Susannah Taylor: The secrets of immunity

I don’t know about you, but when lockdown began, I was flooded with messages on how to avoid catching Covid-19 – from ‘Drink water every 15 minutes as the virus can’t survive in your stomach’ to (my favourite) ‘Blast your mouth and throat with a hair dryer to kill the virus’. Of course, this all turned out to be rubbish. It is this kind of pseudoscience that frustrates immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi PHD, author of Immunity: The Science of Staying Well. On a mission to educate us in our fight against illness, I asked her what we can do that is proven to work to help stay well this winter.

vegetables in a basket
Your gut will benefit from a weekly intake of 30 different varieties of fruit, veg, herbs and spice. Image: Claudia Totir/Getty Images

First up, don’t even try to ‘boost’ your immune system. It’s a myth that we can, says Jenna, or even should: ‘You don’t want your body to have an extreme response as it could make you very ill.’ Instead, she stresses, ‘what you should aim for is a balanced immune system’.

Get moving! Exercise and avoiding being sedentary for long spells are key to our wellbeing as our lymphatic system (which carries infection-fighting white blood cells) needs our movement to work. ‘Even a lunchtime walk is important,’ says Jenna. However, use common sense, she adds, as overexercising and not eating enough fuel may put your immune system at risk.

Maintain your muscle mass. Muscle is immunologically active tissue, says Jenna, but as we age it shrinks, which can affect our immune system. To maintain or even build muscle the key is to do resistance work as well as regular cardio exercise.

Pop vitamin D3 daily. Forget what the wellbeing brands say, you don’t need a daily cocktail of vitamins. However, vitamin D3, ‘which helps our first line of defence to kick in’, is vital, especially in the UK where we don’t get much sunlight, our primary source of D3.

As for vitamin C… Chances are you’re getting enough of this goodie since it is in so many foods. However, Jenna says: ‘Evidence suggests that if you take it when you first start feeling ill, it can cut the length of an infection.’ A note to over-zealous pill-poppers: ‘If you’re not deficient in a vitamin, taking extra won’t make any difference.’

Say yes to oily fish. Why? ‘Because eating at least two portions of oily fish a week or taking an omega-3 supplement will help resolve inflammation and regulate the immune response.’

Drink enough water. ‘This will help your lymphatic fluid be the right consistency and keep the mucous lining of our eyes and nose moist for trapping pathogens [viruses].’

Cut back on booze. And not just because of hangovers! Alcohol isn’t good for our immune system. ‘It can damage the flora in our gut and reduce our ability to produce immune cells,’ says Jenna.

Be good to your gut. ‘This is the most important point of all as its microbiome produces metabolites, which go into our bloodstream and regulate our immune system.’ To ensure it can do its job, eat a variety of plant foods – around 30 a week. Think fruit and veg, plus herbs, spices, nuts and seeds.

Use your superpower: sleep! ‘At night our bodies produce immune cells and melatonin, which is anti-inflammatory,’ says Jenna, so getting enough zzzs is vital to ward off illness. ‘In fact, a bad night’s sleep can cut immunity by 65 per cent, making us more prone to infection.’

Destress to stay well. ‘Despite what many think, stress isn’t just psychological,’ says Jenna. ‘It can cause neurotransmitters to switch off our immune systems, leaving us open to infection.’

Instagram Live tonight on 18 October at 6pm: catch Susannah interviewing Dr Jenna Macciochi about immunity and staying well. Go to and click on stories.

Breakfast with benefits

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Cringe-free intimate care

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