It all starts with good gut health, says nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson
Our immune system is amazing. It has to be constantly on the lookout for pathogens in the body and, at the drop of a hat, identify and respond to any of the countless enemy microbes that might be trying to invade. What’s really clever is the way it distinguishes between what’s good and what’s bad in our system, killing what doesn’t belong and leaving what does.
While everyone will experience some degree of reduced immune function as we age, it’s possible that women suffer slightly more because of the hormonal changes that occur around perimenopause. In the run-up to menopause, women have plenty of oestrogen, progesterone, and DHEA (the hormone responsible for creating other sex hormones) which help to support immune function, but as these hormones decline, we lose this protective boost.
How does menopause impact the immune system?
There are lots of menopause ailments that can weaken the immune system if we’re not careful. For example, getting enough quality deep sleep is essential for a strong immune system, but menopause often brings insomnia and night sweats, which can prevent women from getting enough rest.
Lethargy and fatigue can stop women exercising and may mean we don’t eat enough nutritious food to keep the immune system strong. Low libido can stop us having an active sex life, which robs us of the immune boost that sexual activity brings.
On top of all that, dealing with common symptoms such as hair loss, mood changes, bloating and hot flushes can be stressful, and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been proven to weaken immune response. So, it’s crucial that we prioritise immune health, especially in these colder months.
What’s the gut got to do with it?
The place to start this process is in your gut. If you want to strengthen your immunity, caring for your gut is paramount. The gut walls house the cells that make up your immune system, so any help you can give will make a world of difference to your general health.
21 ways to support immunity around the time of menopause
- Probiotics can be a huge aid to maintaining gut health. They can help to balance good and bad bugs, and prevent any overgrowth of harmful. Research has shown the potential for probiotics to improve intestinal conditions such as diarrhoea, IBS and ulcerative colitis. Probiotics may also improve digestion as they can break down fibres that might otherwise cause gas or bloating.
- Eat pre- and probiotic foods to support the gut microbiome. Fermented foods such as kombucha, sauerkraut and kefir are great for the gut and reduce inflammation. Include kimchi, miso, tempeh (fermented organic soy), coconut yoghurt, garlic, onions, leeks and banana flour in your diet.
- Take supplements: vitamin D3, magnesium and B12 are a must.
- Follow an anti–inflammatoryand anti-oxidant–rich diet.
- Include healthy fats in the diet for hormonal balance. Your body needs these now more than ever:this is not the time to be skipping lunch and reaching for the ‘low–cal’ sugary granola bar.
- Look after your adrenals. Say no when you need to and rest when your body feels pushed.
- Eat protein at each meal. Three servings per week of good–quality fish for omega 3 is also recommended.
- Include phytoestrogens in the diet such as legumes, beans, flaxseed andtempeh. These foods can have mild oestrogenic And take 1-2 tbsp flaxseed daily.
- Fibre is important to help the bowel eliminate toxins: up your veggies – sneak them in at every meal. Try a handful of spinach in your smoothie or with your eggs; a side of steamed broccoli/roasted courgettes at supper; swap your wholemeal pasta for pea pasta (extra vitamin C and greens).
- Minimise alcohol and coffee intake – these are stimulants as well as inflammatories. You can replace these with non-alcoholic alternatives.
- Cut back on refined sugars– it’s important to keep blood sugar stable.
- Use hormone–balancing herbs and adaptogens daily. My recommendationsare: organic raw maca powder, rhodiola, St John’s wort, lemon balm, red clover, ginseng, chaste tree, ashwagandha and shatavari. These can help with irritability, moodiness, destressing, sleeplessness, hot flushes and night sweats.
- Take more down time– at least 30 minutes a day of rest that’s away from your phone or computer. And try restorative exercise such as yoga.
- Increase your intake of water to 5-2 litres a day.
- Fifteen minutes of daily sun exposure is necessary for your vitamin D – it lowers the risk of osteoporosis and supports the ageing process.
- Limit toxins in the home (plug–in air fresheners, furniture polishand hair spray): these can be hormone disruptors.
- Try foreight hours’ sleep a night in a dark room, with no artificial light.
- Stay hydrated with herbal teas. Peppermint, dandelion and fennel are all soothing for the gut and boost immunity at the same time.
- Chew well: this is the first step in the digestive. When we chew, saliva coats the food and sends signals to the brain to prepare for digestion. Once the food enters the stomach, hydrochloric acid and enzymes work to break it down into small particles, which travel to the small intestine, from where nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.
- Do your best to eliminate stress.When released into the body, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can wreak havoc and cause the digestive system to shut down.
- Finally, eat well. I cannot emphasise this enough. Eat wholefoods, avoid processed packaged foods and refined sugars, and stick to lean, organic proteins, healthy fats, plenty of greens, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds and pulses.
Rosemary Ferguson is a nutritionist: rosemaryferguson.co.uk