Jan 08, 2015 by Alex
Winter brings many things: Christmas trees, log fires, large mugs of hot chocolate and unfortunately, colds and the 'flu. Every year, a proportion of the population is laid low by respiratory illnesses and bacterial infections, and every year, without fail, others will try to persuade them that by taking extra vitamins and supplements, or by changing their lifestyles, they can boost their immunity and keep themselves healthy. But the question is - can they?
The first problem with boosting immunity lies in the fact that the immune system is just that, a system of processes and actions, and not a single organ. Therefore, it is very difficult to measure cause, change and effect in the immune system.
To make things worse, scientists are very frank in admitting that much of the immune system remains a mystery - so it is hardly surprising that even top doctors would baulk at being asked how to make it all work properly, all of the time. To make matters even more complex, everybody's immune system is different, and will respond in different ways to different things.
That said, quite a lot is known about immunity - for example that ageing makes people more susceptible to illness and infection, and that it seems reasonable to link this to age-related changes in the immune system. There is some evidence to link social stress to decreased immunity, and increasing evidence of malnutrition - in terms of a lack of certain vitamins and trace minerals - in parts of the UK population, particularly the elderly. The latter has led many to suggest that immunity may be linked to nutrition - so for anybody who fears that their diet may be less than ideal, taking a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement may be helpful.
No magic bullet
The upshot of this is that sadly, at the moment there appear to be no 'magic bullet' that can improve immunity, rather that warding off illness is best done by making oneself as healthy as possible. In other words:
- Don't smoke.
- Take regular exercise.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and wholegrain, with limited amounts of saturated fat.
- Practice good personal hygiene: wash hands regularly, dispose of tissues immediately after use, wipe down kitchen surfaces after food preparation, etc.
- Control blood pressure - monitor it and keep it at a healthy level.
- Get enough sleep.
- Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all.
- Get health checks as appropriate.
- Get vaccinations, for example 'flu vaccines, where appropriate.
Doing this increases the body's ability to maintain a balance between the various elements that contribute to immunity, and although it will not provide complete protection from all illnesses, it is likely to boost the chances of avoiding the coughs, colds and respiratory problems that dog many people during winter.
What is more, a generally healthy lifestyle can provide protection from other, more dangerous, illnesses too. So this year, instead of fearing the onslaught of 'flu, why not use it as motivation for improving your health-related behaviour in general?