How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally

The best way to avoid colds, flu and other illness this winter is to boost your immune system. There is plenty we can do to reduce the burden on our bodies, improve nutrition, and take beetter care fo ourselves now to prevent ill health later.  Follow this guidance from Alison Cullen, Education Manager and Nutritional Therapist at A. Vogel on what weakens, and strengthens, the immune system.  Then look forward to a healthy winter and spring.

What are the common signs a person's immune system is low?

Weak immune function makes it harder to withstand infection by viruses, bacteria or fungi. A person with a poorly functioning immune system that can’t spot invaders swiftly enough will fall prey to many infections. The immune system will take longer to conquer the bug, so symptoms such as raised temperature, swollen glands, sore throat, cough, catarrh, etc., will be present more frequently.

What are the reasons a person could have a low immune system?

1. Eating a bad diet – junk food, lots of caffeine, not enough vegetables and fruit.

2. Eating too much sugar - sugar competes with vitamin C, which is a bad thing because vitamin C is good for the immune system; so if you have heaps of sugar then you undermine your immune system.

3. Eating lots of fatty foods – having a high fat intake or high cholesterol makes your immune cells lazy – they lie around instead of going out on patrol.

4. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is also bad for your immune cells, which get disorientated and confused…just like us!

5. Smoking is bad for immune function as well as everything else in the body.

6. Being stressed and unhappy also means you’ll have a less active and efficient immune response.

7. Not getting enough sleep lowers your immune function.

Is this something we see more of these days? If so, why?

Lifestyles are increasingly full and rushed, with little time to relax and rest, let alone cook good meals. People tend to keep going on caffeine and refined sugar rather than accepting that they need to do less or alter their diet.

Stress, which has an immensely negative effect on immune function, overflows in many people’s daily lives, from difficult work situations, awful commutes, family hassles and relationship problems – and that’s before we get to money worries and added stresses such as moving house or sick relatives.

Sleep takes a back seat, and the overall effect is more vulnerability to infections, which then add further stress to the already pressurised life.

‘Convalescence’ is a word that has slipped out of our language – the concept just doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Yet, if you don’t take time to recover properly from infections you are far more likely to fall victim to another.


Why are the colder months a more common time for people to succumb to coughs and colds?

Adults get, on average, two to four colds a year. Women aged between 20 and 30 get more colds than men of the same age, which may be because they come into more contact with children (who are breeding grounds for bugs, which they need in order to build immune function).

The incidence of colds increases gradually though late August and early September and then remains high until March or April of the next year. Staying indoors more during the cold weather means you’re more likely to pick up an infection from other people. Indoors, we are more likely to inhale air that contains viral particles breathed or coughed out by an infected person.

Viruses aren’t just airborne though: they can live for up to 3 days on things like escalator handrails, door handles, coffee cups, drinking glasses and plastic surfaces. Touch a door handle or table-top or other surface that someone with a cold or flu bug has touched after wiping their nose or coughing into their hand, and the bugs will transfer to your hand. Then, when you touch your nose or eyes you are likely to get infected.

Being outdoors, though, means you’re more exposed to the cold, which makes the lining of the nasal passages drier and therefore more vulnerable to viral infections.

Studies have shown that the flu virus is most viable when humidity is below 50% or over 100%.  This means that if you are indoors with the central heating turned up high during the winter months, viruses happily flourish in the dry conditions. Equally, when spring brings rain and warmer conditions viruses launch themselves gleefully into the atmosphere to journey in search of new nasal passages to infect.

How can we avoid catching cold or 'flu viruses?

To avoid picking up a bug:

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Avoid touching your nose or eyes
  • Use tissues to cough or sneeze into and then throw them away
  • Avoid infected people!
  • Eat well.

Nutritionally, what foods do you recommend to strengthen the immune system?

1. Vegetable soups & stews

Hearty soups or stews, full of vegetables and pulses or beans, give you the protein and nutrients you need to fight off a cold or flu.

Tip: Add mushrooms and garlic to your soups and stews as these both stimulate the immune system.

2. Foods rich in zinc

Zinc is a great immune system booster. Studies have shown that zinc, taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, can shorten the duration of colds. Good foods rich in zinc include seeds, beans, nuts and whole grains.

Tip: Try snacking on pumpkin and sesame seeds, which are easy to nibble, and adding green leafy vegetables, such as chard and kale in your stews.

3. Spicy foods

They may make your eyes water, but spicy foods such as hot sauce, wasabi, peppers, chilli or spicy sauces can help to temporarily open sinuses and ease congestion. Be careful though - spicy foods have a tendency to upset stomachs, which isn’t good when you are already feeling the worse for wear.

4. Bananas

These are a great source of potassium, a mineral which is often lost due to fever and vomiting.

5. Foods rich in beta-carotene

Vitamin A is important for maintaining a strong immune system and strengthening your mucous membranes, so when you have a cold, make sure you eat more foods containing this vital vitamin, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, squash and spinach.

6. Foods rich in vitamin C

Vitamin C is very helpful to both your immune system and the lining of your respiratory tract. Try eating more foods such as strawberries, broccoli, bell peppers, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, grapefruits and limes are especially rich in vitamin C. The soft white layer of skin found on these fruits also contains flavonoids, which can help boost the immune system and are also great for speeding up recovery.

And supplement wise, what can help to support a strong immune system and why?

Echinacea is fully supported by scientific evidence, which continues to build a picture of its antiviral action, found in the leaves and stems of the fresh plant. The evidence is that it can reduce infection rates when taken preventatively, whilst shortening the duration of infections if taken once infected.

Vitamin C is a very useful nutrient for strengthening the lining of the respiratory tract, whilst also supporting immune function. I also add Plantago tincture to the picture for people who have had a series of respiratory tract infections, as it helps to heal damaged tissue and make it less vulnerable to repeat infections.


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