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Keeping Our Immune System in Tip Top Condition

April 19, 2020

One month ago, little did we know what an unprecedented world we would be living in today. Since that time, the way we engage with our family, friends, communities and colleagues has been completely transformed. Whilst the new world has been challenging to adapt to at times, I for one have been incredibly impressed with how communities have pulled together and (for the most part) the general courtesy being demonstrated across society.

Which is good news because we now know this period of lockdown is going to continue for at least another 3 weeks. Unfortunately we also know the only sure way to tackle the coronavirus and get back to normal is with a vaccine, a scientific endeavour which will take many, many months if not years to develop and rollout globally. So, what should we do in the meantime? Well aside from learning a new skill, meticulously polishing the silver or frankly any activity which keeps us sane, one of our top priorities should be maintaining a healthy body and mind. More specifically, now is the time to focus on keeping our immune system in tip top condition.

So how exactly should we go about doing that? Well it comes down to a few diet and lifestyle fundamentals. As a Registered Nutritionist here are my WIN top tips for maintaining a healthy immune system:

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Thankfully the panic buying days seem to be behind us and aside from eggs and flour continuing to be like gold dust the shelves are beginning to return to normal, making shopping at least a little easier. From a nutrition perspective there are many nutrients which provide immune support.  These include vitamins A, C, D, B vitamins (B6, B12, folate) and the minerals copper, iron, selenium and zinc.

Most can generally be derived by following some basic guidelines for a healthy, balanced diet:

1. Eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, the more variety of colours the better. A portion is roughly the size of your fist. 

2. Choose lean protein as a rule. Beans, peas and lentils are great store cupboard sources of protein, fibre and nutrients which can also contribute one portion of your 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

3. Aim for two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily e.g. salmon or mackerel. Nuts are also protein and nutrient packed and of course there is the humble egg. In addition to being incredibly versatile for cooking eggs are packed with immune supporting nutrients – vitamin D, protein, selenium and zinc. As a rule we should aim to eat less red and processed meat.

4. Starchy carbohydrates should make up around 1/3 of our plate, providing nutrients such as B vitamins (including folate), iron, calcium and fibre. Choose wholegrain or high fibre varieties e.g. wholemeal bread or pasta versus white.

5. If, after assessing your diet you are concerned about nutrient intakes a standard multi-vitamin and mineral supplement can be a good insurance policy.

6. Don’t forget, if you are of child-bearing age or are actively trying to conceive it’s important to take a 400 microgram folic acid (folate) supplement up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, for prevention of neural tube defects.

The sunshine vitamin

Vitamin D is a nutrient scientists from around the world, including Ireland’s own Trinity College, are calling for people to ensure they get enough of during this pandemic. Whilst diet is always the preferred way to obtain our nutrition, Vitamin D is a unique nutrient which is difficult to get from diet alone. Sunshine is the main source of Vitamin D for most people. As a result, health experts recommend we take a 10 microgram supplement from October-March or all year round if our exposure to sunlight is limited (like when self-isolating or limiting time outdoors).

Stay active

Avoid the gym, but not exercise! Keeping active, or getting more active if you have a sedentary lifestyle, is really important. Moderate exercise has been reported to increase certain immune cells which can help fight off infections. On the other hand, extreme levels of exercise, or not getting enough rest, can compromise immune health and make us more susceptible to infection.  Not only does it help to protect our cardiovascular health but it also help maintains a healthy weight which is itself linked to our ability to fight off infection. Get outside for a brisk walk while practising social distancing best practices, do a couch workout with Joe Wicks (other fitness gurus are available) or take a Pilates class – the internet is awash with ideas.

Get a good night’s sleep

Over time not getting enough or having poor quality sleep impacts our body’s immune system and its ability to fend of bacteria and virus’. Even more so the longevity and quality of our lives is fundamentally linked to how much sleep we get. It’s important to listen to your body but a general rule of thumb is to aim for 7-9 hours each night. Manage alcohol consumption: I know, I know, it’s not what we want to hear! There has been much misinformation out there around coronavirus with some people even purporting alcohol as some sort of miracle cure. Unfortunately the opposite is true. Excess alcohol can compromise the immune system and although it can help one fall asleep (or fall over…) it generally results in disrupted or poor quality sleep.

Guest blog by Vanessa Goodenough

WIN member Vanessa is Vice President, Global Regulatory Affairs for The Nature’s Bounty Co and a Registered Nutritionist with nearly 20 years’ experience working in food and health. Over that time she has worked for companies including General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Kerry Foods in Ireland, the UK and Switzerland.

Brought up on a beef, sheep and free range hen farm near Clones, Co. Monaghan, she currently lives a stone’s throw from Kew Gardens where she can often be found getting mentally lost in nature. Her guilty pleasure is binge watching a good TV box-set with a full bodied glass of red wine. 

Want to write a WIN guest blog?

If you are a WIN member and would like to write a guest blog, please get in touch at enquiries@womensirishnetwork.com. If you are not yet a member you can join here.

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