By Annah Herbert-Graham, Magic Breakfast Nutritionist

Our immune system is the vital defence line between us and any harmful bacteria or viruses (known as pathogens) we are exposed to through day to day activities. When we feed ourselves with nutrients that support the immune system, we strengthen that defence barrier much like adding soldiers to an army about to go into battle. This is important for our overall health all year round, but especially during these challenging times where we are all concerned for the wellbeing of our friends, family and communities.

Here are some top diet and lifestyle tips for boosting your immune system and overall health. Sourcing fresh, local and organic produce will ensure nutrient levels are at their highest from the foods you eat.

Gut health - Did you know that 70% of your immune system originates in your gut?! Our intestines produce specialised cells which produce antibodies to fight off harmful pathogens. So, looking after your digestive system is the most effective way to ensure that nutrients from the food you eat are being absorbed and utilised by the body to support immunity. This can be achieved by eating whole, fresh foods which contain lots of fibre (mainly fruit, vegetables and whole grains), including some fermented foods such as live yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha and miso (which act as natural probiotics), and avoiding things that irritate or stress the gut lining, such as excessive sugar, alcohol, smoking or any foods you are sensitive or allergic to. 

Vitamin C is well known as the classic cold & flu fighting nutrient. It is abundant in colourful fruit and vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, spinach, watercress, sweet potato, carrots, kiwi fruits, oranges, lemons, limes, berries, pineapple and grapefruit. Try to include at least 5 of these into your daily diet - starting with a homemade smoothie is an easy way to pack in at least 2 portions of fruit and veg (you really can’t taste spinach when it’s blended with a banana, a handful of berries and your milk of choice!). Why not try adding a squeeze of lemon or lime to your drinking water and sip throughout the day? Or try adding fresh herbs such as parsley or coriander to your pasta sauces or omelettes as an extra vitamin C boost to simple, hearty meals. See our previous blog, Eat the Rainbow, for a detailed breakdown of the health benefits provided by different fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin D plays an important role in enhancing our natural immune response against various infections, including flu and upper respiratory tract infections. It also reduces inflammation in the body, which can weaken the immune response over time if not addressed. Foods such as oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines) are a good source of dietary vitamin D, as well as beef (liver is a particularly good source), eggs, cheese and whole milk. Foods that have been fortified with vitamin D include cereals, soy milk, and some juices (check the label). Mushrooms are a good vegetarian source of vitamin D, and also provide other immune-boosting benefits.

However, the most effective way to get your daily dose of vitamin D is through sunlight - safe exposure of the skin to sunlight allows the body to synthesise this vital nutrient in the body. Make sure you are not at risk of burning or damaging the skin by following sun safety rules advised by Cancer Research UK -

Zinc increases our natural immune cell activity, in turn reducing viral cell activity. There is evidence to suggest that zinc can shorten the life of a common cold. This helpful mineral can be found in oysters (yes, really!), beef, chicken, seafood, dairy products, beans, nuts and pumpkin seeds.

Sleep - relaxation and sleep are just as important as a healthy diet to maintaining a strong immune system. It is during our rest time, and especially during deep sleep, that our bodies heal and repair any damage, while replenishing cells and energy stores. Aim for at least 7 - 8 hours of quality sleep a night to give yourself a chance to re-set before the day ahead. Practice positive sleep hygiene by switching off blue-lit screens and any other digital stimulation at least an hour before you go to bed, using this time to relax and unwind. Listening to music, meditation, reading or taking a warm bath (in a dimly lit room) all help the mind to unwind after a busy day, preparing the body for sleep.

Stress - Many studies have linked high levels of stress to lowered immunity. Unfortunately, it is usually when we are stressed by life’s demands that we forget to look after our health, which can lead to a downward spiral into illness. Remember to call on the support of family, friends or professionals whenever you feel anxious or overwhelmed, as often talking about what is bothering us can help to find a solution. Make time each day to do something you enjoy - take a walk outside, exercise, get creative or connect with a friend. Doing things which you love and that make you feel good boosts mental health, which is closely linked to physical wellbeing.

Overall, make sure you are eating a varied diet, full of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and quality protein. Reduce sugar, smoking and alcohol intake as these all stress the body and can have a negative impact the immune system. Consider supplementing your diet with a good-quality multi nutrient containing the daily recommended amounts of the vitamins and minerals mentioned. Sleep more, stress less and make your heath a priority so that you are in the best possible position to fend off any unwanted viral visitors!