TO the great vindication of blokes the world over, it seems that man flu may not be a myth after all. Research recently published found that oestrogen boosts the immune system, meaning that women are better able to fight off infection than men. Chaps, it seems, really do get iller and take longer to recover from their illnesses.
So, with summer approaching, how can you keep your immune system strong and ensure you’re in fighting form for all those barbeques? The last thing you want is a cold or flu as you head off to your week of sun in Sardinia. And, according to Sanna Anderson, a City-based nutritionist: a well functioning immune system will also make you less likely to suffer badly from hay fever symptoms (hay fever occurs when your immune system reacts to substances that it should treat as neutral).
As ever, food and exercise play a central role and as ever, busy City workers don’t have time to prepare lavish nutritionally perfected super-meals. We asked two experts to explain the nuts and bolts, so that you can get through summer in tip top form, man or woman.
There’s no getting away from fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta carotene. These nutrients are vital for helping us fight off infections. Most invaders produce free radicals to try to get past your immune system. The antioxidant nutrients help reduce the effect of these free radicals, thereby weakening the invader.
City nutritionist Anderson suggests these simple ways to boost your fruit and veg intake. “Add fruit to your morning cereal or to Greek yoghurt for a healthy dessert. Have a bowl of soup and a salad at lunchtime instead of a sandwich, and roast, stir-fry or steam a wide range of vegetables and serve with your evening meal.
“Add onions and garlic to your cooking. Both have natural antiviral and antibiotic properties which make them great for warding off germs. If your social life allows, have onions and garlic raw whenever you can.”
If you’re on the go, these are the antioxidant-rich foods to go for: fruit smoothies, punnets of berries, or vegetable crudites such as carrot sticks, sugar snap peas and mange tout.
There’s been some backlash against the whole “superfoods” fad – but Anderson says there is some truth to the term. “Some foods do contain much more concentrated levels of nutrients. For example, a handful of blueberries contains more antioxidants than an average five portions of fruit and veg.”
When it comes to long-term health rather than anti-oxidant binges to ward off an infection, you need a healthy digestive system. “Strong colonies of beneficial gut bacteria will help ward off any unwanted invaders,” says Anderson. “On the other hand, sugar feeds unwanted bacteria, making it harder for the ‘good guys’ to thrive, so stop adding sugar to your drinks, and reduce the amount of sweets and pastries for a healthier immune system.” Contact Sanna Anderson through her website, www.sannahealth.com.
Believe it or not, exercise is a form of stress. It is the body breaking itself down – weights break muscle tissue down, while cardio breaks down fat. Put yourself through too much and you’ll have an adverse immune reaction, much like if you spend your days nail-biting your way through work. “Your body doesn’t distinguish between types of stress,” says Nick Hudson, National Fitness Manager at Virgin Active. “So it’s important to take it easy on the treadmill when you’re feeling over-stressed and/or low.”
Many people make the mistake of hammering the gym in an attempt to buck up their low ebb, such as cold or fluey symptoms. But while the release of endorphins can make you feel better, it’s only temporary and – says Hudson – “only masks the fact that you’re sick.”
If you’re stressed or have a weak immune system (smoking, too little sleep and too much caffeine combined with too little water are all factors that take a big toll on your system) then you shouldn’t pound the treadmill for hours. “You can reduce the function of your immune system if you work out hard in a hyper-stressed state,” he says. This is because exercise releases free radicals into the body which – if you’re run down – your immune system won’t be able to clean up and this will have a negative impact on heath.
So – for the ultimate reparative regime – Hudson advocates tai chi, yoga and other energy and mood boosting exercises. These – unlike sprinting and other hardcore cardio – stimulate the parasympathetic side of the nervous system, the same side that helps restore your body when you sleep and favours growth and repair. (The “sympathetic” side kicks into gear when you’re in flight or fight mode).
If you prefer the gym, do less cardio but do it harder, and try to spend an equal amount of time on weights, which – if done properly – creates a stronger body long-term than straight cardio. And finally – providing the pool isn’t dirty – swimming is an ideal combination of cardio exercise and relaxation. Simply submerging yourself in water is a proven way to lower your sitting heart rate.
Do’s and don’ts
Do: Drink green tea for an immediate boost. “Green tea contains some caffeine, which can help to boost your energy levels, and drunk in moderation it can also help boost immunity as it is high in a group of potent antioxidants called flavonoids,” says Anderson.
Don’t: Eat white foods (e.g. white bread, pasta and rice), which have little nutritional value. Instead, eat dense fibrous foods such as rye bread, brown rice and oats. These foods are packed full of nutrients including B vitamins and zinc which are vital for the immune system.
Don’t: Gulp down loads of dietary supplements. They should be tailored towards individual needs. However, if you want to give your immune system a general top up, take 500-1000mg of vitamin C daily and a good probiotic supplement.
Do: Keep your body moving even if you’re feeling run down. Gentle, psychologically calming exercise such as yoga or swimming is ideal.
Don’t: Hammer the gym or do excessively long workouts – your body will translate this as stress and it may actually weaken your immune system, not boost it.