7 ways to keep your immune system working well

With schools in England and Wales due to return this week the press have been reporting all of the concerns being expressed by parents and teachers. Schools in Scotland and Ireland returned a couple of weeks ago now and as many of us predicted there has been a steep increase in coughs and colds. I’m not sure if this is different from any other year, it’s just one of those things that, as a parent, you just get used to. This year seems very different though don’t you think? I remember talking with friends about my concerns around the pressure on schools to be keeping an eye on symptoms and sending home any children who they think might have Covid symptoms. I predicted that this could lead to whole families having to self-isolate for common colds and worried that testing might not be able to cope with the demand. 10 days into the term and I spot the Facebook post that I had been dreading, a friends daughter has the cold (with cough) and as an NHS worker she has been instructed to go to a testing centre but cannot get a slot.

So I think it is pretty safe to say that we are going to have a few added stresses and strains to deal with this winter. Normally the common cold doesn’t really concern me. My husband on the other hand, well as soon as my son sniffs he declares “Oh great! That’s us all going to catch the cold then”. We are very Yin and Yang my husband and I because I immediately confirm with myself that my immune system is strong and healthy and that I am not going to catch this. I would say 8 times out of 10 I am right… and so is my husband. So is it mind over matter or is it simply that I take a lot of pleasure in looking after myself and he takes a lot of pleasure from a bottle of wine and a pepperoni pizza. I will let you make up your own mind about that one! So what can we do to improve our immune systems and catch less coughs and colds this winter…

  1. DON’T STRESS

I know that for some of you this is easier said than done but stress really is a massive enemy of the immune system. Some experts claim that up to 90% of all illnesses (including cancer and heart disease) are caused by stress. Prolonged periods of stress cause our brain to release various hormones that keep our body in a heightened state, poised and ready for an emergency situation. This release of hormones has a variety of effects on the body, one of which is a decrease in our white blood cell count, which are the superheroes of our immune system.

Like I said, I understand that many people are finding this year extremely stressful and have struggled to move from the quiet and safety of lockdown back into mainstream life. For me the anxiety comes in waves but I know for others it is a constant. At the very core of this is the way that you talk to yourself, what are the conversations that you have with yourself? Are you like my husband where you affirm that this year is terrible, I am going to be really stressed out this week, I am going to catch every cold I come into contact with? Your mind is a powerful tool, ultimately it just wants to keep you out of danger and keep your body’s systems working in balance.

Affirm to yourself every day just how amazing your body is, remind yourself of all of the things that your body has done/is capable of and make sure that you give yourself regular praise for following the rest of the steps on a regular basis. (Further blog on Relaxation to follow).

2. WASH YOUR HANDS.

You don’t really need me to say much more here do you? You have seen the commercials and posters I am sure.

3. EAT PLENTY OF FRUIT AND VEGETABLES.

In my 5 week Self-care and Wellness group we talk about the effects of chronic dieting and the fact that it leaves many of us with “diet fatigue”. We aquire so many different rules that we feel that we need to live by that it all just becomes a little overwhelming, so we binge or turn to our comfort foods. Sound familiar? You are not alone! What if we took a different approach and looked at food as medicine.

I mostly work with women so I am not totally sure whether some of them appreciate this analogy but it is the best one that I have found. Underneath whatever you deem to be “wrong” with your body right now, the spare tire, the creaking and clunking noises. Underneath all of that lies a Ferrari. It might be in need of a bit of a tune up but the best way to do this is to keep it moving and to feed it the right fuel! If you want your body to unleash that inner Ferrari you have to give it the Premium grade fuel, none of this cheap budget stuff either. In real terms, you can fuel your body on caffeine, sugar and processed foods and it will get you through your day but you can’t expect that on the inside your body will be functioning optimally.

Getting “the right foods” doesn’t have to be stressful and complicated. Aim to eat the majority of your food in it’s natural state (cooked or raw) and eat fruit or vegetables with every meal. Make vegetables the star of your evening meal and no chips and potatoes don’t count! Bring it back to that simple notion of “Eat the Rainbow”. Keep a little log of the different coloured fruits and vegetables that you eat in a day and aim to fill in any gaps when you are missing colours. This in turn will lead to greater diversity in your guts microbiome, which is not only good for your immune system but also for your mental health. I will talk more about this in my blog “The Gut-Brain connection”.

