You probably don’t give your immune system a second thought until you come down with a cold or flu bug, or have one of those hard-to-shake-off coughs. Then you might start thinking about ways to give it a helping hand. But actually, wouldn’t it be better if you shored up your immune system so you avoided coming down with bugs in the first place? Prevention is, after all, better than cure…
You probably already know taking Manuka honey, whether that’s by the spoonful or stirred into a hot drink or porridge, may be helpful for your wellbeing. A 2016 paper showed exactly why Manuka honey may be important as an immune system booster – not only does it have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, some research has suggested it may also have antiviral effects and might even help protect your body from flu.1
So keep taking the Manuka honey. But what else can you do to look after to improve your immune system and prevent health problems? Although we often talk about ‘boosting’ immunity, it’s actually more a question of supporting it every day to do its job well. You wouldn’t want to over-stimulate your immune system because an overactive immune system comes with its own problems – such as autoimmune disease and allergies.
But it is important to look after your immune system so it can fight off invaders that might make you ill. Your immune system – which is a complex, interactive network of cells, proteins, organs and tissues throughout your body – is like an army, always on the lookout for invaders. If it spots something that shouldn’t be there – for example, a bacteria or virus – it launches an attack. Your immune system’s working away like this all the time, keeping you healthy. So how can you help it?
Alongside your Manuka honey habit, here are some of the proven ways you can keep your immune system in tip-top shape:
Have an early night
Why? Studies have shown that missing out on kip raises your risk of developing a cold or flu when you’re exposed to the virus. You’ll also take longer to get over an illness if you’re sleeping badly. When you sleep, your body releases protective cytokines, and production of antibodies – key immune system cells - also drops if you don’t get enough shut-eye. So hit the hay!2
Treat yourself to a glass of wine
Why? It may sound too good to be true but Spanish research has shown moderate alcohol intake is beneficial with immunity boosting vitamins. Pick a drink high in polyphenols, such as red wine. But remember, moderation’s key. Research has also shown overdoing booze dampens immune response, so stick to a maximum of one or two drinks a day.3
Consider a vitamin for immune system – but not vitamin C…
So why should you consider supplements to boost your immune system? A healthy, balanced diet, packed with fruit and vegetables, is an immunity must. But missing out on certain micronutrients has been shown to lower immune response – particularly certain B vitamins, zinc and selenium, which aren’t always easy to get in your diet, especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan. If you don’t think your diet’s always all it should be, think about taking a multivitamin or immunity supplements as insurance.4 One vitamin you probably don’t need to worry about too much, though, is vitamin C. The reason? While it certainly plays a crucial role in immune health, you only need to top up if you’re actually deficient – taking large extra doses to ward off a cold is unlikely to make any difference as the excess will just be excreted in your urine. Besides, vitamin C isn’t a difficult nutrient to get as it’s found in all fruit and vegetables – so if you’re hitting your five-a-day target, you’ll be getting enough.5
Go for a walk
Is it true that exercise can be used to boost the immune system? Moderate exercise seems to boost the immune system. Scientists still don’t fully understand the mechanisms but think there may be a number of reasons. Being active may flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways, while the rise in body temperature during a workout may help kill bacteria. Crucially, moderate exercise helps lower stress hormones, which can dampen immunity. One word of advice, though – if you want to care for your immune system health and ward off illness, give the long-distance running a miss. Intensive exercises seems to lower immune response.6
1 Carter DA, Blair S, Cocketin NN et al. Therapeutic manuka honey: no longer so alternative. Front Microbiol. 2016; 7: 569.
2 Mayo Clinic – Lack of sleep: can it make you sick? https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757
3 Romeo J et al. Moderate alcohol consumption and the immune system. Br J Nutr. 2007 Oct;98 Suppl 1:S111-5.
4 Harvard Health. How to boost your immune system. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system
5 Harvard Health. Can vitamin C prevent a cold? https://www.health.harvard.edu/cold-and-flu/can-vitamin-c-prevent-a-cold
6 Exercise and immunity. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007165.htm