There are very few things in the world worse than being stuck in bed because you’re sick. The CDC estimates that seasonal influenza caused U.S. employees to miss approximately 17 million workdays. That’s a staggering $7 billion in sick days and lost productivity! For some people, the symptoms of the common cold seems to linger for weeks. While other people never get sick. All things being equal, the difference usually comes down to a strong immune system.
Once a virus enters your system, your body goes into defense mode, with your immune system in the front line. What’s amazing is that, unless something is wrong with your body’s system of defense, you don’t notice it working day and night to keep you safe. It has evolved over many years to protect you and keep you strong and healthy, which is a rather comforting feeling. Beyond gratitude, there are things you can do to help boost your immune system. After all, as strong as he was, Batman wouldn’t be able to save Gotham City without the help of Robin.
The Human Immune System
The Immune System is very complex and essential in maintaining health. Its main tasks are to neutralize pathogenic microorganisms like bacteria that enter the body and threaten its normal homeostasis, eliminate harmful substances from the environment, and fight against the body’s own cells that rebel and cause illnesses like cancer.
Your body’s defense system consists of the innate and adaptive immune processes. Elements of the innate system include exterior defenses, such as the skin, serum proteins, and phagocytic leukocytes. Any pathogenic organisms that manage to escape the first line of defense, come face to face with the adaptive system, which is made up of T and B cells. The adaptive immune system serves as a learned defense, constantly adapting and evolving in order to be able to identify changes in pathogens that, too, change over time. It’s an evolutionary arms race between host and pathogen. Together, the innate and adaptive systems work closely to provide a formidable resistance to any long-term survival of infectious agents in the body.
Mighty as it may be on its own, there are simple adjustments you can do in your everyday life to help strengthen and boost this magnificent, genius system that’s working to keep you safe.
Ways to boost your immune system
1. Quit Smoking
You don’t need anyone to tell you that smoking is bad for your health. Smoking impairs the immune system and is associated with a long list of cardiovascular, autoimmune, respiratory and neurological diseases. The list of common symptoms of tobacco-related diseases includes shortness of breath, persistent cough, and frequent colds or upper respiratory infections.
Specifically, the substances you ingest while smoking a cigarette have a direct effect on both the innate and adaptive immunity, suppressing the normal development and function of the cells that are responsible for driving immunity in the body. Nicotine, in particular, has been shown to be a potent immunosuppressive agent by affecting the immunosurveillance properties of dendritic cells, highly-specialized cells of the immune system.
Imagine this; your body fights for your survival every single day of your life, and in the meantime, you can be counteracting these efforts every time you decide to smoke. Is that cigarette worth your health?
2. Drink Alcohol in Moderation
Alcohol is often associated with celebrations and anniversaries, but if you abuse it, your immune system suffers. Alcohol consumption is a contributing factor to organ damage, specifically the liver, and is known to slow down recovery from tissue injuries. The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” defines moderate drinking as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. Alcohol intake exceeding the recommended intake disrupts essential immune pathways and, in turn, impairs the body’s ability to defend itself against infections.
It is worth stating that alcohol-related immune system disturbances have been implicated in the development of certain types of cancer, including but not limited to head and neck cancers among alcohol users. Before you start thinking that this is a problem isolated to chronic alcohol users, keep in mind that acute binge drinking, also known as a Saturday night, has the ability to severely impair the body’s defense system.
3. Keep the Stress Away
Chronic stress is like poison for your body; it has a negative impact on every aspect of your health, and it’s even more dangerous due to its ability to creep up without you consciously acknowledging it. One of the many systems responsible in the body for handling difficult situations is the immune system. Specifically, cells of the immune systems are equipped with receptors that recognize stress hormones, such as cortisol.
