When people start coughing and sneezing around us, it may be tempting to reach for those ‘super’ immune-boosting supplements. But, in truth, they don’t do a whole lot for you.
Instead, investing time in nurturing the trillion of microbes – that is the bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites – which live in your gut, is the best science-backed line of defence.
The fact is that our immunity is powered by the gut, and what our gut needs to function at its best is a diverse diet alongside three other key pillars: sleep, movement and less stress.
In yesterday’s Daily Mail, I explained the vital role the colony of gut microbes plays in shoring up the immune system and how eating a diverse plant-based diet – though not necessarily plants-only – is the best way to support them.
The fact is that our immunity is powered by the gut, and what our gut needs to function at its best is a diverse diet alongside three other key pillars: sleep, movement and less stress
Today, my focus is on sleep and stress. To harness the immune-strengthening benefits of good gut health we need to get these crucial areas in check.
No amount of immune-nourishing eating can outdo a disastrous lifestyle.
As I’ve witnessed with so many of my clients, if you’re not sleeping well or your stress levels are through the roof, your immune system is likely to pay the price.
The result? More of the joyless stuff – the sniffles, coughs and bedridden days.
Enjoy a woodland walk and keep a ‘gratitude diary’
To ward off illness, we need to increase our resilience to the stresses that life inevitably throws at us.
While a little bit of stress is healthy (without it, we’d never achieve anything), chronic stress can become a barrier to good gut health and this, in turn, results in a compromised immune system.
Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that mental stress increases the risk of various respiratory infections, including the common cold, and the more stress people are under the higher the rates and severity of infection.
Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that mental stress increases the risk of various respiratory infections
A study at the University of Bristol, meanwhile, found that an eight-week stress management programme notably improved the response to the influenza vaccine.
So there is no doubt that lowering stress needs to be a key part of your immunity action plan.
Allow some ‘worry time’ before going to bed
One of the most under-rated free health resources at your disposal is sleep.
This is the time when your immune system undergoes so much of the calibration it needs to work optimally.
For example, our body increases the production of certain types of proteins known as cytokines, which are responsible for regulating our immune system and, in turn, fight infections.
We miss out on this happening when we don’t get enough sleep.Researchers in the US put this to the test by infecting 153 healthy volunteers with a rhinovirus (cold-causing virus).
Those who had less than seven hours sleep on average per night were nearly three times more likely to develop a cold
The volunteers were then monitored for the development of a cold. Those who had less than seven hours sleep on average per night were nearly three times more likely to develop a cold over the following five days compared with those who slept eight hours or more.
Sleep deprivation can also increase stress hormones in your body, which may explain why not getting enough sleep is linked with worse gut symptoms, particularly in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Moreover, when you are tired, you are not only likely to eat more but to be drawn to the wrong types of food which do nothing to support your gut microbes (which are also, let’s not forget, sleep deprived).
A study by my colleagues at King’s College London found that people who were sleep-deprived were drawn to high-fat, lower-protein foods.
One of the most under-rated free health resources at your disposal is sleep. This is the time when your immune system undergoes so much of the calibration it needs to work optimally
Check in on how well you are sleeping by taking the sleep quiz included on this page. If your score is at the lower end, I suggest incorporating the practical strategies listed below into your night-time regimen to boost your pillow-time and strengthen your immunity.
These simple sleep-hygiene tweaks were found to significantly improve not just sleep duration but sleep quality in a trial carried out by my colleagues Dr Haya Al Khatib and Dr Wendy Hall.
The study, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, also showed the knock-on benefit of improved sleep on diet.
Those who followed these simple sleep strategies reduced their intake of sugars by two teaspoons a day without even realising it.
From cuddling to going for mindful woodland walks, here are the tried-and-tested strategies I have seen reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in my clients.
- Dose up on the cuddle hormone. Whether it’s a hug from someone or one from yourself, the physical sensation of touch has been shown to activate nerves that trigger the increase of oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’. This eases any feelings of distress and calms that fight-or-flight part of the nervous system.
The physical sensation of touch has been shown to activate nerves that trigger the increase of oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’
- Acknowledge and accept your feelings. Sometimes we run the risk of ignoring, or even suppressing, thoughts and emotions. In fact, in clinic, I often find gut issues (and poor immunity) are worse in those whose stress is subconscious. Being able to suppress emotions may be a useful skill for combating acute stress, but in the long term these emotions often scream out via your gut. How are you feeling right now? Deep down? Acknowledge it’s OK to feel that way and affirm that to yourself by saying it out loud.
