Updated: Jan 21
Getting ill isn’t just about avoiding the bugs. There are plenty of things we can do to enhance our immune system and stop the little blighters taking a hold. And osteopathy can help.
Why we get ill in winter
Immunity is the protection from infection. When our body comes into contact with pathogens, i.e. a virus, bacteria or foreign body that causes infection, like the common cold, it triggers an immune response that releases antibodies to kill them.
In the winter months our bodies are more susceptible to illnesses like colds and flu viruses. (This year, according to gov.uk we are above the baseline threshold of flu outbreaks, often seen early in the year.) Why is this? Well, flu outbreaks are consistent around the world with cold weather. This is because viruses thrive in less humid conditions. In the winter months, contrary to what you might believe there are less water droplets in the air (as cold air holds less water before falling as rain) so the flu virus can hang around for longer and spread more easily. But, think twice about hanging your wet clothes out to dry (increased humidity means less bugs, right?) as damp air is still worse for asthma and other breathing disorders!
Another reason we get ill in winter is that we also spend more time indoors, so viruses are more likely to spread as we are closer in proximity to each other (not to mention commuting!). Cold weather also makes our mouths and nasal passages drier as the cold air causes blood vessels to constrict, requiring us to produce more secretions to trap pathogens and stop them entering our bodies. So, don’t reach for the tissues straight away... the mucus lining in your nasal passages is a helpful barrier!
A natural response...
Our immune system, our body's natural defence mechanism, is a barrier to pathogens and foreign bodies. There are bacteria in our gut, skin, tears, mouth, ears and nose which help defend against invading pathogens. Various mucous membranes in the body produce mucus which traps pathogens. Mucus in the mouth causes white blood cells to throw out a 'net' to stop harmful bacteria.
Ever wondered why dogs lick their wounds? This instinctive response actually helps the healing process. Saliva contains enzymes that break down bacterial walls and licking stimulates the production of saliva and the activity of white blood cells. The net of defence, the oral mucosa, contains DNA which triggers white blood cells to release proteins to help fight disease. This is why wounds in the mouth heal much faster than wounds on the skin.
How do immune cells get around the body?
A strong immune system requires good circulation of fluid around the body, both via the blood and the lymphatic system (a small network of vessels that syphons excess fluid from your tissues and carries immune cells back to the bloodstream).
The body has two ingenious ‘pumps’ that boost lymphatic and venous circulation around the body, namely the calf pump and diaphragm pump. The calf pump is activated every time we contract our calfs, which happens when we walk, pushing blood in the deep veins upwards towards the heart. The diaphragm pump, on the other hand, is more complex and involves the diaphragm descending when we breathe in, which increases the pressure in the abdomen and pushes lymph upwards into the chest and towards the heart.
So, what is good breathing?
For many people breathing is not as straightforward as you’d think. Shallow breathing that occurs when we're stressed or anxious can lead us to rely too much on the muscles in the neck to hoist up the ribs rather than breathing from the diaphragm. (Have you ever noticed how a child unashamedly lets their tummies hang out when breath whereas adults hold their bellies in - this restricts their diaphragm considerably.)
Poor abdominal (diaphragm) breathing, therefore, can lead to reduced lymph flow and less availability of immune cells. In fact, a large supply of immune cells are situated in the spleen and good diaphragm breathing massages this and pulls them into circulation thus boosting your immune system.
Ok, and how can Osteopathy help this exactly?
Well, many of the techniques osteopaths use directly enhance these pump mechanisms. An osteopath will commonly free up restricted ankle and hip joints helping to release tension in the calf muscles and abdomen which encourages proper flow. They can also work directly on the diaphragm and ribs to improve lymphatic flow back to the heart, as well as giving you breathing exercises to teach you how to best utilise your own natural pumps.
This all sounds great but is there any evidence for this?
Well actually yes. In a series of studies by Hodges et al (2007-12), looking at both animal and human models, they showed that osteopathic lymphatic techniques not only increased lymph flow in the body but also increased the total amount of immune cells circulating at any one time. This was due to the strong effect manual pumping of the diaphragm and spleen had on a (previously unknown) reservoir of immune cells in the spleen. And treatment of animals with pneumonia showed a significant reduction in bacteria after only a few days of treatment. Even more interestingly, these techniques significantly enhanced the effect of antibiotics, suggesting an exciting role for osteopathy in immune-challenged patients.
Top tips to avoid getting ill this winter
So, in order to not get ill this winter, here are some top tips that you can do to boost your natural immune fighting capacity:
Keep exercising even in the coldest winter months: exercise will heighten your immune system because it will get your blood flowing which will speed up lymphatic drainage. Aim for 30mins a day. This can include walking, cycling, swimming, yoga and low impact workouts.
Go outside, where viruses are less likely to spread. It is not the cold weather that makes you ill (just make sure you wrap up warm).
Eat a healthy diet. Key foods high in antioxidants and anti inflammatories include broccoli, turmeric, ginger, spinach, blueberries, oily fish and dark chocolate.
Take vitamin D supplements. The lack of sunshine and the shorter days play a part in vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D helps regulate your immune system.
Eat foods high in vitamin C like red bell peppers, oranges and kiwis. Vitamin C fights free radicals which helps delay and prevent certain cancers and heart disease.
Get enough sleep - during sleep you release protective cytokine proteins which mediate immunity. You should aim for 8 hours’ sleep a night.
Make sure your home is well ventilated. Use dehumidifiers to lessen the viruses that can travel in water droplets.
Visiting an osteopath when you’re feeling run down will also help to get your fluid circulating, helping to make the most of your natural immunity.
Read more on what osteopathy can do for you in one of our previous blogs.