By Nicole Saliba
Now more than ever Australians are looking for ways to support their immune system. While individual foods won’t protect you from getting sick, keeping your body well–nourished is a well–established way to help support your immune system, prepare it for becoming unwell and reduce any extra inflammation.
Diets that lack variety, are lower in important nutrients and consist mainly of ultra–processed foods can negatively influence a healthy immune system. Research shows that a typical Western diet high in refined sugar and red meat and low in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains can cause imbalances in our gut health resulting in chronic inflammation of the gut which is associated with a weaker immune system. Here are my top tips for supporting your immune system with diet and lifestyle.
Eat for a healthy gut
Your gut or digestive system is home to trillions of live bacteria, viruses and fungi called your gut microbiota. The gut forms a large part of your body’s immune system, so it makes sense that eating well for your gut is eating to support your body’s immune system. Diet is one of the most crucial factors that helps shape how healthy your gut is. Eating a diet that is rich in fibre from plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, and seeds is the best way to help support your gut health. My top tips for eating for a healthy gut include;
- Aiming for 30g of fibre per day
- Aiming for 30–40 different plants per week, this includes fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, and legumes
- Including foods rich in probiotics (live good bacteria which science has shown has a beneficial impact on our health) and fermented foods (foods that contain live micro–organisms) such as yoghurt with live active cultures (e.g., Activia Yoghurt), kefir yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and tempeh
- Including foods rich in prebiotics which are essentially food for your good gut bugs. These include things like garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, dandelion greens, banana and jerusalem artichoke
Eat foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and zinc
Certain nutrient deficiencies can change the way your body’s immune system responds. Different nutrients help support your immune system in different ways whether it’s acting as an antioxidant to protect healthy cells from damage, supporting the growth and function of your immune cells or producing antibodies which are special proteins that are in charge of fighting infection.
Your immune system relies on a balanced and varied diet that provides all the essential vitamins and minerals it needs to protect you from lurking colds and flus looking to find a weakness in your defences. Our immune cells (our defence system!) need a good supply of vitamin C to perform their function optimally, while many antioxidants, such as Vitamin E, selenium and zinc are also important in keeping your immune system strong. Protein and vitamin A are needed to maintain strong skin and other physical barriers (such as the lining in your gut) in the body that prevent unwanted bugs from getting in.
- Good sources of Vitamin C include broccoli, capsicum, tomatoes, berries, brussel sprouts, blackcurrants, citrus fruit, and leafy greens
- Good sources of vitamin E include almonds, sunflower seeds, sunflower and soybean oil, peanuts, leafy greens, pumpkin, asparagus, mango, and avocado.
- Good sources of vitamin A include leafy greens, tomato, red capsicum, fish oils, milk, eggs, and fortified foods
- Good sources of selenium include brazil nuts and seafood
- Good sources of zinc include oysters, red meat, chicken, legumes, nuts, and wholegrains
Boost your intake of omega–3 fatty acids
Most people know about the role of omega–3 fatty acids when it comes to heart and brain health, but did you know they’re important for your immune system too? This is mainly due to their anti–inflammatory effects. Make an effort to increase your intake of omega–3 fatty acids. While the body can create other types of fats from scratch, it can’t make omega–3s, meaning we need to get them from the food we eat or supplements. Great sources of omega–3s include cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna. Plant based sources are not as well converted in the body but can help contribute towards your daily include. Sources include walnuts, linseeds, pepitas, chia, seaweed (such as nori sheets) and oysters. As fish is one of the richest sources, it is recommended that we include 2–3 servings of fish weekly! Don’t eat fish? Boost your intake with a good quality fish oil supplement that provides 500–1000mg combined EHA and DHA omega–3s daily.
Keep an eye on your vitamin D levels
Vitamin D is available in some foods such as fatty fish, cheese, and egg yolks, but the majority of our vitamin D is actually from exposure of our skin to sunlight! Vitamin D plays a vital role in the body including building and maintaining strong bones, boosting the immune system, and regulating muscle function. A deficiency can lead to a compromised immune system, lethargy, and fatigue, reduced wound healing and a decline in bone density. In seasons where the days are shorter and we spend more time indoors, vitamin D levels are likely to fall. In fact, 1 in 3 Australians have sub–optimal levels of vitamin D (<75mmol). People who spend more time indoors, such as those working long daytime hours, or the elderly are at highest risk. If your vitamin D levels are low or your exposure to sunlight is limited, including a vitamin D supplement is a great idea.
Prioritise quality sleep
Did you know that sleep is important for supporting your immune system? Research suggests that both short and long–term sleep deprivation can compromise your immune system and make it more likely for you to become sick. During sleep certain parts of our immune system are activated. Although the amount of sleep we need varies between individuals, aim for 7–9hrs of sleep and speak to your GP if you are having trouble sleeping or are snoring.
Take steps to manage your stress
Did you know that chronic stress weakens your immune system and causes inflammation? Your physical and mental health are not mutually exclusive. Stress is an unavoidable part of life so having some healthy strategies to help manage stress is important whether it be exercise, meditation, talking to a friend of professions.
Looking for some one–on–one support when it comes to your health and wellbeing?
Book in with one of our friendly dietitians at Eatsense today by calling 4311 3623 or booking online at eatsense.com.au.
Nicole is a passionate sports nutritionist and Accredited Practising Dietitian who established her practice Eatsense in 2013 as she has a burning desire to help people, see them happy and watch them thrive. Her vision is to help as many people learn to prioritise themselves, feel their best, enjoy delicious and nourishing food and live a healthy, happy and fulfilling life through her one on one consultations and seminars. Contact Nicole at her Erina Clinic on 4311 3623.