Supporting your Immune System Naturally

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It’s still the tail-end of cold and flu season and, especially with the media frenzy around the coronavirus, everyone is looking for ways to support their immune systems. As you’ve likely heard before from holistic healthcare practitioners, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. The key to fighting off illnesses is making healthy choices that support an optimally-functioning immune system everyday, not just once you’ve come down with something. Nutrition and lifestyle choices can make a huge difference in your immune system’s ability to fight off pathogens and invaders.

What is optimal immune function?

Your immune system is highly complex, too complex to cover in a short article such as this one, but there are a few important things to know if you want to learn how to support your immune health. A key player in the function of your immune system is inflammation. You’re probably familiar with that word! “Fighting inflammation” has become a widely researched and talked about subject in recent years, and for good reason. But an important thing to note is that inflammation is a normal part of the immune response. Inflammation is characterized by swelling and heat. The difference between the inflammation that is an integral part of a healthy immune system, and the inflammation that weakens the immune system, is the length of time it is occurring in the body. Acute (short term) inflammation is normal and healthy. This is the body’s way of fighting pathogens and repairing injury. Long term, or chronic inflammation, wreaks havoc on the body and taxes the immune system.

The goal, then, is to reduce any chronic inflammation and improve the body’s ability to enact a quick and strong acute inflammatory response to fight off viruses and other pathogens. For some, that can be rather complex: some people have inflammatory or auto-immune conditions and need to work with a holistic healthcare practitioner to manage their specific issues and identify triggers of their inflammatory response. For most people, chronic inflammation is caused by a few usual culprits:

  • High stress levels/chronic stress
  • High intake of sugar
  • Eating foods one is sensitive to
  • Intake of processed oils and fats
  • Poor quality or lack of sleep
  • Under-exercising or over-exercising

As you can imagine, chronic inflammation is unfortunately rather common in North America. People live fast-paced, stressed out lives and they use lots of caffeine and sugary foods to get them through their day. Then they stay up too late or struggle to sleep soundly. We must be mindful of this common lifestyle and take measures to protect ourselves from its damaging effects.

Another key player in immune function is your gut. Did you know that over 80% of your immune system lives in your gut? A well-balanced gut is crucial for a strong immune system. Your gut contains all kinds of different strains of bacteria. When your gut is “balanced” and healthy, that means there is a community of a variety of probiotic bacteria (“good” bacteria) living there. Those are the two really important factors: a variety of strains, and lots of probiotic bacteria. So how do we support our gut health? For a variety of gut bacteria, you need to eat a variety of foods. Each strain has a different preferred food source and you want to feed as many kinds of probiotic bacteria as you can. The bacteria in your gut are in a fight for territory. When you eat a variety of nourishing foods, you create an army of “good guys” who work hard to fight off the “bad guys”. Some people have severely imbalanced gut flora for a variety of reasons, including antibiotic use, illness, chronic dieting, and more. If you tend to have digestive difficulties most days, it’s a good idea to seek out a holistic healthcare practitioner who can guide you through the process of reestablishing a happy community of good bacteria in your gut.

To really nurture your gut, it’s important to understand prebiotic and probiotic foods. Prebiotic foods contain the types of fiber that feed the “good guys” of your gut. These foods include apples, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks, dandelion greens, bananas, and chicory root. Probiotic foods contain the “good guys” themselves, and when you eat them they help populate your gut with probiotic bacteria. Probiotic foods include anything fermented like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and kefir. Eating both prebiotic foods and probiotic foods is key to make sure you are populating your gut with good bacteria and also feeding those good bacteria.

7 Things You Can Start Doing Today to Support Your Immune System

  1. Set a bedtime alarm to encourage you to turn off any screens and start winding down. A wind-down routine is critical for stress reduction and healthy sleep.
  2. Be mindful of your sugar intake. It’s okay to enjoy your favourite dessert, but the big thing to look out for is when you are “using” sugar. Tend to your emotional and mental health and seek help if you need it.
  3. Move your body, but don’t overdo it. Exercise is great for reducing inflammation, but too much exercise taxes the body and can be a contributor to chronic inflammation. Listen to your body and give it a challenge, but don’t deplete yourself. You should feel like you have more energy after you exercise. If you feel completely exhausted and you’re crashing, that’s likely too much. Find what feels good and move your body in a way that brings you joy.
  4. Swap out heavily-processed oils. The simple act of switching the oil you cook with can make a massive difference when it comes to inflammation. You can learn more about healthy fats here.
  5. Cover your bases. Most people can benefit from taking a high-quality multivitamin to make sure you are getting adequate amounts of the key nutrients your immune system needs for optimal functioning.
  6. Get those sunrays. Exposing your skin to sunshine is important for vitamin D synthesis, a key nutrient for the immune system. Make sure to wear a natural sunscreen if you are going to be outside for long in the hot sun. If you live in Canada, you have dark skin (absorbs less sunlight), or you can’t get outside, you may need to supplement your vitamin D.
  7. Mind your gut. Eat prebiotic and probiotic foods, and consider a probiotic supplement if your gut could use a little help coming into balance.

Contributed by Melanie Maxwell, R.H.N.