Immune function

Riaan van der Walt

BSc Sport Science, BHons Sport Science

Now there is a phrase that we have all heard a thousand times recently and most of us use from time to time…but ask yourself: Do you know what it is? Most of us don’t, and certainly most of us aren’t sure what truly does make it better and what truly does make it worse. With COVID raging throughout the world and Vaccine production and distribution being a slow process, this really is one of those parts of science that we should all be better acquainted let’s get to it!

What Is Immune Function:

In short, your immune function is a collection of cells (some yours and some not) and substances (some you make and some you have to get) all of which group together to prevent and fight infections and cancer….thats right, Cancer. So the same system in your body that prevents the flu, prevents cancer. With this in mind:

How Do I make It Better:


Food really does sit at the top of the list on this issue. We have 3 internal layers of defence that stop bacteria, viruses and the like from making their into cells to do their own bidding. All 3 of these layers rely on our diet and almost nothing else to get the building blocks needed to make the defences.

The food that gives us health benefit across the board is Whole Food, and improving our immune function is one of the most potent ways that this happens. Apart from dropping processed food, there are other important rules to follow here. Eat more brightly coloured fruit and veg, it has more of the good stuff like vitamins and minerals that forms part of those 3 layers. Make space in your diet for healthier food by dropping some starch. Finally apart from dropping your salt intake, spice and flavour your food as much as possible with real spices and herbs, turmeric, ginger, chilli etc. These are particularly rich in antioxidants, that also form part of the 3 layers.

Dont Smoke:

There is no other way to say it, smoking is the worst thing for your immune system. If you can make this change, you have improved your health more than any other choice you could make. The ways that smoking wrecks your immune system are many and complicated, but one the top of the page is the fact that smoking destroys vitamins, undoing all that good food effort you made.

Because of this and the direct damage that smoking does, it kills 8 million people per year…every year. Let that number soak in a little…at present day, the COVID Pandemic has claimed a touch over 2,4 million lives in about a year. Now, that is terrible! but compared to what smoking does every year? We have to face this issue soberly, if you smoke, you can’t be serious about your health until you quit. No other choice kills or diseases more people…

Cut Down On Alcohol:

Now, I know that it is starting to look like I am making a list of how to be boring here…but there are real reasons to rethink alcohol. Apart from it doing a great deal of damage like liver disease, car accidents, abuse… and also causing more death annually than COVID has managed, alcohol lowers your immune function. Most of us are aware of this, having overdone it at a wedding or a birthday and a hangover miraculously turns into a week of flu. Well, now just isn’t a time to be taking that risk!


This is a counter-intuitive point for most people, because it is true that extreme exercise lowers your immune function enough to cause infections like flu…but regular, moderate exercise that we should all be doing is just the type of stress that our immune systems need as an incentive to stay alert. You may have heard the term Anti-Fragile…it describes something that grows in strength when it encounters a challenge. The immune function is just such a thing.

Live Clean, Not Sterile:

Continuing the explanation of Anti-Fragility, the strongest immune systems are those that have encountered many pathogens (little nasties trying to infect you) and built immunity to them. It is also worth noting that your immune system’s strength is perishable and needs to keep being challenged or it weakens. So bizarrely, dropping the number of bacteria and other things that live on and in us too much, is a way that we get sick more often! So when it comes to food prep areas and toilet areas, sterile is good. When it comes to you, your children and the world around you, clean is good, but sterile is bad. A good rule to follow here is soap is good, antibacterial soap is not actually wise in the long run…

I want to be clear that this rule does not apply right now. We are in the middle of a pandemic. That means that we need to reduce the risk of spreading a very contagious and dangerous pathogen with masks, sanitisers, social distancing etc…but post COVID, it would be bad for your health to not return to hugging, shaking hands, normal soap etc.

Have The Flu Jab:

And along the same thread of Anti-Fragility, we have learnt the most amazing trick of showing our immune systems weakened or dead versions of a pathogen and still it responds by growing in strength to that pathogen…thats what a vaccine is. Now, I know that whenever you talk about vaccines, especially in context of COVID, it seems like an opinion amongst many others. But the facts are this: The flu jab lowers your risk of getting flu…alot. That isn’t debatable. It also can’t give you flu…but it does take a week or 2 to take effect. So someone who gets the jab and gets flu say 5 days later believes that the jab has caused flu. It is also true that the flu jab doesn’t work 100% of the time. It gives your immune system a “first look” at the likely strains that are going around that year, but you can still get a less likely strain of flu.

There are a few other choices that matter like being lean, sleep health and more…so the truth is that our own choices govern our risks far more in this area than we like to admit! With this in mind, choose one thing to change from the above list and make a serious change to your health and risks when it comes to COVID!

I wish you the best in your health.

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