Connecting Lifestyle and Immunity

Thistle's Health and Wellbeing Manager Ross Grieve on lifestyle and immunity

As a health and wellbeing organisation, it’s not surprising that people are asking for our views on staying safe and well – now more than ever.

We don’t take any expert stances at Thistle. Not even when it comes to recommending lifestyle changes to people for particular effects such as boosting the immune system.

Truth be told, although many of our health and wellbeing practitioners have health professional and other related backgrounds, our way of working places expertise in the hands of people we support. We believe that people are ‘experts’ in their own lives, so we pay particular attention to three things:

In our opinion, this is person-centred working at its best. It’s about recognising each person’s uniqueness and freedom to try things out, take life enhancing risks and learn what works best for them.

We do, of course, share ideas and the knowledge we have gained from the evidence base we have collectively accumulated within our respective professional disciplines. Even so, we do so tentatively. This is for a number of reasons:

Evidence is just that – evidence, not necessarily truth.

Our evidence base, and therefore our advice, is changing all the time.

We also don’t know for sure whether any advice or suggestions we might offer would work for the individual we are working with.

So, how do health and wellbeing practitioners at Thistle respond to questions about whether or not lifestyle changes can prevent us catching viruses such as COVID-19 or help our bodies cope if do become unwell?

The simple answer is we don’t know for sure.

On the one hand, we know – along with everyone else – that our immune systems defend our bodies against harmful things, like viruses and bacteria, protecting us from infections and diseases. And we’re wary of unsubstantiated claims that there are magic pills which “boost” our immune systems.

Alternatively, we acknowledge that there are a lot of indications from research that lifestyle factors can affect how our immune system functions. So, if we are looking for ways to feel more in control of this situation and give ourselves the best chance of staying well, there’s no harm in looking at tightening up the lifestyle skills and habits that our practitioners cover on Thistle’s lifestyle management course.

So, here’s what we believe can help our immune systems.

Reducing risk of exposure

This is the number one lifestyle choice for the foreseeable future . Stay at home and keep washing our hands regularly with soap and water for 20 seconds. We know this can help protect us from developing an infection if we’ve been exposed.


It’s the first lifestyle skill on our course. Improving sleep quantity and quality or learning to manage reduced sleep is vital to our wellbeing. When we sleep, our bodies produce and release cytokines — proteins that target infection and inflammation. Sleep is also thought to improve the functioning of our T cells — a really important type of immune cells. So improving sleep can make our bodies more resilient and might also improve how quickly we recover from sickness.

For adults, the optimal amount of sleep is 7-8 hours of good-quality sleep a night. If you don’t manage to sleep enough, two naps (no longer than 30 minutes each) can help offset the negative effects of sleep loss. Of course, naps aren’t always a feasible option for everyone. Try to find a sleep routine that works for each of us.

Managing Stress

Emotional wellbeing can have a big impact on physical health. In fact, psychoneuroimmunology is the study of the interactions between your central nervous system (CNS) and your immune system. Research shows that managing chronic stress can have a beneficial effect on your immune system. 

Discovering which of the many stress-lowering activities works best on an individual basis is a matter of trial and error. It’s about finding ways to lower or manage stress so that we feel in control of the stress we do feel.

Over time and with practice, we can change how we perceive and respond to stress. As well as getting enough sleep, Thistle’s mindfulness programmes always rate highly from our participants as does being more mobile, moving around a bit more.

Which brings me to…


Regular movement (not being still for long periods of time) is important for the functioning of our immune system. There are a lot of theories about how exercise might support the immune system — but not a lot of consensus on why it is so beneficial. It’s likely to be a combination of complex reasons. There is consensus that it has a positive effect.

Current Government recommendations to stay at home AND go out for one bout of exercise per day testifies to the importance of moving to our overall health. It’s also hoped that it will minimise the long term effects of what will likely be a more sedentary lifestyle over the coming weeks.

Eating well

A healthy and varied wholesome diet is really important when it comes to supporting the functioning of our immune systems. Nutrition is complex and a broad field.

At Thistle, we don’t claim the expertise to advise people on their diet, so this is our approach:

1. We hold the basics in mind — eating well is likely to mean choosing affordable, fibre-rich food, rather than highly-processed food. More whole grains, fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds and pulses, fish, meat and dairy; less sugar and unhealthy fats.

2. And while it’s important to refer to healthy food, we do support people to have a more relaxed and comfortable relationship with food. Rather than think of some food as good/healthy, some as bad/unhealthy, we’d rather support a view that all food is, well, just food, and all foods play an important role in our lives. Some food has an important purpose to help provide the nutrition for our bodies, while others have more of a fitting role for comfort and social occasions and so on.

3. So we try to listen carefully to people’s thoughts on eating and through asking questions, we help people explore and try out ideas and test what works for them, using their bodies as a barometer for what feels right.

4. We support people to explore paying more attention to food, being mindful even and trusting our body’s cues and clues about what it needs in order to develop that more relaxed, comfortable relationship with eating I mentioned earlier.

Reduce Smoking and Alcohol

Finally, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that stopping smoking reduces susceptibility to infection, like colds and flu. Or that drinking moderately (and avoiding binge drinking) prevents the negative effect to our immune function that we see with excessive drinking.

We don’t really cover smoking and drinking in our lifestyle management courses. We prefer to think that people must have good reasons for continuing these things that they know are harmful. Some of us have well-meaning people in our lives telling us what they think we should do. At Thistle, we’re not sure being told what to do is the best way of helping people to make changes.

What we notice is that when people start practising other aspects of lifestyle management — better sleep, reducing stress, moving more, feeling more in control and connected with others — things like eating better, drinking more moderately and changing smoking habits seem to happen with little effort.

I hope this blog prompts more conversations about health and wellbeing at this time which will have a life beyond the current coronavirus outbreak.

Thistle believes that life is for living. And whatever the current constraints on our lives, we still hold to this.

Below, you will find some references that you might like to explore.

Ross Grieve

Health and Wellbeing Manager


Sleep References

Stress References

Movement (Exercise) References

Eating Well Reference

Alcohol References


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