir, miso, raw (unpasteurized) cheeses, and probiotic drinks and supplements.

What you need to know about probiotics

Get (a little) stressed.

While chronic (long-term) stress can dent immunity, one of the most surprising findings of recent years is that short-term ‘good stress’, which experts call eustress, can actually enhance the immune response and optimize the production of immune chemicals. And that’s not all. We also become more resilient to the effects of minor daily stressors – things like getting stuck in a traffic jam, holding on the phone or waiting at the doctor’s surgery - as we get older.

Short-term ‘good stress’, which experts call eustress, can actually enhance the immune response.

Good ways to inject a little short-term good stress into your life include setting yourself a tight-but-achievable deadline, challenging yourself by learning something new, like a language, signing up to a dance class, playing sports, a game of bridge or Scrabble, a ride on a roller coaster or zip wire, watching a tense, scary or even funny movie – or indeed doing anything that pushes you just slightly out of your comfort zone.

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.

Tune in

Listening to your favourite song track could help your immune system stay in shape. How? A recent study discovered that music helped change levels of inflammatory hormones involved in immunity. The study builds on earlier research showing that listening to just 50 minutes of uplifting dance music increased antibody levels.

Other research from the Royal College of Music, meanwhile, shows that singing helps regulate immunity in cancer patients. Choose from classical, jazz, Irish folk, South American, reggae with beats per minute ranging from 106 to 132 - or any track that makes you feel happy and uplifted.

How music boosts your health in other ways

Brush up your sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene - going to bed at the same time each night, having a wind-down routine before bedtime, such as a taking warm bath infused with soothing essential oils, keeping your room dark and at the right temperature, as well as keeping your mobile and tablet out of the bedroom  – could all help keep your immune system happy.

According to research, restorative sleep enables us to meet life’s challenges with resilience and, say experts, is vital to health and well being as we get older.

A recent paper in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, meanwhile, shows that insomnia may increase inflammation. A good reason to make sure that you do everything you can to get a good night’s sleep. Seven hours is optimum.

How to get a better night’s sleep

Tried and tested ways to boost your immune system

Eat more protein

Protein and amino acids, the building blocks of protein, help to energise your immune cells.

What is the human immune system?

It’s a complex network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to defend the body against disease. It includes the skin, mucus linings of the gut and lungs, stomach acid, urine, white blood cells and gut bacteria.

There are two parts to the immune system.

1. Innate immunity is the inbuilt protection we all have from birth.

2. Acquired immunity is the ‘memory’ that the body gains from encounters with ‘foreign’ invaders – tiny organisms such as bacteria, fungi or parasites that can cause infections – which enables it to go on the attack the next time it meets them.

Make sure vaccinations are up to date

Give your ageing immune system a helping hand by taking advantage of flu, pneumonia and shingles jabs.

Why you need the flu jab

Stay a healthy weight

Being overweight or obese in later life increases inflammation.

Why body fat is a health risk

Eat oily fish

Omega-3 fatty acids found in the likes of herrings, mackerel, trout, tuna, salmon and sardines improve immune function.

Sources of omega-3 for people who don't like salmon

Keep your hygienist appointment

Bleeding gums caused by periodontal (gum) disease aren’t just unpleasant – research has shown they can also lead to inflammation, which has been linked to heart disease.

How your dental hygienist can help you

Have a giggle

Laughter has been shown to boost immunity in several studies. So find time for some fun and chortle yourself to better health.

How laughter helps boost your health

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.