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Looking after your immune system

Meera Phull, Clinical Collaboration Lead, Bupa Group Clinical
27 April 2020

During this uncertain time, the spread of the coronavirus means that we’re all thinking about how we can protect ourselves. Looking after your mind and body can help your immune system stay strong and function properly. Your immune system is the system of your body that fights off harmful diseases.

Here we look at how your mental health, diet and exercise play a part in helping you stay well.

Mental health and your immune system

There’s a link between your mental health and your immune system. Feeling stressed activates your body’s stress response, starting a number of physiological changes designed to support you with what’s called ‘fight, flight or freeze’. When this happens, you might feel a whole range of sensations such as a racing heart, tense muscles and feeling very alert as you prepare to deal with the threat.

Often stress is temporary or short-lived, but if it carries on over days, weeks or even months, the ongoing activation of this stress response can negatively affect your immune system. For example, it can increase inflammation in your body which can disrupt how well your immune system works. As a result, this can actually make you more susceptible to illness.

At the moment, we are going through a particularly stressful period. So, if you’re aware that stress can impact your immune system, you can take action to try and reduce your stress levels. Some of the ways to lower stress include:

  • regular exercise (this releases endorphins – the feel-good hormones)
  • look after your diet and sleep
  • don’t drink too much alcohol or have too much caffeine
  • talk through your worries with people you trust, or write them down
  • limit how much you look at the news and social media
  • chat to friends and the people that make you feel good over a video call
  • find ways to relax, such as mindfulness, meditation or breathing exercises
  • do activities that you enjoy

Diet and your immune system

Sarah Tipping, Bupa Health Adviser, explains why a healthy diet is so important for your immune system.

“Lots of nutrients are involved in building and maintaining your immune system. You can’t get them all from a single food – you need a varied diet to stay healthy. Vitamins and minerals help in various ways such as helping the ‘defender’ cells of your immune system to fight infection. Fruit and vegetables are also vital for your immune system. So getting your five-a-day is a great place to start, along with keeping hydrated with plenty of fluids.”

Some key vitamins and minerals you need for a healthy immune system include the following.

  • Vitamin A. You can find this in liver, milk and cheese. And in a variety of plants, such as dark green leafy vegetables (spinach and kale) and orange coloured fruits and veg (carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash, mango and apricots).
  • Vitamin C is found in many types of fruit and vegetables, including peppers, kiwis, oranges, tomatoes, blackcurrants, strawberries and broccoli.
  • Zinc is found in meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, crabs and some other shellfish, root veg, nuts and seeds, and wholegrain cereals and breads.
  • Selenium is found in nuts and seeds (brazil nuts, cashews and sunflower seeds), grains, vegetables, eggs, poultry, fish and shellfish.
  • Vitamin D mostly comes from sunshine, but it is also found in oily fish, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, spreads and dairy products. But it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone. As such, Public Health England advises everyone to think about taking a supplement of 10 micrograms a day in the autumn and winter months. You might want to consider this if you’re staying inside a lot more at the moment.

Exercise and your immune system

Dr Naveen Puri, GP and Lead Medical Appraiser at Bupa explains how exercise benefits your immune system.

“The benefits of exercise to your health are plentiful. Regular physical activity helps keep your heart and mind healthy. It can help reduce your risk of some cancers, such as breast and bowel cancers. It reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and can help you maintain a healthy weight.

“Specifically, for your immune system, exercise helps with your circulation, which lets the substances of your immune system move easily and freely around your body. This means they can do their job where they need to and do it efficiently.

“Research has also suggested that moderate, regular exercise is linked to:

  • a reduced risk of illness
  • improving how your immune system regulates itself
  • reducing inflammation
  • improving your body’s ability to defend itself

“This all helps your immune system function as it should.”

Healthy changes

Your usual routine has likely changed over the last few weeks. And this could be a good chance to incorporate some other changes too. So if you don’t regularly exercise, maybe now is the time to start a home workout or daily walk or jog. Maybe your cooking habits have changed – so perhaps it’s a good chance to see how you can include some healthier foods in your meals. And when it comes to taking care of your mental wellbeing, take some time to practise relaxation and reducing stress as much as you can.

Meera Phull
Meera Phull, Clinical Collaboration Lead, Bupa Group Clinical

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