Immunity – lifestyle practices to enhance your defence by Professor Avni Sali


lifestyle practices to enhance your natural line of defence

by Professor Avni Sali
Winter 2015, Living Well Magazine

In the quest for optimal health, a fundamental wellness strategy is the maintenance of a strong immune system. A strong immune system plays an important role in the prevention and treatment of cancer and autoimmune illness, plus typical winter illnesses such as the common cold.

The immune system is a complex composite of tissues, cells and molecules with specialised roles in the defence against infection and cancer. Its complex interrelationship with the psychological, neurological, endocrinological and gastrointestinal systems has provided many medical insights into the nature of disease.

Immune dysfunction may appear as an immune inactivity, such as cancer, or hyper-activity such as asthma or autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Immunity is also linked to recurrent infections such as the common cold.

There are two types of immunity – the innate immune system (non-specific) and the adaptive (acquired) immune system.

The innate system is our body’s first line of defence and includes physical barriers such as the skin.

Adaptive immune responses improve on repeated exposures to a given infection or antigen. An antigen is any substance that causes the immune system to produce antibodies against it, such as chemicals, bacteria, viruses, pollen and bacterial toxins. Immune memory develops with antigen exposure and results in stronger resistance on subsequent exposure. The innate and adaptive immune systems cooperate to remove pathogens and restore balance in the body.

Strategies for better immune health begin with optimising gut flora. We have approximately 100 trillion gut bacteria providing communication between our immune system and the outside world and almost eighty percent of all immune cells are located in our gut.

Gut Flora and the immune system is particularly disturbed by chemotherapy, radiotherapy and antibiotic use, but poor nutrition, ageing, physical and mental stress and poor lifestyle practices are also contributing factors to lowered immunity. A cancer patient with a healthy immune system is more likely to have a better prognosis.

Lifestyle risk factors for immune disorders include:

  • Poor nutritional/dietary intake
    – All micronutrients are important. Deficiencies in vitamins A, C, D, E, B6, B12, folate, zinc, iron and copper will influence our natural immunity levels.
  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor gut bacteria, eg as a result of antibiotics
  • Lack of sunshine – vitamin D deficiency
  • Stress – chronic stress and depression
  • Exercise – too little or too much
  • Obesity or being underweight
  • Chemical sensitivities/exposure and pollutants
  • Medications – especially immuno-supressors and chemotherapy medications
  • Exposure to infections – through poor water and food quality, and poor hygiene, and exposure to bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic infections.

Improving gut bacteria
Daily replenishment of gut bacteria is important for immunity. There are many foods that feed or replenish gut bacteria and inclusion of these in your diet should be a priority. Consume probiotic foods that contain friendly microbes such as in yoghurt with no added sugar, kim chi, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh. It is important to also consume prebiotics which feed the digestive system flora such as: the onion family, honey, artichoke, asparagus, raw oats, soybeans, unrefined wheat and barley, almonds and bananas.

Eat more anti-inflammatory foods such as those with Omega 3 EFA; low-GI foods; antioxidant rich foods (especially those high in vitamins A, C and E); high fibre foods; increase monounsaturated fats (nuts and avocados); restrict sugar intake; more fruit and vegetables; herbs such as garlic, ginger and turmeric; and drink more green tea.

Eat less (or eliminate) pro-inflammatory foods such as those high in sugar, high-GI, high trans fats, saturated fats, and those with excessive salt and refined carbohydrates, as found in most processed and fast foods. Avoid excessive alcohol consumption, dairy foods and food additives such as artificial colours, flavours and preservatives, which can be pro-inflammatory.

Most nutritional deficiencies can be restored with dietary changes and your health professional will be able to guide you. Supplements can be of assistance in some circumstances – effective options include Zinc, which is critical for cell function and in the management of the common cold, cold sores, influenza and acute respiratory infections; Vitamin C, which can reduce the duration of a viral infection such as a cold and improves natural killer cell activities; Echinacea, which studies indicate may be beneficial in the early treatment of the common cold; Astralagus, a traditional Chinese herb used to enhance immunity; and Olive Leaf Extract, which can suppress a number of viruses. Supplements that can enhance immunity can be important for cancer patients.

Making quality sleep a priority
Ensuring regular sleep patterns can enhance immunity. Poor sleep is associated with greater susceptibility to the common cold and most other illnesses. The natural sleep hormone melatonin is immune-modulating, so sleep disruptions have an immediate effect on hormones and the immune system. Not only is poor sleep important as a risk factor for cancer, but it can also influence prognosis in those with cancer.

Increasing Vitamin D levels through prudent sunshine exposure or supplementation
Vitamin D receptors regulate cell growth and decrease the risk of cells becoming malignant.

Managing stress levels
Meditation and the simple act of slowing down, focusing on the breath and even ‘taking a break’ are valuable ways to manage stress and optimise resistance.

Exercising sensibly
Getting the balance right is important. Extreme, prolonged exercise can be taxing on the immune system. Choose activities you enjoy and make sure you spend time outdoors to boost vitamin D. Move your body every day as best practice.

Managing weight
Maintaining your healthy weight range can support immunity and resilience. Avoid fluctuations in weight, but remember even a five percent loss in body fat can be beneficial to health if you are overweight.

Reducing or eliminating pollutants/chemicals
Review the products you use in the kitchen, laundry and bathroom and where possible choose natural chemical-free alternatives. Food can also contain dangerous chemicals: organic food is ideal.

Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy
When undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy, proactive steps to support your immune system are essential, as described previously.

Minimising exposure to infections during times of immune suppression
Practice good hygiene practices through simple actions such as regular hand washing and also avoid contact with infected individuals.

Prof. Avni Sali
Is often referred to as the father of Integrative Medicine in Australia. In 1996 he was the Founding Head of the Graduate School of Integrative Medicine at the Swinburne University in Melbourne. In 2009 he established the not-for-profit, charitable National Institute of Integrative Medicine (NIIM), and became its founding Director. His lifelong work has been the tireless promotion of bringing evidence-based Integrative Medicine into the mainstream medical model – to become the medical paradigm of healthcare. Professor Avni Sali is a long standing board member of The Gawler Cancer Foundation.