Immunity - How to build up your defences

Your body has the most incredible system for immunity which, by and large, does a remarkable job of seeing off invading germs successfully. At Winchester GP, we are often asked how to ‘boost’ immunity, particularly in peak cold and ‘flu season - and there are many products and treatments out there, that claim to do just that. However, scientists are still a long way off fully understanding the intricacies and interconnected nature of the various elements of our immune response, so we would urge a cautious approach, with your doctor’s surgery the best first port of call, before launching in to specific and sometimes costly regimes. Read on as we explore some of the main areas of research on immune support. 

Staying well 101
Ok, so perhaps this isn't the 'elixir of life' solution we were all hoping for, but general healthy living advice is as valid for your immune system as it is for every other system in your body.

1) Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.
2) Don’t smoke.
3) Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fat.
4) Exercise regularly
5) Maintain a healthy weight.
6) Control your blood pressure.
7) If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
8) Get adequate sleep.
9) Get regular medical screening tests for people in your age group and risk category.

Age and immunity
Respiratory infections, influenza, and particularly pneumonia are a leading cause of death in people over 65 worldwide. Researchers believe that the ageing process somehow leads to a reduction of immune response capability, which in turn contributes to more infections, more inflammatory diseases, and more cancer. In simple terms this is thought to be down to a reduction in immune cell production. There is a further theory that nutrition is particularly significant in the elderly, with people often eating smaller quantities as they age, and with less variety in their diets. This can result in deficiencies in some essential vitamins and trace minerals. However, before embarking on any program of dietary supplements, we advise consulting with a doctor, as imbalances from over-supplementation can be every bit as harmful as deficiencies.

The dietary connection
Like any fighting force, the immune system ‘army’ marches on its stomach. Immune system warriors need good, regular nourishment. Scientists have long recognized that people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases. There is evidence that certain micronutrient deficiencies are linked to lower immunity, although the precise hows and whys of these links are still being researched. Significant nutrients cited by current research include zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E.

If you suspect your diet is not providing you with all your micronutrient needs — maybe you don’t like vegetables or you choose white bread over whole grains — see your doctor to discuss whether a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement may be beneficial for your general health, and by extension for your immunity. That said, unless under specific medical advice, steer clear of taking mega-doses of any single vitamin. These can lead to nutrient imbalances, which can be every bit as harmful to your health as a nutrient deficiency.

Exercise a little healthy scepticism
Walk into a store, and you will find bottles of pills and herbal preparations that claim to “support immunity” or otherwise boost the health of your immune system. Although some preparations have been found to alter some components of immune function, thus far there is no evidence that they actually bolster immunity to the point where you are better protected against infection and disease. If a product claims to increase the number of certain immune cells, it’s worth bearing in mind that the human body already naturally generates immune cells in higher quantities than it can possibly use. The extra cells remove themselves through a natural process of cell death called apoptosis. Even assuming ‘more cells = a good thing’, there are so many different kinds of cells in the immune system – how do you know you are boosting the right ones? And what is their optimum number?

All of this does not mean that we should discount the benefits of every herbal preparation. Everyone’s immune system is unique. Each person’s physiology responds to active substances differently. So if your grandmother says she’s been using an herbal preparation for years that protects her from illness, who’s to say that it doesn’t? As a general rule, however, if you are concerned that you are getting more than your fair share of bugs and infections, spend time with your doctor first, before you spend money in the supplements shop. 

The Stress Connection
Researchers are still working to isolate exactly how the link between stress and lowered immunity works, not least because stress is subjective and therefore difficult to replicate in a uniform way across a large sample size. Nevertheless, various studies have noted delayed and lowered antibody production, and lower lymphocyte production in subjects exposed to various forms of physical, emotional and psychological stress. Whilst these investigations continue, most of us intuitively, and we believe quite rightly, already associate feeling stressed with feeling ‘run down’. It is widely observed, not least in our own clinical practice, that those under chronic stress do indeed suffer more infections, whilst those who practice conscious stress management suffer significantly fewer infections. Of course, 'fixing' the underlying cause of stress is the ideal. But sometimes this is easier said than done, e.g. in the case of money troubles, relationship problems and so on. Whatever the source of your stress, 10 minutes a day of devoted “me” time will make a demonstrable difference to your state of mind. Why not try one of the many handy mindfulness apps available? And if you feel you need further support, talking to your friendly, understanding GP is always a good option. 

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