Michael Mosley, the TV medic and creator of the 5:2 Diet, is hoping for an extra special birthday present when he turns 64 next month.
“According to one of the online calculators, I should get my vaccine in March,” he says. “If it comes before my birthday, which is late March, that would be a special present.
“I don’t mind which vaccine I have. I’m delighted my mother, who is 91, and one of my sons, Jack, who is a doctor, have both had theirs.”
Studies show the Covid vaccines are highly effective. But while the majority of people will build immunity in the weeks after they’re inoculated, Dr Mosley says a few easy tweaks to your lifestyle can improve how well and how quickly your body responds to a vaccination.
“The way that any vaccine works is by giving your immune system advance warning that a particular enemy is on the way,” he explains. “The vaccine fools your body into producing antibodies and killer T-cells against a harmless version of the virus. Your body also creates memory cells, cellular factories that are geared up to unleash hell next time they encounter the real virus.
“A properly functioning immune system will ensure that you generate a powerful immune response when you are vaccinated. Our best defence for any virus is a fully active immune system, a complex army of cells there to identify and destroy any potentially dangerous invaders. But to do this effectively the army needs to be in the best possible condition for combat. As we get older our immune system tends to get weaker and less effective.”
So what can you do to keep yours in good shape to help the vaccine do its work?
Relax - and keep your spirits up
According to studies from Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioural Medicine Research at Ohio State University, stress can affect a vaccine’s response. During one study, she and her colleagues vaccinated medical students against hepatitis B. The most stressed took the longest to build up an antibody response.
Similarly, a 2006 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that people who described themselves as cheerful or relaxed produced a 73 per cent greater antibody response to the hepatitis B vaccination than those who described themselves as nervous, tense or angry.
And in older people a positive mood on the day of a flu jab is associated with a higher antibody response to it.
Look after your gut
One way to strengthen your immune system is to bolster your microbiome, which are the microbes that live in your gut, says Dr Mosley. “These microbes are central to our health, our mood, better sleep, allergy prevention, and importantly at the moment - immunity. Along with the gut’s ability to help manage a healthy weight, it’s clear that for long-term health we need to start from the inside.”
One review of studies published in the journal Nutrients in 2017 found that consuming probiotics before being vaccinated nearly doubled the number of people who subsequently developed protective levels of antibodies.
One of the best ways to improve the ‘good’ microbes that live in our guts is through a Mediterranean diet. “The Mediterranean diet is widely seen as the most nutrient-rich diet on the planet, containing lots of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, spices and olive oil, as well as some oily fish, cheese and full-fat yogurt,” says Dr Mosley. Other foods that benefit our microbiome include live yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut or kimchi, and sourdough bread. Green tea, mushrooms, garlic and citrus fruits are probiotic-rich foods which also contain vitamin C - another boost for the immune system.
Take some exercise - and work your arms
“A study from the University of Birmingham a few years ago showed that people who exercised their arms for a few hours before a flu jab developed a stronger immune response,” says Dr Mosley. “It’s not clear why, but I’ll certainly be doing some press-ups and other arm workouts before my jab next month.”
Overall fitness also helps
A study from Saarland University in Germany found that elite athletes showed a more pronounced immune response to flu jabs. Dr Mosley advises taking plenty of short, brisk walks in the lead-up to your jab, as well as after. “One of the most effective ways to get the maximum, immune-boosting benefits is to do something called Active 10. This involves aiming at doing three lots of 10 minutes of brisk walking a day.” You can find more details at nhs.uk/oneyou/active10/home.
Dr Mosley adds: “The greatest benefit comes from occasionally pushing yourself, getting your heart rate up by doing short bursts, no longer than 20 seconds, either while walking, running, swimming or on a bike. With any exercise regime it is important that you do this properly and build up gradually. Check with your doctor first if you have a heart problem or are very inactive.”
Alcohol charity Drinkaware says while there is no published data specific to the Covid-19 vaccination, there is evidence drinking alcohol can interfere with your body’s ability to build immunity in response to vaccines.
Dr Fiona Sim, the charity’s chief medical adviser, says: “We do know that, since the onset of the pandemic last year, between a fifth and a third of people [in the UK] have been drinking more than usual.
“Alcohol impacts on immunity,” agrees Dr Mosley.
Get a good night’s sleep
In a study from the University of California, researchers found healthy volunteers who had the least sleep the night before a flu jab produced the lowest level of antibodies to the flu in the months afterwards.
“As you sleep, your body produces many important components of your immune system, such as antibodies and killer T cells,” explains Dr Mosley, who says sleep acts as an ‘internal handyman’, helping your body to repair itself.
“Think of sleep as your body patching up all of those unfinished DIY jobs around the home, in order of most vital to least. For example, your pituitary gland will help cells grow and repair by secreting more growth hormone.
“If you don’t get enough of that restorative deep sleep, your body will make fewer cytokines - a protein that regulates your immune system. Cytokines help the body fight infection, so if you’re not getting enough sleep you won’t be producing enough of them.”