How to Give your Immune System a Fighting Chance
Is it really cold season again already? Sometimes, getting sick in the fall feels inevitable. And the sad fact is, there’s no magical way to prevent 100% of germs getting in, 100% of the time. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! With the right healthy lifestyle choices, you can keep your immune system running at its best and help improve your chances of staving off the sniffles. Read on for our best advice on how to keep that cold at bay.
All about antioxidants
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of immune-boosting habits, it’s helpful to know how this stuff actually works. Most of you probably have a general understanding that antioxidants are good for you, and free radicals are bad. But do you know what these compounds actually do?
In a nutshell, antioxidants fight oxidation, a normal, ongoing chemical process in your body that can be made worse by unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking and excess alcohol consumption. And when your natural oxidation process is disrupted, your body creates free radicals, potentially damaging molecules that can hurt the cells in your body and leave you vulnerable to infection. Think about what happens when you get a rust spot on your car, or you cut an apple and it turns brown. Now imagine a similar process taking place inside your body. Not ideal, right?
When your body’s free radicals outnumber your body’s natural defenses, you go into oxidative stress – which has been linked to everything from cancer and heart disease to arthritis and cataracts. How do we stop this from happening? Enter antioxidants, a family of molecules that can disarm free radicals before they do damage. Also know as your immune system’s best friend. While we do create some of these handy molecules ourselves, most of them come from our diet. Antioxidants stem from a variety of sources, like vitamins C and E, minerals like selenium and manganese, and plant compounds like beta carotene and lycopene – to name just a few.
Eat the rainbow
Here’s where your diet really comes in. With so many types of antioxidants, how can you be sure you’re getting everything your body needs? It all comes down to a very easy rule of thumb: eat the rainbow. Seriously. Try to include fruits and veggies of all colours in your diet, and you’ll get a variety of antioxidant benefits with every meal. Every day, try to get something bright orange or deep yellow, something red, something green and something blue or purple on your plate. Not only will your meals look and taste better (and be way more Instagram-worthy), you’ll also be giving your body the best chance to resist infection and stay healthy.
Here are some particularly antioxidant-rich foods to stock up on.
Our bodies don’t produce or store vitamin C, so we need to eat a lot of it to benefit from its immune-boosting powers. Citrus to the rescue! These vitamin C-packed fruits are inexpensive and easy to find fresh year-round, not to mention extremely versatile. Try to include fresh lemon or lime juice in your salad dressings, or just stock up on oranges for a healthy snack.
Really want to get enough vitamin C? Eat a red pepper every darn day. Ounce for ounce, they’re twice as high in vitamin C as citrus, and they’re also a great source of beta carotene, an antioxidant which not only boosts your immune system – it also helps keep your eyes and skin healthy. Whether you add them to soup or salad, or just cut them up for a snack, these multi-taskers definitely deserve a place in your pantry.
No surprises here. This dark, leafy green is one of the healthiest things you can eat – and we don’t say that lightly. Rich in vitamin C and beta carotene, spinach is also packed with tons of other antioxidants, not to mention fibre, calcium and iron. Not ready to go full Popeye? Try adding a handful of spinach into your salads, stir it into soups, or mix sautéed spinach and garlic with rice.
Can’t get enough greens in your life? Yeah. Us either. And cruciferous veggies like broccoli and kale are some of the hardest working greens you can get. Broccoli is jam-packed with vitamins A, C and E, as well as a ton of other beneficial antioxidants. To maximize its immune-boosting benefits, try to eat it raw – or just very lightly steamed.
Nuts – is there anything they can’t do? Aside from being a great source of fibre, heart-healthy fat and plant-based protein, nuts like almonds are also high in vitamin E, a key antioxidant for maintaining a healthy immune system. The trick? Vitamin E is fat-soluble, meaning it can’t be absorbed without a little healthy fat present. But not to worry, almonds have enough unsaturated fat present to make sure you get the full benefit. And just half a cup will get you nearly 100% of your daily recommended dose of vitamin E.
We could go on. With so many yummy, antioxidant-packed foods, how can we play favourites? Berries, sweet potatoes, carrots and tomatoes are also just as deserving of a place on this list – and on your plate. So mix it up and have fun! The more variety you get, the better it is for your body.
It’s just common sense
Eating well is a great way to keep your body performing at its best, but a healthy diet can’t stand alone. Your immune system is just that – a system, not a single entity. And its workings are so complex, researchers are still figuring out just how it all works. So like we said before, there’s no silver bullet that will prevent all illnesses and keep you healthy forever. But your first line of defense is a common sense, healthy lifestyle. In addition to eating a colourful, balanced diet, that also means not smoking or drinking to excess, maintaining a healthy weight and getting enough sleep.
The most important thing you can do? It might actually be exercise. Setting aside the already amazing facts that it improves heart health and lowers blood pressure, exercise might also be one of the best things to keep your immune system functioning as it should. How? By improving your circulation, exercise helps keeping your cells moving freely, which allows antioxidants to do their job more efficiently. Just make sure you get your heart rate up and work up a good sweat – it’ll help boost your body’s detoxification process.
By the way, you know how your mom always told you to wear a jacket, so you wouldn’t catch a cold? Well, researchers have looked into it, and there is no link between exposure to cold and susceptibility to infection. In fact, most researchers agree that we get more colds in the winter not from going out into the cold – but from staying indoors more often, leaving us in closer contact with other people and their germs. That said, for your own comfort and to prevent hypothermia, you should still be wearing a coat in winter. It might not have anything to do with your immune system…but it’s still common sense.
What about supplements?
When your friends and colleagues start sniffling, it’s tempting to reach for cold-fighting supplements or boosters. But the fact is, there is little to no evidence that dietary supplements can improve your immunity – and if these products worked as they claimed, you probably wouldn’t want them to.
Confused? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense until you realize just how your immune system works. On the whole, there are two main parts to your immune system: the innate and the acquired response. When you get an infection, the innate response works first to fend off the germs, by flushing things out with phlegm, increasing your body temperature with a fever and decreasing your energy levels so you stay put. Yeah, all those cold symptoms? They’re actually your body fighting a cold. And if “cold fighting” supplements actually increased your body’s immune response, you’d feel like that all the time. Not ideal.
But the innate response is limited in what it can achieve – it helps prevent an infection from getting worse, but it can’t eliminate the unwanted germs from your body altogether. That’s where the acquired system comes in, which increases the production of antibodies while your innate response is doing its thing, then – five or ten days later – deploys them to wipe the infection out for good. What can you do to help give the acquired response a boost? A little something called vaccination. By introducing your immune system to the bug in advance, it helps your body plan its attack better and more efficiently.
Sure, it’s tempting to reach for that bottle of vitamin C when you feel that tickle in the back of your throat, but the fact is, it’s much better for you to get the vitamins you need from your diet – and loading up on pills and supplements won’t help.
Well, we’re just giving the same advice we always do. Eat a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, get enough sleep, don’t smoke, drink only in moderation and exercise regularly. And during cold and flu season, definitely wash your hands. It might not prevent you from getting sick altogether, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you beat whatever germs come your way as quickly and painlessly as possible.