The Menopause Exchange Blog

NUTRITION AND IMMUNITY

Following the outbreak of Covid-19 across the globe, the media (both print and online) has been awash with ways to boost our immunity. Ranging from garlic and lemons, to alkaline foods and cleansing, suggestions range from the everyday to downright bizarre. Could what you eat influence your immunity? Here’s what you can do, both during and after the menopause, to help maintain great health.

This article was included in issue 86 (autumn 2020) of The Menopause Exchange newsletter.

Does the menopause affect my immunity?
There’s a general decline in men and women’s immune function as they get older. It’s been suggested that women are ‘immune privileged’, protected by their female hormones before the menopause, and that this advantage is lost during the menopause, putting them back on a similar footing to men. Could HRT help to stave off a menopause-related drop in immunity? Healthcare professionals don’t really know. More research is needed, but it’s unlikely that HRT will ever be prescribed for any reason other than to treat menopausal symptoms.

Can diet help to protect me from catching Covid-19?
No, it can’t. Only good hygiene, face masks and social distancing can do this. No foods or supplements can protect you from getting the coronavirus or any other infection. Your immune system is one of the most complex body systems. A wide range of nutrients help it to work normally, including vitamins A, folate, B6, B12, C and D and minerals iron, copper, selenium and zinc. No single food is recommended over another, just a varied balanced diet. Eating anything to excess or taking high-dose supplements can affect the delicate balance between different vitamins and minerals and make your body more prone to disease and infection.

What can I do?
Eat a healthy balanced diet, alongside living a healthy lifestyle (plenty of exercise and sleep, moderating alcohol, quitting smoking etc.). These will all help your immune system to work well, meaning you’re more likely to be able to deal with Covid-19 or any other infection.

The many vitamins and minerals essential for your immune system are found in a wide variety of foods, such as lean meats, fish, vegetables, wholegrain cereal foods and fruit. Eat the widest variety of foods you can, and try to include plenty of plant-based foods. This means eating wholegrains (wholemeal breads, high-fibre breakfast cereals, brown rice etc.), aiming for a rainbow of different colours of fruits and vegetables, and including beans, peas and pulses and dishes made from these, such as hummus, salads, tofu etc. several times each week. Plant-based foods provide antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and also fibre. Fibre gives your gut bacteria a boost; these are also an essential part of your everyday immunity.

You may have been tempted to indulge a little more during lockdown, which is understandable, but this may not have had the best effect on your waistline. Start each day with breakfast. Try to opt for higher-fibre foods (wholemeal or rye bread, bran cereal or a cereal with 6g of fibre or more per 100g) as these will keep you feeling fuller for longer and help to avoid the mid-morning dip that follows a sugary breakfast.

Remember to include two different vegetables or a mixture of salad vegetables with both lunch and your evening meal. Make fruit a larger part of desserts (fresh, frozen or canned in juice) and cut down on the toppings, such as crumble, pastry or cream. If you want snacks, plan something healthy (fruit, a thin slice of malt loaf or two oatcakes with low fat cheese), and limit more indulgent sugary, fatty and salty foods to occasional treats rather than every day. The pleasure gained from indulging is likely to be short lived, and other activities will have far longer-lasting mood-lifting effects, such as a 10-minute brisk walk, a bout of gardening, listening to a rousing piece of music or spending time on a favourite hobby.

Should I take supplements?
The supplement that you should consider is vitamin D. Everyone in the UK is advised to consider taking 10 mcg (400 IU) of vitamin D3 daily, particularly during the winter months. If you’re from a BAME community, you should take this all year round. This advice is particularly important if you’re shielding or self-isolating and not getting out for walks or exercise. Intakes of vitamin D from foods is poor, and deficiency is widespread in the UK. As vitamin D is needed for normal immune function, the recommendation to take a supplement should be taken seriously by everyone. If you’re vegan, consider taking vitamin B12 daily, and if you’re dairy-free check that any plant alternatives have added calcium and include these in your diet regularly.

What about body weight?
Being overweight doesn’t increase your risk of catching Covid-19 – that’s all down to good hygiene and social distancing. But it does affect the chances of you having more severe symptoms. It’s hard to lose weight, and even harder to keep it off. The increased amount of time spent at home recently has made this even harder still. Losing weight can bring huge health benefits, so the momentum to take action has never been stronger. If you have a smartphone, download the new free NHS app – Better Health – which is a 12-week weight loss programme. Or your GP surgery will be able to refer you to a local group or weight loss service.

Does being active really matter?
Yes! Researchers from the COVID-19 Symptom Study at Kings College London highlight the fact that physical activity can positively impact your immune system in a relatively short space of time. If you don’t already have a keep-fit regime, it’s worth starting one. It doesn’t have to be intense, as studies have shown that bouts of moderate activities such as walking, jogging or cycling can benefit your immune system. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity every day.

References

Ghosh M et al (2014) The Immune System in Menopause: Pros and Cons of Hormone Therapy. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 0: 171–175. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2013.09.003

Giefing-Kroll et al. Sex and age affect immune responses, susceptibility to infections and response to vaccination. Aging Cell (2015) 14; 309-321

Arshad M S et al (2020) Coronavirus disease (COVID‐19) and immunity booster green foods: A mini review. Food Science & Nutrition DOI: 10.1002/fsn3.1719

Covid Symptoms Study Website: https://covid.joinzoe.com/us-post/covid-exercise-immunity

About the author
Angie Jefferson (www.angiejefferson.co.uk)is a registered dietitian with a special interest in women’s health. She believes in helping women make small positive diet and lifestyle changes to deliver bigger health benefits.

Created Autumn 2020 

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