The immune system provides the body with a sophisticated, highly complex system of antibodies, messenger chemicals and immune cells that help keep pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungal infections at bay. If it fails to work properly, colds, flu, intestinal tract infections, oral herpes, thrush, athlete's foot and other infections can occur.
Colds and flu, which are mostly caused by viruses, are among the most common infectious illnesses. Small children are often particularly affected and can pass the infection on to the rest of their family. Children can get anything up to ten minor infections a year without a compromised immune system necessarily being the cause. Experience shows that the rate of infection is reduced as the child gets older. For adults, two to four infections per year would be considered normal, but for those with strong immune systems the number can be much lower.
Luckily there is something we can do to strengthen our immune system. At the heart of a well-functioning immune system lies healthy nutrition. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables contains many of the nutrients and other key substances that our immune system needs. There are numerous vitamins, minerals and trace elements that can help the immune system function normally when taken in sufficient quantities. These include:
- The fat-soluble Vitamins A and D
- The B Vitamins: Vitamin B6, folic acid (Vitamin B9) and Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- The trace elements of zinc, selenium and iron
Only when our immune system has all the nutrients it needs, and in the right quantities, can it work at the optimum level and ward off attacks. The exact requirement for nutrients varies greatly according to age and the type of challenges our immune system has to deal with. Stress and physical exertion, for example, increase our nutrient requirement. Athletes should note that Vitamin C, taken during and after intense physical activity, can help maintain a healthy immune system. In order to satisfy their increased need for this vitamin, athletes often rely not just on fruit and vegetables, but also on nutritional supplements. For the best results, they typically require an additional 200 mg per day on top of the RDA.
- Take regular exercise: ideally outdoors. It does not have to be strenuous. Regular walking, Nordic walking, light jogging or cycling are all beneficial. But do not overdo it, or you will achieve the opposite of the intended effect, because strenuous activity can actually weaken immunity
- Reduce your stress levels: stress has been proved to reduce immunity. Successful stress management is therefore key
- Sleep well: lack of sleep is a stress factor and can therefore also reduce immunity
- Top up with sunshine in the summer: regular – but moderate – exposure to the sun promotes Vitamin D production in the skin and thereby strengthens immunity
- Eat healthily: a vitamin- and nutrient-rich diet is essential for immunity. Fresh, locally produced fruit and vegetables, ideally organic, provide the ideal foundation for our immune system. The selective use of nutritional supplements can be used to enhance a healthy diet
- Look after your intestines: the intestines are our largest defence mechanism. 'Good' intestinal bacteria can help to keep pathogens at bay. Intestinal flora can be promoted with a fibre-rich diet, exercise and probiotics
- Train your immune system: in the winter, weekly saunas followed by a cold shower or bath help strengthen your immune system. Seek the advice of an appropriately qualified professional
- Observe basic hygiene: particularly in the colds and flu season, wash your hands regularly and do not touch your face with your hands. If you need to cough, it is better to cough into your sleeve than into your hand. That way we we can protect not just ourselves but also our friends, colleagues and family