As we gear up for the flu season and cope with the strict stay at home containment regulations our government has placed our country under in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, what can we do to take care of our immune systems?
It’s nearly time for the yearly flu season to start. While in the middle of containing the highly infectious viral disease, COVID 19, it’s important to take action and take care of our immune systems.
You have the ability to boost your and your family’s immune systems. By taking care to keep our immune systems strong, you can make a conscious effort to strengthen our body’s defences. This does not mean we won’t become sick with flu or COVID 19, but it can mean you’re less likely to become ill in the first place. A strong immune system also helps you have less severe flu symptoms.
The immune system is the body’s first line of defence
What happens when a virus enters the body and comes face to face with our immune systems?
Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, Discovery Health’s Head of the Centre for Clinical Excellence, explains: “Our natural protective defence system is made up of numerous types of molecules and cells. These are essentially antibodies, which are primed to detect intrusive microorganisms in the body. When they do, they automatically produce their own antiviral molecules as a way to try and stop the virus from spreading further in the body.”
“Viruses mutate and form stronger combinations, replicating [copying] themselves to take stronger hold within the body. If this happens without a defence, our body’s tissues, including organs, experience inflammation and damage. This results in various levels of illness.”
“In the case of the new COVID 19 virus, our immune systems cannot recognise this viral pathogen in the body. While humans have been exposed to coronaviruses before, we’ve never had to fend off a COVID 19 infection before. We have no antibodies against this specific virus and so our immune systems need to adapt,” Dr Nematswerani further explains.
Having a strong immune system can help protect you.
Do children naturally have weaker immune systems?
Babies and very young children, along with elderly adults, have immune systems that naturally adapt more slowly to change.
“This means that the natural defence system is not operating at its peak, and thus cannot strongly respond to the presence of an infection in the body,” says Dr Nematswerani.
“In the case of a flu infection, cells in the body are less able to recognise a foreign pathogen and adapt to develop antibodies to fend off viral replication. For COVID 19 infections, the body’s natural defence mechanism does not recognise the pathogens yet, so the risk of severe illness is higher for those with less strong defence systems,” she adds.
What factors can help to build your and your family’s immune systems?
1. A nutritious and colourful diet
A balanced and nutritious diet should already be a fixed feature in every household. When it comes to boosting the immune system, a regular healthy diet will do wonders to keep the body healthy.
“Eating one vegetable or so-called super food more regularly than another won’t necessarily give the immune system a magical boost. Balance is key, and that includes keeping unhealthy choices to a minimum,” says Dr Nematswerani.
What should families include in their daily diets?
- Fruits and veggies: Many are rich in antioxidants which aid in protecting the body’s cells. Some good selections to include are:
- Most red fruits, such as raspberries, strawberries and apples
- Kiwi fruit
- Melons (such as spanspek)
- Leafy greens
- Spring onions
- Chicken soup and broth: Studies have shown that chicken soup can help to inhibit neutrophil migration (the virus multiplying and causing tissue damage) and could assist the body with recovery during illness.
- Seasoning and spices: Some spices can help to reduce inflammation in the body and play a role in boosting immune functions:
- Protein: The amino acids in protein products assist with optimal body function and together with antibodies provide improved support to the immune system cells. Sources of protein include:
- Low-fat dairy (such as milk, yoghurt and cottage cheese)
- Brown rice
- Soy products
- Nuts and nut butters
- Water: Drink plenty of water to help to keep hydrated and flush out toxins. Getting enough water daily is also good for maintaining colon health.
“Without enough water, the body’s natural defences are somewhat inhibited because of the presence of too many toxins in the system. It’s important to flush these out for a healthier immune system,” says Dr Nematswerani.
- Natural probiotics: These help to balance bacteria levels in the gut, preventing pathogens from entering the bloodstream. Good sources include:
- Yoghurt with live and active cultures
- Unpasteurised kimchi and sauerkraut
- Soft cheeses (milk from goats or sheep)
- Sourdough bread
- Pickles or olives cured in brine (not vinegar)
What should families limit or avoid?
- Refined carbohydrates and sugars: According to some studies, refined sugar can play a role in impairing the function of white blood cells which may limit the body’s ability to fend off infections. Refined carbs also tend to play a role in causing blood sugar spikes.
- Empty calorie foodstuffs: Along with all foods and beverages containing refined carbs or sugars, it’s best not to consume too many processed foods. Empty calorie foods are not rich in nutrients, fibre or vitamins, and are often laden with other chemical compounds and preservatives. The liver also struggles to function optimally if there are too many chemicals in the system.
- Alcohol consumption: People over 18 should strive to drink in moderation or not at all. Alcohol tends to play a role in depressing the immune system. Heavy consumption has been clinically linked to an increased infection susceptibility.
- Nicotine: Whether an adult family member smokes or children are exposed to secondary smoke, nicotine supresses the immune system and weakens the lungs.
You can enhance the immune system through nutrition and exercise. Consistent, long term exercise has shown to positively influence the function of the immune system while also keeping other essential functions, such as those of the heart and lungs, healthy. Exercise gets blood circulation going and supports the uptake of oxygen into the brain.
Many trainers are currently offering virtual training sessions. Take advantage of these during stay at home isolation periods and get the whole family involved. It can be a fun and healthy experience!
3. Stress busters and adequate sleep
Chronic stress tends to raise cortisol levels and has been clinically shown to contribute to immune function impairment. While uncertain times do raise anxiety levels, it’s important to think about the difference between what we can and can’t control as individuals, and as a family.
We can control taking safe preventive measures and following the strict stay at home protocols implemented by government. Taking care of ourselves emotionally is also important. Find ways to laugh and lighten the mood at home.
Meditation and mindfulness practices do wonders for many people. If it helps to relieve stress, families can do this individually or together on a daily basis. Yoga and tai chi are other exercise practices that are also calming on the mind and good for the body.
Getting enough sleep is also important for the immune system.
Try and find ways not to adopt unhealthy home patterns during this time. Screen time is likely to increase and this can be counter effective. As a family, find ways to control the use of electronic devices, such as phones, tablets and TV. Non tech activities can enhance family bonding, and encourage positive types of stimulation. Playing games and reading books are some ways of staying occupied without going overboard with blue light exposure.
“The best thing we can all do is to take care of ourselves, teach the little ones how to do the same and support each other through this period,” says Dr Nematswerani.