Get fighting fit for Freedom Day
Whatever your point of view about the lifting of coronavirus restrictions next week, our immune systems will to be put to the test as we are exposed to Covid and its variants, as well as other bugs and viruses again. The emphasis on personal responsibility is still here – legal restrictions are ending after all – but the PM is eager to tell people that they should not be returning to life as normal or having “a great jubilee and freedom from any kind of caution or restraint”.
Boris Johnson is keen to avoid what happened in the Netherlands after their 'Freedom Day', with an 800% rise in infections in one week.
The new advice is that face masks, while not legally required, should continue to be worn in enclosed spaces and that the return to offices and workplaces should be staggered rather than a big bang. High-risk venues, such as nightclubs, have also been told to make use of Covid passports.
Alongside the new guidance, data was released which shows the situation could get much worse than originally thought. Consequently, maintaining good personal immunity has never been more important.
Our immune system is an amazingly complex and intelligent biological network that protects our bodies from viruses and disease, but like all our bodily systems it becomes less effective with age. Our immune cells become less effective at hunting down invaders and start to misfire, causing damage, which is why people over 70 are more vulnerable to viruses and diseases – a fact that was ruthlessly highlighted throughout the pandemic.
Our immune system declines by 2-3 per cent a year from our 20s. While this decline in immunity happens to us all, our lifestyles and environmental factors can speed up or slow down the rate at which it does. Risk factors such as obesity, high sugar diet, some medications and chronic stress as well as behaviours such as smoking and drinking alcohol can accelerate your immune decline. Conversely, healthy changes can slow down this decline, reducing Your risk of serious illness and helping you live longer, healthier lives.
In other words, a 35-year-old can have the immune system of a 50-year-old, or a healthy 60-year-old could have that of a much younger adult. Our ‘immune age’ isn’t necessarily the same as our chronological age.
Looking after your immunity is for life, not just for the easing of restrictions or the pandemic overall. Long after all this is over, how well you take care of your immune system will determine how long you stay healthy.
Regular exercise can give you the immunity of a 25-year-old
Older exercisers have extra protection from this decline, are protected more from viruses and will respond better to vaccines. Moderate exercise for 20 minutes per day is enough to boost immunity; exercises such as yoga and Tai chi also boost immunity. Even a regular daily lunchtime walk will help. Moving every day is essential for your lymphatic system, which helps your immune cells perform more efficiently. Research in the British Medical Journal found those who walked for at least 20 minutes a day had 43 per cent fewer sick days due to the common cold.
Eat more protein
Evidence shows that poor gut health can increase immune age, while a healthy microbiome can slow down the ageing process.
Aim to eat as many different plant foods as possible. Aim to have protein with every meal because this supports the antibodies needed by your immune system and adequate protein is important for effective immune responses; antibodies are actually proteins made from amino acids. If your body needs to make more antibodies to protect against infection, it needs the amino acid building blocks in order to be able to do so. Seasonal fruit and vegetables, whole grains and legumes help to support microbiome diversity.
According to a 2018 review on diet and immune ageing, with age, people tend to consume lower amounts of protein when, in fact, they may need more.
A cold shower may stop you getting sick
Exposure to cold temperatures stresses the immune system in a beneficial way, creating an anti-ageing effect.
That doesn’t necessarily mean plunging into the wild swimming trend. A study in the journal PLoS One found people who take cold showers are 29 per cent less likely to call in sick for work. At the end of every shower, turn the temperature to the coldest setting for 20 or 30 seconds.
Get outside – and take vitamin D
Vitamin D’s role in immunity is now well established. Experts agree that we should spend plenty of time outside and take supplements between October and March.
Although direct evidence between vitamin D and protection from Covid-19 is lacking, there is reasonably strong evidence that people deficient in vitamin D are more likely to get respiratory infections. About a third of us are vitamin D deficient. Our main source is exposure to sunlight – most of us missed our summer holiday last year and may miss it again this year. And even if we get a summer holiday in the sun, two weeks exposure does not give you enough vitamin D to last you the year.
Take specific immune boosting supplements
Sleep, let go of resentment and see your friends
When we’re asleep, our immune system releases proteins called anti-inflammatory cytokines, which we need to fight infection or inflammation in the body or to cope with stress. A lack of sleep can decrease production of these cytokines, as well as infection-fighting antibodies. Sleep is the bedrock of your immune system, and indeed your physical and mental health.
Avoiding, or managing, stress and letting go of resentment and anger is important. If you’re quick to anger, your immune system is constantly primed for inflammation and will weaken more with age. Stress really dampens down our immune system, so find ways to manage it. Be careful of turning to alcohol to unwind. Alcohol consumption reduces levels of white blood cells, which combat infections, making your immune system less active. It also leads to decreased gut immunity.
Turning to hobbies to relax – such as sport, music, art or cooking – is a better idea, and maintaining friendships is important too.
Social connections have been found to be important in immune ageing. When we feel lonely, our immune systems go on high alert and an inflammatory response takes place.