Written by Josh Bonney.
“Boosting your immune system” and improving your immunity seems to be all the rage in the media and the key to every second health kick or self-improvement. Most of these fads have little too no significant evidence behind them and the primary goal is to suck you into buying the newest turmeric immune smoothie set or make you eat enough garlic and ginger to make anyone want to socially distance from you.
Before you pour your smoothie down the drain, there is evidence to suggest that an adequate and appropriately balanced diet is important to provide the immune system with the building blocks for immune cells and sufficient energy to combat pathogens or infections (1). This is especially important during periods of higher risk (now) and during infection which allows the body to effectively respond against infection. Furthermore, it is well known that undernutrition can result in impairment of the immune system, of which the severity of impairment depends on the level of deficiency, specific nutrient deficiencies, age and presence of infection (2). Note that there is currently poor evidence to support turmeric or its active ingredient curcumin to decrease inflammatory markers (3) to assist with immune function or that garlic and ginger provide any additional benefits to immunity. It is recommended to follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines, or seek out a Dietitian for more specific advice.
Now that you’ve cleaned out your pantry and you’re following a balanced diet, the next hot tip to improve your immune function is to exercise!
Exercise is one of the most researched and widely accepted ways to improve immune function that is completely free, no gimmicks or strings attached. Various randomised controlled trials with exercise interventions found that higher levels of exercise were correlated to lower levels of systemic inflammation (4), which are present during infection or disease. Furthermore, exercise studies report a reduction in upper respiratory tract infection or throat and nasal infection rates of 18%-67% (4).
Obesity and sedentary behaviour are also strongly correlated with an increased risk and severity of infectious diseases and during the 2009 H1N1 influenza epidemic with obesity being associated with increased rates of hospitalisation and infection severity (6). Therefore, it is very important to exercise regularly to decrease inflammation, risk of infection and decrease risk of chronic disease such as obesity which can also lead to an increased risk of viral infection.
There are many different ways that exercise improves our ability to fight infection. This can be through improved ‘immunosurveillance’ to catch pathogens before an infection starts and helps to decrease URTI risk. Exercise also provides an anti-inflammatory effect through decreased adiposity (fat mass) and reduced cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancers (4,5).
The benefits of exercise seem to form an endless list so i’ll save you the time and put it like this; the fact is that all the benefits of exercise can’t be pressed in a pill and there’s no shortcut. To receive the full benefits and improvement in immune function you need to get moving.
Finally, it is also important to support the body with recovery and sufficient sleep. Sleep promotes regulation of inflammation processes and it is well documented that prolonged sleep disturbance can increase an individual’s risk for both viral infection and inflammation-related disease (7). Therefore, it is very important to be providing the body with sufficient quantity of quality sleep. Luckily for you, exercise has consistently been reported to be related to improved sleeping habits in various epidemiologic studies and is widely used as a non-pharmacological treatment method for sleep disorders (8).
To get the most bang-for-your-buck (or no bucks), exercise coupled with a healthy sleep cycle can be most beneficial for improving immune function during both the current COVID-19 pandemic and coming into the winter flu season. This partnered with a healthy, balanced diet can help to put yourself in the best possible position to fight off any infection without having to torture your tastebuds with a spinach and turmeric smoothie.
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- Childs C, Calder P, Miles E. Diet and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1933. doi:10.3390/nu11081933
- Calder P, Jackson A. Undernutrition, infection and immune function. Nutr Res Rev. 2000;13(1):3-29. doi:10.1079/095442200108728981
- White C, Pasupuleti V, Roman Y, Li Y, Hernandez A. Oral turmeric/curcumin effects on inflammatory markers in chronic inflammatory diseases: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Pharmacol Res. 2019;146:104280. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2019.104280
- Nieman D. Clinical implications of exercise immunology. J Sport Health Sci. 2012;1(1):12-17. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2012.04.004
- Warren K, Olson M, Thompson N et al. Exercise Improves Host Response to Influenza Viral Infection in Obese and Non-Obese Mice through Different Mechanisms. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(6):e0129713. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0129713
- Van Kerkhove M, Vandemaele K, Shinde V et al. Risk Factors for Severe Outcomes following 2009 Influenza A (H1N1) Infection: A Global Pooled Analysis. PLoS Med. 2011;8(7):e1001053. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001053
- Irwin M, Opp M. Sleep Health: Reciprocal Regulation of Sleep and Innate Immunity. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016;42(1):129-155. doi:10.1038/npp.2016.148
- YOUNGSTEDT S, KLINE C. Epidemiology of exercise and sleep. Sleep Biol Rhythms. 2006;4(3):215-221. doi:10.1111/j.1479-8425.2006.00235.x