Winter Immunity: Can a Healthy Lifestyle Really Boost Your Immunity?

immune boosting

I know you’ve heard that you can boost your immune system through healthy lifestyle changes? Probably lots of times, right? But could it really be that easy? The answer might surprise you.

As we head into winter and a potential new variant of Covid, booster shots are being recommended – but are there more proactive ways we can protect ourselves?

A healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise and sleeping habits, can boost your immunity and keep you healthy during the winter months—without even going to the doctor’s office! Let’s take a look at some of the research.

A healthy diet boosts immunity

Last January, the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a perspective article, offering the idea that there is a dietary change which can be made to help reduce risk of infection with covid-19, as well as significantly reducing risk of severe infection.
They note that plant-based diets (such as a vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian diet) have been beneficial to our health long before the emergence of the pandemic, decreasing all-cause mortality and risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease, but that the effects of reducing meat consumption on covid infections are worth having a closer look at.

A plant-based diet can have an impact on your immune system

One study, led by researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and published in Gut journal, examined data on 592,571 participants from the UK and US collected between March and December of 2020 (the height of the pandemic). Their diet quality was assessed at the start of the study, and throughout the follow-up period, 31,831 participants developed COVID-19. The quality of diet was assessed using a healthful Plant-Based Diet Score that emphasises healthy plant foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Compared with individuals in the lowest quartile of the diet score (those with the worst diet), those in the highest quartile (those with the best diet) had a 9 percent lower risk of developing COVID-19 and a 41 percent lower risk of developing severe COVID-19. Author Andrew Chan said: “Although we cannot emphasise enough the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings, our study suggests that individuals can also potentially reduce their risk of getting COVID-19 or having poor outcomes by paying attention to their diet”

Another more recent study looked at COVID-19 Illness Severity in the Elderly in Relation to Vegetarian and Non-vegetarian Diets

A retrospective study evaluated 509 patients who had been diagnosed with Covid-19 at a single medical centre between May 2021 and August 2021. For patients aged 65 years and older, Covid-19 symptom severity was statistically significantly and inversely associated with the adherence to a vegetarian diet. Moreover, subgroup analysis results showed that older covid patients and those with a non-vegetarian diet had a higher risk of contracting critically severe covid.

And lastly, one very interesting study conducted on front-line healthcare workers during the pandemic

This study included front-line health care workers across 6 countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK, USA), found that those who reported following plant-based diets, vegetarian or pescatarian diets – that were higher in vegetables, legumes and nuts, and lower in poultry and red and processed meats, had 73% and 59% lower odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19, respectively.
This study concludes that adhering to these diets can offer a form of protection against severe infection with covid-19.

Why do these diets make a difference?

Well… So all of these studies had potential biases and pitfalls- as all studies do, especially when there’s not been enough time or large enough populations to see proper long term effects – and while it feels like forever(!!)  we’re not even three years into this pandemic. The studies above have been observational and relied on patient recollection, and no randomised-controlled trials have been published to date. RCT’s are the “gold standard” and in the absence of these most researchers will say the evidence is not sufficient to make a conclusive (or as conclusive as science ever gets) call. Personally though, I do still find this evidence compelling and the potential benefits far outweigh any reason not to try leaning in that direction. So we’re not looking at vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian diets as the cure all to save us, and if you’re at risk you should absolutely still be wearing a mask in crowded places.

But as I mentioned in the beginning – we already know that healthy plant-based diets are beneficial for reducing many conditions, including those which may put us at a higher risk for severe covid infections. Of course, I want to highlight that I’m referring to healthy plant-based diets, you can have a junk-food plant-based diet and have poor health due to consuming far too many processed foods.

We know that healthy plant-based diets are rich in nutrients, especially phytochemicals (polyphenols, carotenoids), vitamins and minerals, all of which are important for a healthy immune system, and fish are an important source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which have anti-inflammatory properties. So in increasing the volume of plant-based ingredients we can help ourselves get healthier (and if that helps reduce risk of severe covid infections- then that’s even better news!)

So what can you do to help support your immune system?

As we’re approaching winter, it might be time to make some changes to your diet. Eating more grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes can help boost your immunity and keep you healthy during the coming months.
Here’s how to incorporate these foods into your diet:
  • Add a variety grains such as rice, quinoa, pearl barley and buckwheat to your main meals, don’t always go for the one you’re used to.
  • Add fruit whenever possible – as a snack, dessert, and whenever you’re feeling peckish.
  • Eat vegetables with lunch and dinner – it doesn’t matter if they are raw, cooked, steamed or air-fried – however you enjoy eating them do that
  • Keep legumes such as beans in the pantry, but more importantly keep them in mind and add lentils alongside your grains, or beans into soups or casseroles.

And of course there’s lots more to do, including reducing your sugar intake, getting a good nights’ sleep, getting enough exercise and spending time outside, drinking plenty of water, and using herbal medicine to support your body.

As ever, if you feel you need extra support in incorporating these changes into your life, I’m here!

Maya x

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