Supporting a Healthy Immune System
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Ways to boost immunity has become a hot topic as of late, but unfortunately, there are many factors about our immune system that we do not yet understand. To begin with, the immune system is an incredibly complex system and not a single entity. It is composed of multiple mechanisms throughout our body that recognize and destroy potential invaders like bacteria and viruses. Networks of cells and tissues are programmed to work in concert to properly protect our bodies from illness. There is still much research to be done to understand the details of our unique immune response. This complexity is one possible reason why research has not yet proven that any single lifestyle behavior or habit can directly enhance immune function.
However, that doesn’t mean that lifestyle and immunity are unrelated. Investigations are ongoing to explore the effects of diet, exercise, age, psychological stress, and other factors on the immune response. Although interesting results are emerging, thus far they can only be considered preliminary. As we work toward finding answers, you can give your immune system a head-start by following the healthy-living strategies below.
1. Stay up to date on your immunizations.
Each year thousands of adults suffer from vaccine-preventable illnesses. Staying up to date on the recommended vaccines for your age, health condition, job, and travel habits is a safe and effective way to strengthen your natural defenses. When you receive a vaccine, your immune system learns through the vaccine to recognize a disease-causing virus (mumps or polio are examples), bacteria (meningitis and pneumonia) or toxin (tetanus) and inactivate or kill it. Adults need a seasonal flu shot every year to protect against the three or four most common influenza viruses. Use the CDC’s Adult Vaccine Assessment Tool to see what vaccines are recommended for you.
2. Eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet.
The immune system requires nourishment to function properly. Failure to meet your body’s needs may weaken your immune response and leave you susceptible to illness. This can happen by not enough calories, following restrictive diets, not eating enough nutrient-dense foods, or a combination of all the above. It is important to have a balanced and varied diet because individuals with certain nutrient deficiencies are at a higher risk of becoming ill. Colds, cough, and upper respiratory infections, for instance, are all more commonly reported in adults who have low vitamin D levels compared to people with healthy vitamin D status. Regardless of the dietary pattern you choose to follow, be sure to include plenty of vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and healthy protein sources.
3. Move your body every day.
As the weather gets colder, people tend to stay indoors more and move a bit less than in the warmer months. Even if your motivation to exercise is low, it is important to be active throughout the fall and winter to maintain a healthy immune system. It’s not known exactly how exercise boosts the immune system’s response, but research suggests active adults may be less likely to suffer from certain illnesses such as upper respiratory infections. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Overtraining through long, intensive, excessive exercise sessions may impair immune system function and make it harder to fight off illness. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise program or if you are currently ill.
4. Don’t let stress go unmanaged.
One of the major hormones released during our stress response is cortisol. Small amounts of this hormone are important for immune response and managing inflammation. However, chronic stress resulting in high cortisol levels can lead to ongoing inflammation and impaired functioning of the immune system. Deep breathing, exercise, listening to music, spending time with loved ones, and unplugging from social media are some examples of constructive stress management techniques.
5. Catch plenty of zzz’s.
Poor quality sleep or not sleeping enough can affect your immune system’s ability to fight off bacteria and virus caused illnesses. When you sleep, your body produces and releases proteins called cytokines that are involved in the immune system’s response to infection and inflammation. Poor or inadequate sleep appears to impair cytokine production and worsen our immune functioning. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults sleep seven to nine hours a night. Sleep hygiene, proper exercise, stress management, and a cool, dark bedroom are keys to a good night’s rest.