What a Doctor, Nutritionist and Naturopath Want You to Know About Boosting Your Immunity
In the socially distant, burnout-filled, wellness-obsessed pandemic era we find ourselves living in, immune health has been a hot topic of conversation. As talk of a COVID-19 vaccine continues and regular people (to varying degrees) have learned to live with a heightened and persistent awareness of infection and disease, the importance of a healthy immune system and preventative health techniques sit squarely front of mind. It's also never been a weirder time to catch the common cold—the slightest throat tickle and you'll end up with a swab up your nostril and a few days in isolation waiting for COVID-19 results.
With so much information—and misinformation—out there, we wanted to find out exactly what those of us who are privileged enough to be generally healthy can do to stay that way. Read on to meet our experts, Melbourne-based Dr Preeya Alexander, New Zealand-based naturopath Louise Garland and New South Wales-based nutritionist Hollie James. Then, discover our eight expert-backed steps to better immune health.
Dr Preeya Alexander is a practicing GP based in Melbourne who also works as a medical educator. In her practice, and on her blog, The Wholesome Doctor, Dr Preeya champions preventative medicine and wants to empower people and improve health literacy among those outside of the medical community, so that they are better equipped to make informed decisions about their health.
She says that when it comes to immune health many of her patients want a quick fix. "People often ask if there is something they can take to support the immune system, and—let's be honest—we are bombarded with all sorts of products around immune health online and in stores," she says. "The truth is, for most people who are physically active and eating a varied diet, you are getting all you need from your diet to support the immune system and you should not need to rely on additional supplements."
Anyone following a vegan or vegetarian diet may want to ask their doctor about iron or vitamin B12 supplementation, Dr Preeya says. "These, iron in particular, are important building blocks in the immune system."
Otherwise, it's best to just consider the basics of good health when making steps towards better immune health. "I think people often underestimate the important of sleep and stress management on immune health," Dr Preeya tells us. "Patients are often so quick to reach for a tablet or quick fix that they forget that getting some solid sleep and managing stress levels (with meditation or exercise for instance) can be far more effective!
"The most common myth about the immune system is that it can be 'boosted'," Dr Preeya reminds us. "There are many products out there that will claim they can 'boost' your immune system but as a doctor I know that is simply not possible. Sure, we can support the immune system with many of the measures I mentioned above—but boosting it is not a thing. You cannot take something to turbo charge the immune system and get it working overtime."
Louise Garland is the naturopath and herbalist behind New Zealand brand Wild Love, where she offers a range of handmade skincare and herbal teas that marries the magic of plant medicine with everyday wellness. For Louise, along with a growing number of people keen to find natural remedies for wellbeing concerns, herbs are a powerful way to support all aspects of health, due to the compounds (phytochemicals) that are found in plants that may protect cells from damage.
"[This year], I've noticed people are more interested in taking an active role in keeping themselves well – it's become a priority," Louise says. "I've also seen people become aware that how they behave can really affect others. I see people taking care of their own health as an act to protect other possibly more vulnerable people. The result being that people generally seem to have presented with less of the usual winter bugs this year."
"In naturopathy we treat everyone as an individual, so yes, it depends on all of the above and then some. Of course there are general things that will be beneficial for most people, however depending on your individual circumstances an approach that will work best for you may be quite different to what might work best for someone else."
Hollie James is a nutritionist and an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) working in New South Wales and online. She first became interested in diet and digestive health after her own struggles with food and coeliac disease, and aims to dispel the misinformation that prevents regular people from living life as their healthiest selves.
Hollie works from the understanding that we are all different, and good nutrition isn't one-size-fits-all. In 2020, she has seen a big change in how we respond to illness, hygiene and possible symptoms of illness, she says. "I've definitely found more people staying home to be safe, opting for telephone consults if their throat is a little sore. Before this, we would often 'soldier on' and ignore these types of symptoms until they really impede our activities."
Keep scrolling to discover eight steps to better immune health according to a nutritionist, a naturopath and a doctor.
8 steps to better immune health
It's true—everybody's different. But there are some ways to support a healthy immune system that most people will find helpful. Here are eight steps to try for better immune health, according to health and wellness experts working in medicine, nutrition and naturopathy.
