11 ways to support your immune system

Your Healthy Living speaks to the experts about natural ways to support your immunity

The global outbreak of COVID-19 has dominated the headlines of late and no doubt will continue to do so for some time. As a result, we are all looking for ways to support our immune system and keep ourselves fighting fit.

“The best approach for all disease is immune support,” says Aliyyaa Spring-Charles, president of the British Naturopathic Association and General Council and Register of Naturopaths. “The immune system is better at warding off foreign invaders than any drug ever invented and, therefore, supporting immune function is something we should all address on a day-to-day basis, whether in the presence or absence of disease. First, it is imperative to begin with a solid foundation: ensure a balanced diet with immune-boosting foods, manage your stress levels and get plenty of good quality sleep.”

Here are some further tips for natural ways to support your immune system.

1 Vitamin C

“Vitamin C is possibly the best thing you can consume if you’re looking to give your immune system a big boost,” says Georgie Murphy, head of nutrition with supplement company Vitl (www.Vitl.com). “Vitamin C helps stimulate the production of white blood cells (also known as leukocytes). These are cells from your immune system that help to fight infectious disease and foreign invaders. Your body doesn’t store vitamin C and therefore you should be looking to consume foods rich in the nutrient, such as oranges, kiwifruit, Brussels sprouts and potatoes, on a daily basis. It’s a vital vitamin needed for repairing and growing tissue; it helps heal wounds, maintain healthy bones and acts as an antioxidant, fighting free radicals that can weaken the immune system. It isn’t a magic nutrient and may not stop you from catching a cold or the flu completely, but it will certainly give your body more of a fighting chance.”

2 Vitamin D

“It’s almost impossible to get sufficient sunlight in the UK during the winter months (and sometimes summer months too!) for the body to absorb enough vitamin D,” says Georgie Murphy. “This is a problem for our immune systems as vitamin D stimulates the production of anti-microbial proteins, which we rely on to fight off infection. The reason this vitamin is so important is because it has receptors that activate enzymes on the surfaces of our white blood cells. Not getting enough vitamin D can lead to autoimmune diseases or repeated infection.”

3 Broccoli sprouts

“These are microgreens that have the potential to give a boost to your immune system,” explains Louise Westra, an award-winning naturopath and founder of The Me First Collective (www.louisewestra.com). “Research shows that compounds in broccoli sprouts, including one called sulforaphane, have significant antiviral activity. Sulforaphane is brilliant at switching on something called Nrf2. Nrf2 is sometimes described as the ‘master regulator’ of cell defences. This is because it can influence over 2,000 genes related to cell protection and, as a result, increase production of various different defence mechanisms. A handful a day is a good start; these sprouts can be added to soups and stir fries and can be eaten raw as well. For example you can easily add them to salads. 1–2 tbsp of broccoli sprouts on a daily basis is a good rule of thumb to get benefits. But if you aren’t growing them yourself then a green powder that includes them can be a good alternative.”

4 Chromium and selenium

“Deficiencies in micronutrients may impair a healthy immune function as they can generate a disruption to antibody developments which affects the body’s ability to respond to disease and infection,” says nutritionist Jenna Hope. “Selenium is essential in the generation of selenoproteins which contribute to reducing free radicals in the body and strengthening the immune system. You can consume selenium through a variety of sources including Brazil nuts, turkey, seafood and liver. Chromium, a trace element which is required in very small amounts, has been shown to stimulate the immune response. Sources of chromium include whole grains, oranges, onions, tomatoes and greens.”

5 Garlic

“Eat garlic regularly,” says Louise Westra. “The main active compound in garlic, allicin, is considered to improve immune cells’ ability to prevent colds and the flu. In addition, it seems garlic has antimicrobial and antiviral properties that may help fight bacterial and viral infections. Specifically, eating garlic can increase the number of virus-fighting T-cells in your bloodstream, according to some research. The high sulphur content in garlic supports zinc absorption and zinc is well known as an immunity booster. Currently it seems that zinc works by making it harder for viruses to replicate in the mucus membranes of the upper respiratory system. To make the best of garlic’s immune-boosting effects, eat one clove two to three times per day.”

6 Probiotics

“One strategy to support the body’s natural immunity to prevent initial infection is to consider regular consumption of fermented foods or probiotic supplements,” says Hannah Braye, nutritional therapist at Bio-Kult (www.bio-kult.com). “This is not surprising as up to 70 per cent of our immune cells are located in the gut and our gut bacteria play an essential role in supporting a strong immune system. Taken over time, multi-strain probiotics (live bacterial supplements) have been shown to significantly shorten common colds and reduce the severity of symptoms. As each different probiotic strain has a slightly different beneficial effect within the body, a multi-strain is believed to have more positive benefits overall and therefore able to help support the immune system in diverse ways.”

7 Zinc

“The body can’t store this nutrient so we need to make sure we get enough every day,” says medical herbalist Pamela Spence (pamelaspence.co.uk). “Luckily that isn’t difficult because zinc plays a vital role in our bodies. It is particularly important to support our immune systems where our bodies use it to build the T-cells that fight off pathogens. Meat and shellfish are both excellent sources of zinc but if you are veggie or vegan then beans, nuts and seeds – particularly chickpeas, cashews and almonds – will also deliver for you. The zinc in plant sources is not so easily absorbed so make sure you eat a generous portion daily.”

8 Echinacea

“Most people don’t realise that Echinacea was originally used by tribes in North America to treat snake bite,” says Pamela Spence. “Nowadays we know that its strong action on the immune system is partly due to its ability to increase our production of white blood cells which fight infection. Echinacea also has an anti-viral action and this makes it extremely useful when we’re fighting off coughs and colds which are usually viral in origin. I usually suggest people take Echinacea in tincture form which is easy to carry around. Good quality Echinacea tincture should leave a tingle on your tongue.”

9 Olive leaf extract

“Olive leaf extract can support our immunity by interrupting the ability of viruses to replicate and enter our own cells,” says Pamela Spence. “It has also been shown to increase our immune responses – particularly our natural killer (NK) cells. One key component, oleuropein, is antibacterial and antimicrobial as well as being immune-stimulating. In studies, it was shown to be effective against herpes, rotavirus and is widely believed to be effective against influenza too. It is easily taken in capsule form but care must be taken with some prescription medications so check with your local medical herbalist.”

10 Mushrooms

“There are approximately 400 species of fungi that have been identified with medicinal properties, and many have antiviral, antimicrobial or anti-inflammatory qualities,” says Euan MacLennan, herbal director at Pukka Herbs (pukkaherbs.com) and medical herbalist at a London-based NHS practice. “Mushrooms are high in beta glucans – natural substances found to help ‘prime’ our immune system, making sure it’s ready for action to fight off infection. They can be easily added into your diet through daily doses of supplements.”

11 Sleep

“Everyone is aware that sleep is fundamental to our health, that it restores and heals the body,” says Louise Westra. “Without enough sleep, optimal immune function is going to be more challenging. This is, at least, partly because when we’re asleep the body redistributes energy resources that are primarily used for the brain and muscles to function to the immune system. During sleep, our immune cells move out of the circulation and into the lymph nodes, in readiness for the next day of activity.”

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