If you cringe at the thought of eating fruits and vegetables every day, let alone every meal then it might be worthwhile investing in a blender and making green smoothies a part of your daily routine. This can also be a great way of getting the kids to eat more veg, in our house we have “hulk smoothies”.

4. GET AT LEAST 30 MINUTES OF EXERCISE MOST DAYS OF THE WEEK.

I once worked with a single parent, who worked full-time and felt like she spent most of her day chasing her tail. She didn’t want to push her luck by asking her family for ANOTHER babysitting favour and by the time she got the kids to bed she was generally to tired and frazzled to even contemplate exercise. She repeated this negative chat to herself most days “can’t exercise” “not healthy” “bad example to her children” etc. After having a chat we discovered that throughout the day she did a lot of activity and was already meeting this 30 min target but so that she felt that she had some quality time to move she filtered in a 15 minute brisk walk on her lunch break. This mindset shift, that she was now doing more than the suggested amount and the fact that those 15 minutes at lunch time became some real quality “me time”, changed her whole outlook to her health and fitness. Previously a weekend class had seemed pointless after a week of “doing nothing” but with this new mindset it seemed like the logical thing to do.

My point here is that we are often too hard on ourselves, that if your current lifestyle means that you have to split your exercise time into short chunks, walk the kids to their evening classes or get off the bus 3 stops before work then don’t beat yourself up for not achieving this perfect image that you have set up in your mind.

5. GET ENOUGH SLEEP

When we go to sleep our body shifts into repair mode, brain maintenance takes place, blood pressure drops to allow moderate levels during the day, our immune system restores and detoxifies and the hormones that control our hunger are also balanced. Research has shown that if you don’t get enough sleep the hormone ghrelin will keep you feeling hungry, while the hormone leptin that tells you that you are full will be reduced. This year, more than ever, technology has been essential in keeping in touch with loved ones but I would ask you to take the time to consider what is really “essential”. Is mid-week binge watching or falling down a rabbit hole of webpages until midnight really going to help your overall health and wellbeing?

6. DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH ALCOHOL

Would it surprise you to learn that there was an estimated 55% increase in alcohol purchases at the end of March? This prompted the WHO to release advice that we should all be cutting down our alcohol consumption, they stated that “Alcohol consumption is associated with a range of communicable and noncommunicable diseases and mental health disorders, which can make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19. In particular, alcohol compromises the body’s immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes,”.

Alcohol makes it harder for the immune system to defend the body against harmful germs, it can cause inflammation in the gut that leads to the destruction of those parts of the microbiome that maintain our immune system health. If you need a little extra incentive to steer clear of those mid-week glasses of wine, or like many Brits those weekend bottles of wine, then why not help to raise money for MacMillan Research and take part in Go Sober for October (https://www.gosober.org.uk/ ). Your immune system and mental health will be improved and you will have done something wonderful for a fantastic cause.

7. MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT

The good news here is that if you are able to follow the advice given in points 1 to 6 you should find it easier to achieve 7. Ironically advice on the way to maintain a healthy weight isn’t 1 size fits all. In my experience most of us are aware of what causes us to be overweight but taking the time to unpick our emotional eating or figure out the best foods for a medical condition seems overly complicated. In our minds many of us have decided that therapy or nutritional advice are outside of our price range. In actual fact you might be surprised to discover that a 90 minute session with a therapist could cost you less than a night out for dinner and drinks with friends and could give you so much more in the long run. You are worth it. Investing in your health and wellbeing is worth it.

I know that many of us (myself included) have worries and doubts about how well the country will cope with our first Autumn/Winter since the Covid-19 outbreak but as the kids all head back to school and we begin to notice the days getting shorter, let’s try not to worry about what might happen over the next few months. Let’s focus on all we can do to ensure that we maintain a healthy immune system and encourage our family to do the same.

If you feel like you would benefit from some support in maintaining your health and wellness throughout the winter months then why not consider joining one of my “Self-care & Wellness” Workshops. Join a supportive group of women with common goals and let’s support each other to stave off those winter blues and stay healthy and strong through Autumn/Winter. For more information or to sign up for the October Workshops, head over to the Contact section and drop me an email.

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