Step 1: Eat a rainbow
The results are in—according to all three experts, diet is bar far one of the best ways to support your immune system. Herbalist and naturopath Louise Garland says that diversity really is key: "Try and eat lots of different foods and pack vegetables into every meal and snack," she says. "You've probably heard it before, but 'eat a rainbow' is a good phrase to keep in mind as colourful foods tend to be the most nutritious and we need a variety of them to get everything we need."
Likewise, Dr Preeya Alexander says a varied diet with lots of good stuff in it is a great way to support the immune system. "The recommendation for adults is for two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables per day," she explains. "Getting lots of fruit, vegetables, iron rich foods (fish, meat, tofu, etc) and wholegrains into your diet is a wonderful way to ensure you are getting plenty of nutrients into the body, such as iron and zinc, which are crucial building blocks for the immune system."
Nutritionist and dietitian Hollie James confirms that a balanced diet is the goal to aim for. "My best advice would be to aim for a balanced diet—there's nothing crazy you need to have in order to support your immune function," she explains. "Think fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, lean protein and drinking water. There are no 'superfoods' that will prevent you from becoming unwell, or that override overall nutrition. I think that can be quite dangerous, when we focus on a single nutrient or food, because we miss the big picture and the easiest way to get all the nutrients our immune function needs, is actually through a wide variety of foods."
Step 2: Add herbs
"Herbs are potent sources of many phytochemicals, which can affect your health in a positive way," explains naturopath and herbalist Louise Garland. "Adding herbs to your meals and drinking herbal teas are easy ways to boost your phytochemical intake," she says. "Visiting your local herbal dispensary is a great place to get a customised tonic to support your individual needs."
Step 3: Get your vitamins
As we've learnt already, a diet rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients will go a long way to a better immune health. But which vitamins exactly? Here are some of the key nutrients that help support our immune system, according to nutritionist and dietitian Hollie James:
Vitamin C, which is found in many fruits and vegetables including citrus fruits, broccoli, capsicum, kiwi fruit, berries and tomatoes.
Vitamin A, which is found in different forms when in either animal or plant sources, such as oily fish, egg yolks, sweet potato, pumpkin, spinach and carrots.
Vitamin D, which we do get mainly from sunlight, but also in foods such as eggs, fish and vitamin-D fortified milks, cereals and margarines.
Zinc, which is found in a wide variety of foods including oysters and other seafood, red meat and poultry, nuts and seeds, legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas, soy) and wholegrains.
Vitamin E, which can be found in nuts, green leafy vegetables, avocado and vegetable oils.
Iron, which you can find in animal proteins like meat and chicken, legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas, soy), wholegrains and iron-fortified cereals.
Step 4: Get good sleep
Not getting enough quality sleep is one of the most common ways people inadvertently weaken their immune system, according to naturopath Louise Garland. Likewise, Dr Preeya Alexander says that getting enough sleep actually helps the immune system to function better. "You may notice when you are exhausted and run down you are more likely to 'catch a cold'," she says. "The link is real!" Everyone is different, but Dr Preeya says most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep every night."
Step 5: Get vaccinated
Dr Preeya Alexander emphasises that staying up to date with vaccinations, such as the flu vaccine, is a great way to protect a healthy immune system. "There are many serious infectious diseases (such as measles and meningococcal) that can be prevented with vaccination," she explains. "This is one of the best ways to support the immune system—vaccines trigger the body to make antibodies to a particular virus or bacteria so that if you encounter a disease in the real world (like whooping cough) you are less likely to contract it because the body already has fighter cells (antibodies) against that particular disease."
Step 6: Stress management
Naturopath Louise Garland, stress is one of the biggest indirect culprits when it comes to a weakened immune system. "Stress is fantastic at suppressing your immune system," she explains. "Coming up with strategies that allow you to cope with the stress in your life is a great way to indirectly support your immune system."
Step 7: Stay active
"Aim for the 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days (as per the Australian preventative health guidelines) and not only will you be reducing your chronic disease and cancer risk, but you are also supporting your immune system," says Dr Preeya Alexander.
Step 8: Don't be a hero
"Unfortunately, we seem to have lost the concept of convalescence," explains naturopath Louise Garland. "It's really important to spend time recuperating properly after illness so you don't just pick up the next thing that's going around. The whole 'soldier on' thing is really not what you want to do. Take the appropriate time to rest and allow the body an environment to heal properly. When you're feeling better take it easy for at least another few days to really allow the body to be on top of whatever it was that floored you."
This is general advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.