The Winter months can be tough for our immune system, which is our body’s defence against foreign compounds such as bacteria and viruses, that cause harm. The Winter flu can be caught anytime in the year, but it’s most common during the winter season (that’s why it’s called the winter flu) because we tend to spend more of our time indoors during this time, and so the virus spread easier. Now let’s look at what makes a healthy immune system so you can try to stay healthy this winter and throughout the year.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine believed that “All diseases begin in the gut”(Health, 2020). This might not be 100% accurate, but he was on to something. Over the years multiple studies have shown that your gut has many more functions than just digestion and absorption of food. A healthy gut contributes to a heart health, brain health, healthy sleep, improved mood and a strong immune system (Dix, 2020). The gut is composed of your mouth, oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, large intestine, and rectum. In order to have a healthy immune system you need to look after all these organs. In our guts lives 300-500 different species of bacteria. Initially when you hear the word bacteria you think of infection and disease, but not all bacteria are harmful. In fact, there are bacteria we need for a healthy gut. These bacteria have a symbiotic relationship with us – we give them a place to live and food, while they carry out many functions that keep us healthy. Some of these functions include producing essential vitamins that we can’t produce ourselves (vitamin K and most of the B vitamins). They help us breakdown our food so we can get obtain the nutrients. They also teach our immune system how to tell the difference between harmful and harmless foreign invaders, and to produce anti-inflammatory compounds to defend us against disease causing invaders (Health, 2020). Needless to say it is very important to look after the good bacteria in your gut as it makes up a major portion of your immune system (Fields, 2015). Some things that may harm your gut health include;
Taking antibiotics – Sometimes it’s necessary to go on a course of antibiotics for a particularly bad infection but try not to depend on them too much. Antibiotics can end up killing off the good bacteria as well as the bad bacteria that was causing the infection. You can end up with on overgrowth of harmful bacteria such as Clostridium Difficile (C-Diff) or Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori).
Alcohol is absorbed straight into the bloodstream, and one of the livers important functions is to break down the alcohol you drink so that it can be removed from the body. This creates materials that are even more harmful than alcohol. These materials can damage liver cells and cause serious liver disease. Alcohol causes 4 out of 5 deaths from liver disease. There are several different types of liver disease, each one is life threatening. Types of liver disease caused by alcohol include; fatty liver (steatosis), inflammation of the liver (hepatitis), acute alcoholic hepatitis, scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and liver failure (HSE, 2019). The liver is a key frontline defence as it detects, captures and disposes of pathogens (pathogens are substances that will cause harm) that enter the body through the gut (Kubes and Jenne, 2018). It contains the largest number of phagocytes in the body (phagocytes are immune cells that engulf and absorb pathogens) (Kubes and Jenne, 2018). So, it is important not to damage the liver for many reasons.
A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can decrease the amount of good gut bacteria leading to an imbalance in the gut micro flora (Dix, 2020). This can cause sugar cravings which will only make things worse. High fructose corn syrup has been linked with increased inflammation in the gut (Dix, 2020). A diet high in sugar can also lead to a candida (thrush) overgrowth. If there is an imbalance in the gut microflora then you are more susceptible to a Candida overgrowth, and sugar feeds Candida, making it worse (Enloe, 2018).
Things you can do to keep your gut healthy include;
Taking probiotics, these are cultures of good bacteria that can be taken in supplements. They are especially good to take if you have had tp take a course of antibiotics but are great to take all year round to ensure optimal gut health.
Eat slowly. Eating too fast can not only cause short term digestive issues such as indigestion and heartburn, it can also lead to overeating, which in the long run can lead to excessive unwanted weight gain, and that can lead to a whole plethora of issues!
Get enough fibre in your diet. Fibre is directly linked to gut health. This is because fibre is the food source of those important ‘good’ gut bacteria. Fibre acts as a ‘prebiotic’.
Stay hydrated. Hydration is important for overall health. Also, if you do a great job in getting enough fibre in your diet, but don’t drink enough water, then you’ll just end up feeling bloated, uncomfortable and you may even become constipated.
Check for food intolerances. A food allergy causes an immune response that in some cases (like with nut allergies) can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems. Overtime if you continue eating a food that you are intolerant to it can lead to irreversible damage in the gut, so if you think a particular food doesn’t agree with you it’s a good idea to ask for a food intolerance test. You can also buy extremely accurate ones online.
Reduce the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet.
Reduce stress levels
Several studies have shown a link between stress and changes in immunity. When we are stress the immune system’s ability to ward of foreign invaders is reduced, meaning we become more susceptible to catching infections and viruses. When we are stressed the adrenal glands releases the stress hormone corticosteroid, and this hormone can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system (McLeod, 2010). Stress can also lead to turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, alcohol and opioids. These will cause more harm and more stress on the body. Stress is linked to a higher risk of getting headaches, viruses and infections, cardiovascular disease and gastric ulcers. One study took blood samples from students at a time when they had no exams and their stress levels were relatively low. They then took blood samples from the same students during exam time. Results showed that when the students were stressed during exam time their immune function was lower than when they were not stressed (Kiecolt-glaser and Phd, 1984). Different things make people stressed, and something that might cause a lot of stress for one person may not cause any stress for another person. You need to listen to your own body and try to get to the root of what is causing you stress. Don’t just push it under the rug and hope it will just go away. Sometimes it will, but sometimes it won’t. Same as that, certain methods of stress relief work well for some people, and then they don’t work for others. You need to find what works best for you.
Sleep is a fundamental biological need for humans. How much sleep a person needs varies from person to person. Sleep deprivation effects millions of people worldwide and lack of sleep can affect your immune system. Studies have linked lack of sleep with increased susceptibility to infections and viruses. Sleep is also important for recovery from illness. When we sleep our body produces proteins called cytokines, and when you are ill your body requires ore cytokines. If you don’t get enough sleep your body won’t be producing enough cytokines. Also, when you don’t get enough sleep the number of antibodies (infection fighting proteins) are reduced. Sleep deprivation can also lead to cardiovascular disease, obesity and an increased risk of type 2 Diabetes (Olson, 2018; Dinges et al., 1995). Going back to the gut, the hormone Serotonin, which effects mood and sleep, is produced in the gut. An unhealthy gut can lead to low levels of Serotonin which can cause sleep disturbances (Dix, 2020)
Hygiene, especially nowadays, is extremely important if you want to lower your risk of catching infections and viruses. It’s widely known that good hand hygiene and coughing /sneezing etiquette is so important in the prevention of spreading cold and flu viruses. Washing your hand properly with soap and water on a regular basis, especially after using the bathroom, after coughing/sneezing or blowing your nose and before eating is very important. Using hand sanitizer regularly when out in public is also important. If you cough or sneeze try to cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow or a tissue, if you use a tissue throw it away after one use, don’t stuff it back up your sleeve to use again! Wearing a mask in public places, if not to protect yourself do it to protect others.
Finally, an obvious one for staying healthy all year round. Eat healthy and exercise! Eating a healthy balanced diet full of fruit and vegetables that are packed full of those vitamins and minerals that help keep our body’s and our immune systems strong. A healthy diet has an endless list of health benefits. Exercise is also essential for good health. Try to get a minimum of 30 minutes per day of some sort of physical activity in.
Hopefully you now know what you need to do prepare your immune system for battle!
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