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2021-04-14

Why You Need to Balance Not Boost Your Immune Health

Gut Health Tips • low energy • frequent sick days • For Immune Health

Senior Academic, Nicola Moore explains why sustaining immune health is about balance not boosting.

There is, quite understandably, a strong focus on immunity for all of us at the moment as we continue to live through this global pandemic. It’s not surprising therefore, to read and hear about the importance of ‘boosting’ our immune systems with various quick-fix solutions.

To have robust immune defence mechanisms is something we should all strive for, pandemic or not (it’s vital for longevity), but it does feel especially important in these unprecedented times. To have a keen interest in supporting the immune system offers some security towards remaining fit and healthy and reducing the likelihood of becoming more susceptible to complications from infections, which of course includes COVID-19.

However, I’d argue that boosting is a red herring, and that we’re possibly focusing on the wrong thing. Instead, it might be more beneficial to consider how we optimise an appropriate immune response to infection, or just ensure we’re resilient.

The fact is that the immune system’s response to an infection may well require a degree of ‘boosting’ as part of its initial response, but careful management of this is needed, and ultimately, resolution is what’s required following a cycle of important processes. I prefer to talk about ‘balancing’ the immune system, rather than boosting it, because in understanding this subtle difference there is more opportunity to make ongoing, positive actions each day to stay well.

I prefer to talk about ‘balancing’ the immune system, rather than boosting it, because in understanding this subtle difference there is more opportunity to make ongoing, positive actions each day to stay well.

The different steps required for optimal immune function involve the production of certain inflammatory and anti-inflammatory chemicals, which are often hallmarked by signs and symptoms of illness, for example, a temperature.

A temperature is a good example of an important stage in an immune response, and it should – ideally – be left to manage itself in its own time without too much intervention (obviously this isn’t advised if a temperature goes very high). A moderate temperature that is left to ‘do its thing’ is a very useful immune balancing strategy to adopt, where possible. Its rise, then fall, helps with the important, final ‘signing off’ that resolution brings. It starts with boosting, but you don’t want the boosting to perpetually cycle upward. 

Our gut plays a pivotal role in the communication cycle of an immune response, from activation through to resolution. Researchers are beginning to understand just how important microbes are in both educating our immune cells to work effectively, but also in signalling the all important ‘sign-off’ needed to prevent ongoing, chronic inflammation that may come with lingering symptoms, such as in long COVID.

Ultimately, to help give our immune systems the best chance of being balanced and well equipped to deal with infections in a timely fashion with minimal issues, we can implement simple tools and techniques into our daily lives to help us be more resilient when it comes to infection.

Tips for immune balancing to support resilience

Eat a Mediterranean Diet

This approach to eating, which focuses on enjoying a wide array of local, seasonal foods, rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, nuts, olive oil, herbs and spices has been demonstrated as having a positive effect on balancing inflammatory processes. This is good news for the immune system as a whole.

Make Gut Health a Priority

The diet described above supports a diverse and immunity-friendly gut ecology, but targeting the gut with beneficial bacteria from probiotic foods and supplements may also be beneficial.

Manage Stress

Do this by adopting healthy lifestyle practices, such as regular, sensible exercise or meditation, helps keep levels of the hormone cortisol at appropriate levels. Too much cortisol, which we produce more of under stress, has been shown to interfere with the crucial resolution phase of an immune response.

Prioritise Sleep

This is incredibly helpful for supporting a balanced immune system, most notably because of its impact on melatonin production; an important immune modulator.

Evans S et al (2015) Nat Rev Immunol

Zheng D et al (2020) Cell Research

Yeoh YK et al (2020) Gut

Lahoz et al (2018) Nutrients

Segerstrom SC and Miller GE (2004) Psychol Bull

Carrillo-Vico A et al (2013) Int J Mol Sci

Nicola Moore, Nutritionist

Nicola Moore spent the last 20+ years in the sector of nutrition and lifestyle medicine as a forward-thinking nutritionist and held the role of a senior academic at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) for over 12 years, and overall Head of Clinics for 4 years.