Winter ready: the importance of nutrition and lifestyle
With winter looming and a global pandemic still very much a part of our lives, now is the time to think about optimising our health and building a resilient immune system.
To ensure survival, our immune system is our body’s defence mechanism designed to seek and destroy unwanted organisms and damaging molecules in a constantly changing environment. COVID-19 is a virus which is detected in the body as a ‘non-self’ invader. This triggers an adaptive immune system response which is tailored to attack the virus, and develop an ‘immunological memory’ to enable a targeted and efficient response if we experience a repeat exposure to the same virus.
How to support a healthy immune system
To function optimally, our immune system requires key nutrients and a healthy lifestyle. During this global pandemic, we find ourselves facing unprecedented stress with new challenges to our mental health and well-being due to lockdown and anxiety of contracting the virus. This only adds to the increasing family and work pressures that are already commonplace in the modern-day world.
With insufficient vitamin D intake during the winter months in the UK, and Western diets being low in nutrients and high in refined, processed foods, our immune system’s resilience is inevitably facing a challenge when we clearly need it the most.
Personalised nutritional therapy can help you identify specific factors that could be affecting your resilience and immune health. These can include nutritional deficiencies, bacterial imbalances in the gut (80% of our immune system resides in our gut), impaired digestion and absorption of nutrients.
Lifestyle factors such as chronic stress and poor quality sleep can also impact our resilience. Certain environmental factors place a burden on our health and immune systems such as smoking, caffeine, alcohol, poor air quality and exposure to toxins. Other dietary factors which increase the burden on our immune system include allergenic, processed and sugary foods in our diet.
Eating well-balanced, healthy and regular meals containing good quality protein, healthy fats and a diverse array of brightly-coloured, plant-based foods will help to provide us with the key nutrients required to promote an anti-inflammatory and immune-supportive diet. Inflammatory foods such as refined, processed and sugary foods should be avoided. Basically, eat ‘real food’ - anything that grows on the land, in the soil, grazes on the land or swims in the sea.
There are key nutrients that we can use specifically to support our immune system by including them in our diet and/or through additional supplementation when it is felt that diet alone may not be sufficient. These include:
- Vitamin A – supports the body’s ability to fight infection, particularly respiratory infections, and helps maintain gut integrity.
- Vitamin C – extremely effective against a broad range of viruses and essential to maintaining a healthy immune system.
- Vitamin D – enhances the immune system response and modulates inflammation, particularly in upper respiratory tract infections.
- Selenium – supports the body’s defence system and increases glutathione activity, a powerful antioxidant to enhance function.
- Zinc – enhances immune cells and reduces the frequency, duration and severity of infections.
- Beta-glucans – stimulates the immune response and increases the body’s first line of defence in the innate immune system.
- Elderberry – an anti-viral shown to increase the immune response to flu and reduce the ability of viruses to enter body cells and replicate.
- Probiotics – contain healthy bacteria to support gut health and influence the function and regulation of the immune system-specific strains of bacteria that have been linked with decreased risk of upper respiratory tract infections.
Mental health and wellbeing
Stress management also plays a key role in building our immune resilience. Studies have shown that social isolation can contribute to reduced levels of oxytocin in our brain. Sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’, oxytocin is a chemical messenger released into the blood when our neurons are activated through arousal or if we experience a loving bond (think puppy dog eyes!).
Oxytocin is important for human social behaviour and is linked to stress, anxiety and depression when in short supply.
Chronic stress can also impact BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is a protein that works synergistically with oxytocin in the brain to protect our brain cells from stress or damage. It helps with weight loss, sleep and is protective against neurodegenerative disease, keeping us mentally alert, improving memory and delaying ageing of the brain.
Little wonder then that during the COVID-19 pandemic with lockdown, social isolation and anxiety, there is an increased risk of poor mental health and depression.
Good sleep hygiene, relaxation techniques and exercise (but not over-training) will help to dampen any inflammatory processes and ensure appropriate rest and repair throughout the whole body.
In summary, by including key nutrients to support our immune system, maintaining a healthy weight, balancing our blood sugar levels and adopting good lifestyle practices, we can support optimal physical and mental health and well-being to ensure that our resilience is sound and our immune system defences are armed and ready for battle.
We can support our local businesses too in these difficult times by choosing locally-grown, organic produce, full of the essential vitamins and minerals.
If you would like to find out more about how to get yourself ‘winter-ready’ by optimising your immune system and strengthening your resilience, get in touch with Foreshore Nutrition, for a personalised, sustainable nutrition plan.