The quest for immunity isn’t seasonal, it’s intentional – says Kim Hofmann, Registered Dietician and Virgin Active’s expert on all things nutrition-related.
Winter has arrived and with it, a rise in the sickies thanks to the cold weather and seasonal ailments. For many, this season also means time to “boost” immunity to avoid getting ill, but the fact of the matter is there’s no such thing. The real secret to winter immunity is a strong immune system that is maintained year-round.
Every day our bodies are exposed to potentially harmful microbes. Our immune system protects us against these near-invisible invaders by identifying between bacteria, viruses, and other parasites and taking relevant immediate action. The first line of defence against these pathogens is known as innate immunity. Made up of various protective barriers, innate immunity encompasses our skin, which keeps out most pathogens, mucus that traps them, our stomach acid that destroys them, and the enzymes in our sweat and tears that help create anti-bacterial compounds. Thanks to these barriers, together with immune system cells that attack all foreign cells entering the body, we receive the bulk of our protection. But, like any bodily system, it needs support.
A balanced diet is key
Take the gut, for example, which plays one of the largest roles in protecting our bodies against pathogens. The gut functions in this capacity by playing host to thousands of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes, collectively known as your gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome requires certain nutrients, the most important being fibre, that allow the right sorts of bacteria to grow and proliferate and helps to develop and maintain a strong immune response. This means more plants and fewer ultra-processed foods, sugars, sweeteners and preservatives that have been found to reduce the diversity of bacteria in the gut. Maintaining the right balance of nutrients in the body makes a big difference when your immune system is activated. When a cold or virus-causing pathogen enters the body, our immune response is triggered, demanding a supply of energy. This energy comes from the food that we eat and have eaten, specifically the carbohydrates that the body stores as glycogen in the liver for the body to draw on in these situations to fight off infection.
Keep your diet varied and nutritious
While certain diets are known for their ability to better prepare the body for microbial attacks and excess inflammation, the best approach is one that mixes and matches a variety of foods from all the food groups. Each stage of the body’s immune response relies on many different micronutrients, and certain ones have been found to be critical to the growth and function of immune cells including vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, iron, and protein. These nutrients can be found in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and fish, whole grains, legumes as well as plant fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado and olives. Multivitamins containing the required daily amount of these nutrients can also be taken, but this is for an extra boost, not instead of the food.
Focus on holistic health and wellness
This includes exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. In the same way exercise requires getting into good habits, sleep should be regulated so your body clock, or circadian rhythm, gets used to a certain repetitive cycle. A well-balanced circadian rhythm allows the body to enter a deeper sleep, which should typically last between 7-9 hours.
Immunity is also affected by stress. Managing stress can often be difficult but done in tandem with exercise, regular sleep and a balanced diet becomes a lot more manageable.
A strong immune system comes from leading a healthy lifestyle focused on holistic wellness that includes physical health and activity, nutrition, and mental wellbeing. A healthy lifestyle cannot be turned on and off – it requires consistency.
Get it right and winter will be the same as any other season when it comes to maintaining your good health.
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