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Ways to improve your immune system

Woman in blue shirt in a cafe blowing her nose into a white tissue
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The term “immune system” is used to group the various different defences in our bodies which come together to protect us from harmful germs like bacteria and viruses. White blood cells called lymphocytes make up a major part of our immune system, as they release antibodies that help our bodies “remember” how to attack certain germs – in other words, they help us develop immunity. Other important defences around our bodies include the skin, the stomach and the mucous membranes in our nose, mouth and genitals.

While it’s not possible to “improve” your immune system by eating certain foods or taking certain supplements, it’s certainly true that you can take good care of it by following a healthy lifestyle. The better maintained your immune system, the more easily your body will fight off infection.

With that in mind, here are our top tips for taking good care of your immune system.

Get vaccinated

The best way to take care of your immune system is to get all the routine vaccinations offered to you on the NHS. You’ll have received most of your routine vaccinations as a child, but there are some you’ll be offered as an adult too, including the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu jab. To find out which vaccinations you might be eligible for as an adult, check out this page.

How do vaccines help?

Vaccines work hand-in-hand with your immune system to build up protection against certain diseases. They do this by creating antibodies that are specially equipped to fight off those infections. Once the vaccine has “taught” your immune system how to fight off those specific infections, it can continue to do so for many years – although in some cases you may need a booster vaccine later down the line.

Eat a healthy, varied and balanced diet

To function properly, our bodies need a range of macronutrients and micronutrients, which are found across various food groups. In general, healthy eating incorporates lots of starchy carbohydrates and different fruits and vegetables, as well as smaller amounts of protein and low-fat dairy.

If you aren’t sure where to start with a healthy diet, check out the NHS Eatwell Guide and our healthy eating guide for more top tips. They contain lots of detailed information about what to aim for each day including calorie recommendations. The basic rule is to get plenty of variety across all the major food groups – in other words, only eating green vegetables doesn’t equate to a healthy diet.

Maintaining a diet like this should mean that you get all the nutrients you need, which in turn will support your immune system.

Consider taking supplements

Sometimes it can be difficult to keep up the kind of diet described above – especially if you’re vegan or have food allergies. While it’s best to get nutrients through your food, you can try taking supplements if you think there’s anything major lacking in your diet.

All the vitamins and minerals set out by the NHS here are vital for good general health, but there are a few which are particularly important for your immune system, including vitamin D. The NHS recommends that everyone in the UK take vitamin D supplements of 10 micrograms (mcg) between October and the beginning of March.

Other important nutrients for your immune system include:

Where possible, it’s best to try and get these nutrients in your diet, but if you struggle to do this you should speak to your GP about taking daily supplements. The recommended dosages for each of these vitamins can be found at this page.

Spend some time in the sun

The NHS recommends that Brits take vitamin D supplements in the autumn, winter and early spring. This is because most of our “natural” vitamin D intake comes from sun exposure. During the coldest, darkest months, sunlight in the UK isn’t strong enough to generate adequate vitamin D.

In the spring and summer, however, we should be able to get enough vitamin D by spending some time outdoors each day. Of course, it’s important to do this in a safe way that doesn’t risk sunburn and skin cancer.

If you’d like to learn more about safely getting vitamin D from sun exposure, read vitamin D for different skin types and ages.

Try to reduce your stress levels

We all know the feeling of coming to the end of a busy, stressful week and suddenly falling ill with a chest infection or developing a cold sore. The relationship between these things is not coincidental – in fact, stress can have a direct impact on your immune system and lower your ability to fight off infection.

It’s not always easy to reduce your stress levels, particularly if you have a very busy job, but if you can, try to identify the “pressure points” in your life so you can work on resolving them. Other helpful activities include meditation, yoga and guided breathing, as well as simply taking time for yourself each day – whether to take a bath, go on a walk or curl up with a good book. Tips about coping with stress can be found at the Mind website.

6. Keep up a healthy lifestyle 

A “healthy” lifestyle will look different to everyone, but there are some basic rules you should try to follow if you want to maintain your immune system and good general health:

  • Exercise regularly – that means doing at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week, as well as strengthening exercises
  • Get plenty of sleep – the average person needs around eight hours of “good quality” sleep each night
  • Quit smoking – our in-store service could help with expert advice and product recommendations
  • Cut back on alcohol

Lastly, try to practise good hygiene as this will stop you getting sick in the first place!

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