Immune health concerns? Two essential lifestyle strategies to protect yourself

By The Gut Health Doctor Team

Dr Megan Rossi in a lab looking through a microscope

For many, it’s that time of year again. The evenings are drawing in, the mornings feel darker and there’s a chill in your bones. Your commute is now a chorus of coughs and colleagues, friends and family have started dropping like flies – you’re sure you’re next in line… So what can you do to help avoid those dreaded winter bugs?  

A healthy gut is essential for optimal immune health: around 70% of immune cells can be found in your gut and your gut microbes play an important role in alerting your immune cells what is worth reacting to and what is safe. As you know, fibre and plant-based (not necessarily plants-only) eating can nourish your gut microbiota and help to make you as resilient as possible. But, no amount of immune-nourishing eating can outdo a disastrous lifestyle. 

As we’ve witnessed with so many clients at The Gut Health Clinic, if you’re not sleeping well or your stress levels are through the roof, your health is likely to pay the price with sniffles, coughs and bedridden days.

There are four key pillars your gut needs for optimal function: a diverse diet, movement, sleep and… (take a deep breath)… relaxing. 

We’re going to take a look at stress and sleep to see some savvy ways to keep these in check.

Stress and immune health

While stress in small doses can be helpful in our lives for getting things done, too much can compromise your immune system. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that mental stress increases the risk of respiratory infections, including the common cold. And not only does it make you more susceptible to viruses, but the more stressed you are, the more severe your symptoms may be.

Person hugging a dog to promote immune health

1. Hug your way to health

The physical sensation of touch has been proven to release oxytocin, also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’. Oxytocin acts to ease distress and calm the fight-or-flight system in our body. Try giving yourself a squeeze (or asking a loved one) when you’re feeling stressed.

Person suppressing stress

2. Don’t suppress that stress

Stress will always find a way to make itself heard. Ignoring or suppressing your anxieties will only mean that they find a new way to present themselves, and this is all too often via your gut. Acknowledging and accepting your feelings, either verbally or internally, is paramount in the battle against stress. 

Person writing down things they are grateful for

3. Are you grateful for your gut?

Making a point to focus your attention on the good things in your life can rewire your brain in the long term, create a sense of calm and help make you less responsive to stress. To engender this change, try starting a gratitude diary by writing down 3 things each day that you are grateful for. 

Person focusing on their breathing to reduce stress and promote immune health

4. Give box breathing a go

This is all about activating your ‘rest and digest’ nervous system, also known as the ‘parasympathetic system’. Holding your breath changes the amount of carbon dioxide in your body, which in turn activates this mechanism that calms your body. To do this, breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 4, then breathe out for another 4. Repeat this 10 times and enjoy the wave of calm that washes over you.

Person focusing on carrying out a body scan to reduce stress and protect immune health

5. Body scans: they’re not just for airport security!

Taking five minutes out to perform a body scan can change the course of your day.  This mindfulness practice is a quick and effective way to de-stress and unwind wherever you are. In a relaxed, seated position, simply close your eyes and imagine a gentle flow of warm liquid light trickling down from above your head, through your body, and filling you up from your toes. Visualise the calming liquid filling up each individual part of your body until it reaches the top of your head. If you wish to, let it overflow, covering your skin with a warming touch. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and reflect on how you feel. 

Person carrying out self-care activities such as getting a bath

6. Self-care is a necessity and NOT a luxury

Doing something you enjoy and making time to relax is well worth the time investment. Taking a few minutes out of your day to unwind could save you days spent sick in bed down the line – so don’t feel guilty about prioritising some ‘you’ time! Something as simple as taking a walk in the woods (‘forest bathing’) can help lower stress levels and give your immune health a helping hand.

Sleep and immune health

One of the most under-rated free health resources at your disposal is sleep. When we are exposed to viruses our body increases the production of certain types of proteins known as cytokines. These are responsible for regulating your immune system and, in turn, fighting infections. If you don’t get enough sleep then you miss out on a lot of this happening. Researchers in the US found that those who had less than seven hours sleep on average per night were three times more likely to develop a cold over the following five days compared with those who slept eight hours or more. 

My King’s College London colleagues Dr Haya Al Khatib and Dr Wendy Hall identified sleep-hygiene tweaks that were found to significantly improve not just sleep duration but sleep quality in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Person being consistent with sleep schedule to promote immune health

1. Consistency is key

Consistently maintaining the same sleep and wake times every day (give or take 30 minutes) can optimise the functioning of both your body clock and your gut microbes’ body clock, so that they are functioning at their best.

Alarm clock used to set aside time to express worries or concerns

2. Get it all out

Schedule worry time. We often struggle to fall asleep or find ourselves waking in the early hours if we’re worried about something. Although it may sound counterintuitive, deciding to allow yourself ten minutes, a few hours before bed, to jot down your anxieties, worries and write some to-do lists can create the mental space necessary for relaxation before sleep.

Room set as dark and quiet for better sleep to promote immune health

3. Peace and quiet

Transforming your bedroom into a tranquil, dark oasis (I’ve even invested in ear plugs and an eye mask) and maintaining a comfortably cool temperature (around 16C-18C) can work wonders. As you drift into a deep slumber, your body temperature naturally cools, so keeping things on the cooler side ensures a restful night’s sleep.

Person avoiding digital devices prior to bedtime

4. Digital detox

Avoid using laptops, phones and other gadgets at least an hour before bedtime, or consider installing blue-light filter apps on your devices. Blue light from backlit screens is particularly disruptive to your body’s clock as it counteracts your ability to produce melatonin, a crucial hormone for sleep.

Person getting morning sunlight

5. Morning sunlight

Whether it’s going for a five-minute walk, or doing some stretching in your backyard, exposure to natural light first thing in the morning helps support and reset your body clock.

Having caffeine in the morning

6. Keep caffeine to AM

Limit caffeine (which don’t forget is found in green tea, dark chocolate, and even some cold and flu medications) after lunchtime. It can take up to five hours for just half the caffeine in your system to be cleared, making it challenging for your body to unwind as you head into the evening.

Illustration of a women with arrows connecting the gut and the brain


There are powerful relationships between stress, sleep, eating and your gut.

Sleep deprivation can increase stress hormones in your body, which may explain why insufficient sleep is linked to worsened gut symptoms, particularly in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Moreover, when you’re tired, you may find yourself not only likely to eat more, but also being drawn to the types of food which do nothing to support your gut microbes – which are also sleep deprived.

We can’t stress this enough: if you’re stressed, your immune system is likely to pay the price. Keeping your gut healthy is undoubtedly the best, science-backed way to defend your body. In fact, a study at the University of Bristol found that an 8-week stress management programme improved the response to the influenza vaccine. 

Equally, getting stressed about your gut health is counter intuitive so, while following these simple hacks will help, you can always talk to one of our specialist registered dietitians at The Gut Health Clinic  if you need personalised support for your immune health.


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