May 28, 2024

Eating loads of foods that will help boost your immunity is one way to avoid illness this winter but there are other steps you can take to stay well over the colder months.

Get more sleep
Research has proven there is a connection between our sleep and our immune systems. When we are ill and our immune system is not working like it should, it can affect our ability to sleep. Likewise, lack of sleep can throw off the immune system. Consistent sleep patterns on the other hand strengthens the immune system, ensuring it’s is more effective. If you are struggling to maintain healthy sleep patterns, check our Tips on how to get better sleep.

Reduce feelings of stress
Stress raises your cortisol levels, and if they stay high for an extended period, this can weaken your immune system. Stress can also damage your body's own cells and even trigger responses from your immune system, including elevating inflammation, which can make you more susceptible to viruses and infections.

Think about activities that help you feel calmer in stressful times – it might be breathing exercises, going for a walk or taking part in sport, a phone call or coffee with a friend, sipping a cup of herbal tea, having a massage, reading a book or watching your favourite TV show.

Your adrenal glands produce hormones that help control your stress response so it can be helpful to support your adrenals with herbs – withania (also known as ashwaganda or winter cherry) is one of the best herbs for this purpose but liquorice and rhodiola are also good.

Most health shops will be able to sell you an over-the-counter adrenal support supplement.

Regular physical activity plays a role in keeping you healthy and preventing sickness. Exercise can stimulate cellular immunity by increasing the circulation of immune cells in your body. Also, raising your body temperature during and after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing and help your system fight infection. It can also improve your sleep and reduce stress. Moderate intensity exercise for 60 minutes or less every day is best for boosting your immunity. Prolonged high intensity exercise can, in fact, supress your immune system so if you are training for an endurance event, make sure you give your body plenty of rest and recovery time between sessions. Listen to your body – if you are feeling sick or very tired, it’s probably better to take a break from exercising. A handy rule to follow is that if you go for a short walk and you feel fatigued, you shouldn’t be exercising. If you go for a short walk and you feel energised and get some much needed vitamin D, keep going but don’t overdo it.

Avoid excess alcohol
Drinking too much doesn’t just affect your liver – it can significantly impact your immune system, limiting the body’s ability to fight off infection or disease. Our lungs are particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol – it impacts the cells in our airways reducing their ability to remove mucus from the lungs. The Ministry of Health says there is no amount of alcohol that is considered safe but you can reduce your risk by sticking to the recommended limits. For women this is no more than two standard drinks per day (and no more than 10 per week) and have at least two alcohol-free days per week). For men this is no more than three standard drinks per day (and no more than 15 per week and at least two alcohol-free days per week).

Wash your hands regularly
Given events of the past few years, the message about the importance of handwashing should be ingrained. The reason it’s essential is that washing our hands with soap removes germs. This helps prevent infection because we constantly touch our eyes, nose and mouth without even realising. Also removing germs from our hands stops us transmitting them to other surfaces such as handrails, handles or household surfaces where they can make someone else sick.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about getting vaccinated
Vaccination is the best way to prevent infection and reduce the seriousness of illness if you become infected.

In New Zealand the influenza immunisation programme for 2024 runs from 2 April to 31 December. The flu can cause serious illness, especially in young children, older adults and people with chronic health problems, but anyone can become seriously ill from the flu virus. You are more likely to get the flu in the winter months. Being vaccinated causes your body to produce antibodies against the flu virus. This means your body can respond faster and more effectively to the flu when it's exposed to the virus.

Medsafe approved Pfizer's Comirnaty brand vaccine to combat newer strains of COVID-19 at the start of the year and it’s been available in New Zealand since the beginning of March. COVID-19 vaccines are free for everyone aged five and over and Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand recommends adults over 30 have an additional vaccination at least six months after their last COVID-19 vaccine — it is also recommended you wait six months after your last COVID-19 illness to get additional doses.

There might be valid reasons you can’t or don’t want to be vaccinated but it doesn’t hurt to discuss your options and concerns with a health professional. And if you just haven’t gotten around to getting your jabs, contact your local pharmacy. Many of them are offering vaccinations now and you can even get the flu vaccine and a Covid booster on the same day. Book through the bookmyvaccine website.

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