Best ways to support your immunity (and what won’t work)

As the threat of coronavirus continues its spread, super-charging your body’s defence system may feel more urgent than ever.

But short of following bizarre and unfounded internet advice that recommends drinking silver and downing garlic, what exactly can we do to protect ourselves?

You can help your immune system functioning optimally by eating fresh fruit and vegetables.Credit:iStock

According to Dr Zerina Tomkins, of the University of Melbourne’s nursing department, there is no evidence any specific lifestyle, food or supplement will prevent an infection with coronavirus.

But there are ways to support your immune system and help keep it functioning optimally.

Dr Tomkins says it "comes down to protecting the body that you have" by staying active, eating healthily, sleeping well, not smoking and limiting alcohol intake.

Get moving

When it comes to exercise, anything is better than nothing. General recommendations are that a healthy person should do 150 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise a week, but if you’ve never exercised, you can’t expect to achieve that at first go.

“We know that no exercise is not good for your immunity and we know too much exercise is not good for your immunity,” says sport and exercise medicine physician Dr Brett Frenkiel.

“There’s a sweet spot and it will vary slightly among individuals, but a good amount of moderate intensity exercise on a regular basis is actually good for the immune system.”

Those who have never exercised before should start slow and gradually build.

“The important thing for any exercise program and general wellbeing is to ensure it’s accompanied by good nutrition, good sleep, good recovery and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes,” Dr Frenkiel says.

And don't overdo it. Dr Frenkiel says there's evidence too much working out can affect our body's defences. For example, he says elite athletes can be at risk of lower immunity.

Older people, who are most at risk of coronavirus, should stick to light but consistent exercise. Adults aged 65 or older who are generally fit and have no health conditions should try to be active daily.

Exercise “boosts a lot of the immune molecules to work better”, according to Dr Tomkins. Without regular exercise, people over the age of 50 years can experience a range of health problems.

Stress less

Stress at work or in the home is a part of life, but when it’s severe or continues for a long time it can compromise our health.

Cortisol is one of the key hormones at work in our bodies when we are emotionally or physically stressed.

During chronic stress, cortisol can be detrimental by suppressing the immune system, the complex network of cells and proteins that defends the body against infection. This makes it hard to fight off infection or disease.

“If you’re … constantly being exposed to specific stimuli that is causing you worry, anxiety, depression, et cetera, we do know the immune function overall tends to decrease,” Dr Tomkins says.

Sleep well

When it comes to shut-eye, quality is more important than quantity.

“Every individual is different in how much sleep they need and also when that sleep would occur,” Dr Tomkins says.

Having a deep restful sleep is crucial because it allows the body to undergo repair work so it can run properly.

While asleep, the immune system releases small proteins that help the body fight inflammation, infection and trauma if you’re sick or injured. Without enough sleep, your immune system might not be able to function at its best.

Victorian guidelines recommend generally getting about eight hours of sleep a night.

Eat fresh

You can help your immune system functioning optimally by eating fresh fruit and vegetables as they contain fibre and important vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals. Including plenty of them them in your diet can help protect you against illness, particularly those rich in vitamin C.

Oranges provide one of the best sources of vitamin C but it’s also found in other fruits, particularly strawberries, and a variety of vegetables, including red capsicum and broccoli.

“If you’re in good physical health and you eat good nutrition … you actually eat fresh fruit and vegetables, which have their own antioxidants and vitamins, then you’re already have taken care of a lot of that stuff,” Dr Tomkins says.

Ditch supplements

There’s a belief that certain foods or health supplements can boost our immune cell numbers or lead to better resistance to infections, but Dr Tomkins says “there is no evidence to support this suggestion”.

Biologically, for a healthy person, the body continuously produces a set number of immune cells, but that number will grow if they encounter a virus so they can fight it.

The process is regulated by the body and it's best not to interfere with it, Dr Tomkins says.

For example, taking too much vitamin D, which in the past has been linked to helping the immune system, can lead to kidney damage, while liver damage has been linked to the use of kava extract, green tea and black cohosh.

Don't buy into myths

There is no cure yet for coronavirus but social media is rife with false promises of products that combat it.

Health experts have debunked myths about consuming silver solution and garlic and in the US some companies have been taken to task over such claims.

“There is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from 2019-nCoV,” the World Health Organisation tweeted.

Claims that sesame oil blocks the virus are also untrue.

“Sesame oil is delicious but it does not kill 2019-nCoV,” the WHO added.

Meanwhile other suggestions claiming to prevent coronavirus, including yoga, using herbs or oil, gargling mouthwash or rinsing your nose with saline, are unproven, Victoria’s health department says on its website.

Dr Tomkins says ultimately, supporting your immune system doesn't need to be complicated: “At the end of the day you have to have common sense and do common sense things."

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