- Keep a gratitude diary. At the end of each day, list three things that happened for which you are grateful. As simple as it sounds, reflecting on the good things can rewire how your brain thinks over time, creating more inner peace and calm – no matter your external environment.
At the end of each day, list three things that happened for which you are grateful
- Do a five-minute body scan. In a relaxed, seated position, with your eyes closed, imagine a gentle flow of warm liquid light trickling down from above your head through your body, filling up gradually from your toes. Notice the liquid’s calming quality filling up your feet, through your ankles, into your lower legs. Continue for several minutes to visualise it filling each individual part of your body until it reaches the top of your head. Let it overflow, covering your skin with a warming touch. Slowly open your eyes and reflect on how you feel.
In a relaxed, seated position, with your eyes closed, imagine a gentle flow of warm liquid light trickling down from above your head through your body filling up gradually from your toes
- Try Box Breathing. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold it for another four, then exhale slowly and steadily through your nose for four seconds before holding for four. Repeat for ten cycles. The holding of breath changes the amount of carbon dioxide in the body, which through a sequence of mechanisms activates your ‘rest and digest’ nervous system, AKA your parasympathetic system. The result? A wave of calm moves through your body.
- Self-care is a necessity, not a luxury. Whether you’re tending to your children’s every need, working crazy hours or busy being a good friend, you not only deserve but need some dedicated me-time or you will burn out. Doing something that you enjoy and find relaxing for 30 minutes a couple of times a week is well worth the time investment.
- Go ‘forest bathing’. It may sound a bit hippy-dippy but a body of research has shown that mindfully spending time in nature lowers stress levels, and even high blood pressure.
Research has shown that mindfully spending time in nature lowers stress levels and even high blood pressure
- Stick to a regular routine. Maintaining the same sleep-time and wake-time every day (give or take 30 minutes) can help your bodyclock and your gut microbes’ bodyclock function best.
- Schedule worry time. We often struggle to fall asleep or find ourselves waking in the early hours if we’re worried about something. It may sound counter-intuitive, but allowing yourself ten minutes a few hours before bed to worry and write down all your thoughts and to-do lists can give you the mental space to relax before sleep.
- Make your bedroom quiet and dark (I’ve invested in ear plugs and an eye mask) and keep it at a slightly cool temperature (16C-18C). Your body’s temperature starts to drop as you fall deeper into your slumber, so it helps not to get too warm while you sleep.
- Avoid using laptops, phones and other gadgets before bedtime, or consider installing blue-light filter apps on your devices. Blue light from back-lit screens is particularly disruptive to your body’s clock. It counteracts your ability to produce melatonin, which is an important hormone for sleep.
Avoid using laptops, phones and other gadgets before bedtime, or consider installing blue-light filter apps on your devices
- Whether it’s going for a five-minute walk, or doing some stretching in your backyard, exposure to natural light first thing in the morning helps support and reset your body clock.
- Limit caffeine and stimulants (including dark chocolate, and cold and flu medications containing caffeine) after lunchtime as it takes, on average, five hours for half the caffeine in your system to be cleared. These make it hard for your body to wind down.
Are you getting enough beauty sleep?
Thinking about your usual sleep habits during the past month, answer the following questions:
1. How long does it usually take you to fall asleep?
- Fewer than 15 minutes – 0 points
- 15-30 minutes – 1 point
- 31-60 minutes – 2 points
- More than 60 minutes – 3 points
2. How many hours of actual sleep do you get at night? (this may be different to the number of hours you spend in bed)
- Fewer than 5 hours – 3 points
- 5 to fewer than 6 hours – 2 points
- 6 to 7 hours – 1 point
- More than 7 hours – 0 points
3. How would you rate your overall sleep quality?
- Very bad – 3 points
- Fairly bad – 2 points
- Fairly good – 1 point
- Very good 0 – points
4. How often have you taken medicine to help you sleep (prescribed or over-the-counter)?
- None – 0 points
- Less than once a week – 1 point
- 1 to 2 times a week – 2 points
- 3 or more times a week – 3 points
5. How often have you had trouble staying awake while driving, eating meals or engaging in social activity?
- Never – 0 points
- Less than once a week – 1 point
- 1-2 times a week – 2 points
- 3 or more times a week – 3 points
0-4: Well done, you generally sleep OK 5-9: Oh dear, better tweak your routines 10-15: Alarm call to change lifestyle, boost your health and get a good night’s sleep
Adapted from Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index