So you want to boost your immune system naturally?

Guest post by

Charlotte Haigh

Charlotte Haigh is a London-based health writer, contributing regularly to titles including Stylist, Marie Claire, Woman & Home, Healthy, Women's Health, Grazia and Health & Fitness.

Author views are not our own.

We’ve probably never been more focused on immune health than we have recently.

The Covid-19 pandemic had droves of us researching ways to support our immune systems naturally (unsurprisingly, Google searches for immunity and related vitamins and herbs hit a pronounced high in 2020). With vaccination programmes underway, the peak of the pandemic is – touch wood – behind us but looking after immune health is still important, not just to protect against Covid-19, but also to help your body defend itself against a host of other bugs. As we move away from the lockdown period of being masked up and keeping away from others, doctors say our lack of exposure to cold viruses over the past year has left us at higher risk now we’re mingling again. So what do we know about the best ways to safeguard your immunity naturally – and where does Manuka honey come in?

First, the basics. Your immune system is very finely tuned to strike a balance between protecting you from germs and not reacting to benign things (as happens in allergies). So even if you could ‘boost’ it, you wouldn’t want to, as you’d cause it to go into overdrive. Looking after immune health is really more about supporting your immune system to do its job – and there are lots of ways you can do that. 

Take a spoonful of honey

While Manuka honey’s legions of fans swear by it for helping to protect against colds, flu and other nasties, at the moment there’s a lack of research to confirm how it helps the immune system. What we know so far is that MGO has been found to inhibit influenza cells from replicating in the lab, suggesting a potential mode of action.[1] And another study found MGO may inhibit Covid-19, boosting levels of virus-fighting immune system cells by increasing levels of immune system cells that fight it, while regulating problematic inflammation.[2] So Manuka honey could well be an important boon to your natural defences. I keep a jar in my cupboard at all times – check out the full range.

Eat a rainbow

While there’s often a focus on specific immunity nutrients, what a healthy immune system really needs is a spread of nutrients. They all interact with each other to help your immunity in different ways. That said, it’s particularly important to focus on foods that will deliver vitamins A, B6, B12, C and, folate plus the minerals zinc, copper, iron and selenium.[3] Think lots of fruit and veg, and focus on going for produce in a rainbow of colours to get a good variety of vitamins.

Catch some rays

Take advantage of the summer to expose your skin to sunlight so your body can make vitamin D. The sunshine vitamin came into focus in 2020 when some research showed it may reduce your chances of contracting Covid-19, and lower the severity of symptoms if you do catch it. Subsequent studies have produced conflicting results[4] – but the fact remains that vitamin D is important for immune health and most of us are deficient in it during winter in the UK. Now’s the time to stock up. Through the autumn and winter, when sunlight isn’t strong enough for your body to make vitamin D, it’s a good idea to take a supplement.

Seek out supplements

Vitamin D aside, there are some other supplements you could consider taking as insurance if your diet isn’t quite what it could be. The minerals selenium and zinc are key for supporting normal immune function and they’re easy to miss out on. And some emerging research has suggested propolis, which bees use to seal their hives, could be helpful to take as a supplement too. Preliminary studies show it may have a modulating effect on the immune system in various ways, helping to reduce inflammation and potentially raising levels of antibodies, which fight off bugs. The research has so far been restricted to labs and we need to see studies carried out in people to know for sure how it works – but it could be worth adding to your supplement toolkit.[5]

Manuka Doctor’s new Immune Booster supplement contains over 500% of your daily recommended vitamin C plus zinc to help support immune function.

Focus on lifestyle steps

It’s not just about what you put into your body. Lack of sleep saps your immunity, so focus on getting those zzzs in. As long-term stress dampens immunity too, take steps to reduce it – and if you can’t do that, make sure you have tools to help you cope with it, from yoga and meditation to unwinding with friends. Staying active also helps immune health and has the benefit of easing stress, too. The one caveat is that excessive exercise can actually have the opposite effect and put strain on your immune system (but we’re talking about a lot more activity than the average person does so don’t let it put you off your trip to the gym!)

[1] Watanabe K et al. Anti-influenza Viral Effects of Honey In Vitro: Potent High Activity of Manuka Honey. Archives of Medical Research, Volume 45, Issue 6, August 2014, Pages 516

[2] Hossein KS et al. Prospects of honey in fighting against COVID-19: pharmacological insights and therapeutic promises. Heliyon. Volume 6, Issue 12, December 2020, e05798

[3] https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/covid-19-corona-virus-advice-for-the-general-public.html

[4] Vimaleswaran KS et al. Vitamin D and Covid 19. BMJ 2021;372:n544

[5] Al Hariri M. Immune's-boosting agent: Immunomodulation potentials of propolis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6335834/

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