Keeping Well in Winter

By Vicki Powell – Nutrition for Wellbeing Lead

Understanding Our Immune System

There seems to be a lot of discussion about immunity at the moment particularly in light of the ongoing Covid situation. The first thing to say is that our immune systems are unbelievably clever and complex, with the right support they can do a brilliant job of keeping us fit and well.

The immune system is the body’s way of protecting itself from infection by bacteria and viruses. It helps to keep the body healthy and allows it to get well when we do get ill.

How does the immune system work?

Snot and mucus in the eyes, nose and mouth are the body’s first line of defence against invaders, they provide a physical barrier to stop pathogens in their tracks.

The next line of protection (should the first fail) is the innate immune system which we’re born with. This is a general line of defence of specialized immune cells; neutrophils and macrophages, which innately recognise foreign bodies then respond by consuming them or causing cell death.

The most complex part of the immune system is adaptive or learned immunity, it develops over time. Once the body is exposed to a particular pathogen, the immune cells (T cells and B cells) remember its identity, so a defence can be mounted quickly and efficiently if the same pathogen is encountered in future. Often one will just feel a little under the weather when these amazing immune cells are fighting pathogens and wiping out invaders, sometimes these processes can happen without us even knowing!

So what can we do to support our immune systems to do their job?

Many of you will have heard about specific therapeutics such as immunity modulating herbs, mushrooms and adaptogens, these interventions can be both helpful and effective, however, if the foundations aren’t in place (ie diet and lifestyle) their powerful effects will be masked – the power of Reishi will be limited if one is eating a diet of fried and processed food.

Here are 7 easy to implement, accessible tips for you to start doing today

1. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet

This will ensure that you’re eating foods that support the immune system and give it the nutrients it needs to function rather than trigger it to mount a response.

Research the “Mediterranean diet”, this by its nature is anti-inflammatory, it’s mainly plant-based, with limited fatty meat, dairy and sugar. It focuses on whole foods in their natural form with lots of wholegrains rather than refined bread and pasta. Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables at each meal. Think “rainbow veg” – as many different colours and varieties as you can. Also eat plenty of herbs, spices, ginger and garlic. Check out the recipes below which combine many of these aspects.

2. Limit your alcohol intake

Alcohol deregulates the immune response, not helpful during flu season.

3. Don’t smoke

Smoking makes the immune system work harder, smokers are also more susceptible to infections such as pneumonia and flu.

4. Look at your weight in relation to your height

Do you have a healthy BMI? Obesity is correlated with inflammation and chronic disease, the immune system maintains a low level of activity which keeps it busy and makes it harder to defend against pathogens.

5. Consider having your vitamin D level checked

You might need to supplement it as necessary. There is overwhelming evidence of the important role that vitamin D plays in immunity (this should be done with a practitioner).

6. Assess your stress levels

Research shows that stress downregulates the immune system. Look at ways to calm your nervous system such as; quiet, rest, time in nature, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises.

7. Get plenty of fresh air and exercise

Most of us know we should be doing it but many of us spend a great deal of time sitting down indoors. Can you swap a daily car journey for a walk? Add a short family walk into the day after dinner? Or simply have your morning cuppa or lunch outside.


To learn more about the immune system and more about how to support it naturally, sign up to our next NCIM Holistic Doctor Webinar on Wednesday 24 November 6-7pm, it’s only £5 or FREE for members of NCIM’s Wellbeing Hub or NCIM’s Scientific Network.