Can you boost your immune system to prevent Covid-19?

Ever since the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 a pandemic in March, our lives have changed dramatically, and now more than ever our health has been on the forefront of our minds.

Whilst scientists worldwide are tirelessly researching this new virus to find drug treatments and vaccines, many of us are asking ourselves what we can do in the mean time to help prevent spreading or contracting this infectious virus.

You may be looking for a quick fix such as a supplement or a super-food that can give the immune system a quick ‘boost’. The truth is, there is nothing you can take that is going to prevent you from contracting this virus. The most important action we can take to protect ourselves and others is by adhering to the latest government advice – hand washing, social distancing and self isolation.

Furthermore, the idea of boosting the immune system sounds straightforward, but in reality it is quite complex. The immune system is an elaborate and dynamic network of cells, tissues and organs which work together to defend the body when it is attacked by pathogens such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. The amazing thing about the immune system is that it’s able to distinguish between these ‘foreign’ cells and the body’s own cells, so it will only attack what it recognises as foreign. When the immune system is over active, the body can end up attacking its own healthy tissues and result in autoimmune disorders.

So as opposed to boosting our immune system, a more appropriate strategy would be to look at what we can do to support it to work at its best. A good healthy-living strategy is a great start to do this, and at the same time it will help your overall health and well-being now and in future.

Healthy Diet

The best place to start is by looking at what we eat because a varied and balanced diet should provide us with most of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients our bodies require to work properly. Cutting down on sugar and refined carbohydrates can also help us to maintain a healthy weight.

Vitamin A helps your immune system function properly, and also helps keep the lining of some parts of your body, such as the nose, healthy. It is present in dairy, fortified spreads, eggs, oily fish and green leafy vegetables.

There are many B vitamins, each with their own function. In general they help your body produce energy and make important molecules in your cells. Sources of B vitamins include, but are not limited to eggs, fish, leafy greens, milk, legumes and meat.

Oranges, peppers, broccoli, strawberries and potatoes are excellent sources of Vitamin C which can help support cellular functions needed by the immune system. If you choose to take a vitamin C supplement, doses more than 1000mg per day can cause side effects and should be avoided.

Vitamin E can help to maintain healthy skin and eyes, and strengthen the immune system. The body is able to store vitamin E so you don’t need it in your diet every day. Good sources are plant oils such as soya, corn and olive oil, nuts and seeds and wheatgerm – found in cereals.

Selenium helps the immune system work properly, as well as in reproduction. It helps prevent damage to cells and tissues. Good sources of selenium are brazil nuts, fish, meat and eggs.

Zinc contributes to the normal function of the immune system. It can be found in meat, shellfish, dairy foods, bread and cereal products. If you’re taking a supplement, don’t take more than 25mg unless advised by a doctor.

Fibre provides a food source for ‘friendly’ bacteria in the gut. Research has increasingly shown how important this bacteria in our gut may be to our health. Fruits, vegetables, pulses, beans, nuts and seeds contain fibre and you could also choose a high fibre breakfast cereal, wholemeal options for breads, pastas and rices.

Other vitamins and supplements

Vitamin D is essential to help keep your bones strong and for immunity support. Our bodies create vitamin D from direct sunlight when we’re outdoors and we should be able to get sufficient amounts from sunlight between early April and late September. As we’re currently spending more time at home it’s important not to forget about this essential vitamin. You should try to spend time in the garden or you can enjoy the sunshine on your daily walk but don’t forget your SPF. If you’re unable to go outdoors a supplement may be useful. It is advised to take 10mcg daily during the autumn and winter months and this should be continued if you’re still at risk from vitamin D deficiency.

Echinacea is a traditional herbal medicine. There is a lot of uncertainty as to whether it is effective in the prevention and treatment of common colds and other upper respiratory tract infections. Some studies show it is very mildly effective and in the short term it is relatively safe, so those at a higher risk may consider taking it for a few weeks after discussing with their pharmacist.

Quit Smoking

It is important now more than ever to quit smoking, as it can put you more at risk of developing more severe coronavirus complications. Smoking harms your immune system and those who have smoked for many years are more likely to have conditions such as heart and lung disease and high blood pressure which are also risk factors for more severe complications. It may be worth seeking professional support and/or medication as you’re three times more likely to quit this way as opposed to trying alone.

Drink Alcohol in Moderation

Champagne

You may have found yourself turning to alcohol as a mechanism for dealing with stress or boredom, which is understandable. It has been found that regular drinking can have an effect on your body’s ability to fight infections, and heavy drinkers seem to catch more infectious diseases. It can also have a negative effect on mood, sleep, behaviour and heart health.

It is advised that to keep the health risks from drinking to a low level, you are safest not drinking more than 14 units per week, and this applies to both men and women.

Get Adequate Sleep

Sleep is a very important part of our daily lives and getting a good nights sleep keeps our mind and body healthy. Sleeping helps boost our immune system, drive our metabolism, rejuvenate our skin and gives our brain time to decompress the days events.

It can be very easy to fall in to an unhealthy sleep routine in the current situation. You may be tempted to stay up later watching TV or browsing the internet, wake up later than usual and nap during the day. It is really important to try to follow good sleep hygiene – this means working out a routine that suits you and sticking to it.

  • Try to fall asleep and wake up at a similar time every day

  • Wind down – this may be a hot bath, writing down your thoughts, listening to relaxing music, yoga/meditation, reading

  • Avoid using electronic devices close to bed time as they emit blue light which can have a negative impact on sleep

Regular Exercise

There is incredibly strong evidence that doing regular exercise contributes to helping you lead a happier and healthier life. Ideally we should be aiming to do a bit of exercise every day, with a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity a week.

As well as the long term benefits that exercise can help with, such as lowering the risk of conditions like depression, dementia, cancer and osteoarthritis, you can also enjoy the more immediate benefits of exercise like improved mood, energy and quality of sleep.

It is very likely that exercise strengthens our body’s immune system is it improves circulation, stimulates the lymphatic system, helps body flush toxins and delivers nutrients to cells.

Reduce Stress

The coronavirus outbreak has been life changing for everybody, and for the vast majority of people it has resulted in a negative impact on our mental well-being. The constant and changing headlines can leave you feeling worried and anxious, and staying inside can cause you to feel bored, lonely and frustrated.

When you are stressed or anxious your body releases adrenaline and cortisol which, if they are raised or a prolonged period of time, could suppress the immune system.

Some tips to help reduce stress include:

  • Limiting your daily screen time and only pay attention to reliable news sources

  • Stay connected by phoning friends and family

  • Yoga/meditation/deep breaths/stretch

  • Unwind – find an activity you enjoy