In boosting the effectiveness of our immune system, we might already be practising many of the right habits, but it does not hurt to have a reminder of what we should be doing while learning new information about the immune system.

The four key areas that we should always pay attention to are food, exercise, hormonal balance and nutrition.

This week, we discuss hormonal balance and nutrition.

Balance your hormones

It is easy to forget how hormonal balance can impact your immune system’s response to external attacks.

The thyroid and adrenal glands, two key hormone-producing parts of our internal system, play a big role in many immune system-activating functions.

Imbalances in oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone can also impact immune responses negatively, be it overproduction or low levels of hormones.

Briefly, here’s how different types of hormones help boost the immune system.

The adrenal glands produce hormones that are needed for metabolic function. This includes DHEA, the most prolific hormone that influences the production of oestrogen, testosterone and cortisol.

DHEA levels can drop when you are stressed or tired, causing your white blood cell count to also drop, lowering your immune response.

Thyroid health affects our developmental, cardiovascular and metabolic function, all of which are important to an effective immune system. Low thyroid levels disrupt the body’s response to viruses and slows response to inflammation.

Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels all affect the activity of B-cells and T-cells – lymphocytes that are integral to the disease-fighting mechanism of your immune system.

Low levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone have its consequences, but it should also be noted that an overproduction of each hormone can cause problems like autoimmune diseases.

It’s not easy to fully understand what is happening inside your body, but a few telling symptoms of hormone imbalance include tiredness, low moods and weight gain, amongst others.

Hormonal balance does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. If you suspect hormonal imbalance, seek a doctor’s advice.

Depending on your age, hormone replacement therapy might be recommended, but instead of synthetic hormones, ask him or her about bio-identical hormones – a term for hormones that have the same chemical structure as naturally-occurring hormones.

Get the right amount of nutrients

Good nutrition is essential for a strong immune system, which offers protection from seasonal illnesses such as the flu, and other health problems, including arthritis, allergies, abnormal cell development and cancers.

Help protect yourself against infection and boost your immunity by including the following nutrients in your eating plan.

Protein is part of the body’s defense mechanism. Eat a variety of proteins including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, unsalted nuts and seeds.

Vitamin A helps regulate the immune system and protects against infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory system healthy.

Get this immune-boosting vitamin from foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, eggs or foods labeled “vitamin A fortified” such as milk or cereal.

Vitamin C protects you from infection by stimulating the formation of antibodies and boosting immunity. Include more of this healthy vitamin in your diet with citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, or red bell pepper, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice, or foods fortified with vitamin C, such as some cereals.

Vitamin E works as an antioxidant, neutralises free radicals and may improve immune function.

Include vitamin E in your diet with fortified cereals, sunflower seeds, almonds, vegetable oils (such as sunflower or safflower oil), hazelnuts and peanut butter

Zinc helps the immune system work properly and may help wounds heal. It can be found in lean meat, poultry, seafood, milk, whole grain products, beans, seeds and nuts.

Other nutrients, including vitamin B6, folate, selenium, iron, as well as prebiotics and probiotics, may also influence immune response.

There are herbs and vitamins that you can take to replenish the nutrients in your body that will help strengthen your immune system, e.g. elderberry, green tea, ginseng, Echinacea and vitamin C can be found in their original form or in supplements at the health food store.

Below are a few more nutritious foods that will help boost immunity.

Echinacea is found mainly in the United States and parts of Canada. It stimulates antibodies, reduces inflammation and is used to treat infections in Europe.

Researchers have found that Echinacea lowers the incidence of the common cold by up to 55% and shortens the recovery period for upper respiratory infections. However, it is not advisable to use Echinacea daily for more than eight weeks.

Licorice has phenolic compounds that contain antioxidant activity. One of the compounds is called beta-glycyrrhetinic acid, and it reduces inflammation and allergies.

Licorice root can slow down abnormal cell growth, decrease liver inflammation and encourage macrophage production, helping to reduce stress on the immune system.

Up to 600mg can be taken each day for up to six weeks.

Olive leaf extract contains flavonoids and phenolic compounds that have antioxidant properties.

One of those primary compounds, oleuropein, is found to delay the growth of fungus and bacteria that can damage the immune system. Up to 1,500mg can be taken each day in divided doses.

Astragalus has been around in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It’s a herb that is part of the legume family and protects against infections by activating antibodies like B-cells and T-cells, as well as macrophages that fight bacteria and viruses. About 1,000mg of astragalus can be taken daily.

Shiitake mushroom is used in Chinese medicine for herbal therapy. It can prevent bacterial strains from attacking the immune system and improve its function. Up to 400mg of shiitake mushroom can be taken each day in divided doses.

Vitamin C should be consumed every day to improve the production of lymphocytes.

A body that experiences stress usually falls low on vitamin C, but by replenishing it, your body can stave off symptoms of infection, or shorten the time one might be sick.

Up to 3,000mg of vitamin C can be supplemented each day.

Goldenseal root has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine because of its immune-enhancing properties. It is used to fight bacteria, fungi and parasites.

Goldenseal root improves immune function by increasing the activity of immunoglobulin antibodies. Up to 500mg can be taken daily in divided doses.

Elderberry is rich in antioxidants and flavonoids that activate immunity.

It can increase the production of cytokines to stimulate the immune response and decrease flu symptoms. Up to 1,500mg of elderberry can be taken daily.

Green tea is rich in catechin polyphenols and is a strong antioxidant that stimulates immunity by boosting T-cell production and encouraging macrophage activity.

Green tea also decreases the proliferation of bacterial antigens. Up to 500mg per day can be taken daily.

Grapefruit seed extract, or citrus paradisi, is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. It has been found to inhibit the development of 67 different bacterial strains. The recommended dosage is 100mg to 300mg each day.

Nutrients are your immune regulators and impaired immunity can be enhanced by modest amounts of a combination of micronutrients as supplements.


Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist. For further information, visit www.primanora.com. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.