Even acute stress can mess up your immune system by increasing the release of inflammatory-promoting cytokines in the blood, a special type of immune cell that signals other cells and affect their function. Stress, immunity, and disease can affect each other in reciprocal ways, but these relationships can be moderated by life stage, other environmental pressures and goals, stressor duration, and protective factors, such as good sleep. Make sure you have a healthy strategy to help you relieve the symptoms of stress like exercising or spending time with friends and family.
4. Get More Sleep
Speaking of sleep, it is a strong regulator of immunological processes and works to enhance the memory of the adaptive immune system. When you deprive your body of adequate sleep, you simultaneously make it more susceptible to many infectious agents. Sleep deprivation not only makes you more susceptible to infections like the common cold or the flu, but it also makes it so much harder to recover from the bacteria or virus infection that eventually manages to enter your system.
While you are sleeping every night, your body uses this time to strengthen the immune system and move T cells to the lymph nodes, the vessels of the immune system responsible for filtering harmful substances. These T cells produce cytokines which are called to action when there is inflammation in your body or when you’re under stress. During periods of inadequate sleep, cytokine production is diminished, further hurting your immune system. So feel free to hit that snooze button, and in case you come down with the flu, feel free to hibernate for a few days.
5. Exercise Regularly – But Don’t Skip Rest Days
Most people have a love-hate relationship with exercise. This particular argument will only add to your love towards exercise. Studies have proved that regular physical activity may enhance the immune system and provide protection against infection.
Furthermore, regular resistance exercise increases your muscle mass, which acts as a protein reserve when the immune system is working to stave off disease. Simply put, the more muscle mass you build through a healthy diet and regular exercise, the more equipped your body is to fight off infection and keep you strong and healthy. Conversely, getting rid of bacteria or virus infection will be a lot harder if you have been neglecting the gym.
But don’t forget to take your workouts outside. Exercising outside is a great way to both destress and reap the benefits of Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to an increased susceptibility to infection, so when the weather permits try to go outside and enjoy the sun.
Unfortunately, no one can stay young forever, and as the body ages, its natural defenses begin to waiver. The good news is that regular physical activity in the elderly may counteract the actions of time and boost the immune system so that it can protect the body from infection and disease.
Nonetheless, like everything else in life, too much of a good thing can be bad. Being a couch potato suppresses the immune system, but the opposite extreme can be equally detrimental. Repeated bouts of strenuous exercise, also known as overtraining syndrome, can lead to symptoms like immune dysfunction, so make sure to maintain a healthy balance between regular physical activity and exhaustion.
6. Eat Enough Nutritious Foods
Every system in the body requires energy to function properly. This energy is provided by food sources in the form of calories. Indeed, insufficient intake of calories may lead to micronutrient deficiencies and suppress the immune system and its vital functions. In fact, malnutrition is the most prevalent cause of immunodeficiency around the world.
Food is powerful; it has the potential to make or break every chemical pathway in the body that sustains you. Because of that, it makes sense that the healthier your food choices are, the stronger your immune system and, subsequently, your health will be.
Certain nutrient deficiencies have the potential to alter immune responses and damage the way your immune response to infections. Vitamins and nutrients with antioxidant properties can provide protection against free radicals. Adding an abundance of foods high in naturally occurring antioxidants like citrus fruits in your diet is the key to maintaining a healthy immune system. Exposure to environmental conditions such as UV light, cigarette smoke can ultimately take its toll on the immune system and drive the production of free radicals in the body. Antioxidants fight the free radicals and restore the structural integrity of cells and membranes in the body. Examples of such antioxidants include zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamin C, A, and E. Foods high in vitamin C, A, and E, in particular, may also increase the activation of cells involved in tumor immunity.
Plant-derived bioactive compounds, known as phytonutrients, also play an important role in strengthening the immune system. Polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavonoids, carotenoids, and phytoestrogens, are some of the few phytonutrients that have the ability to enhance the immune system with their immunity-boosting superpowers. Dietary intake of phytochemicals promotes health benefits and protects against chronic disorders, such as cancer, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, and inflammation. Also, their natural origin poses lower side effects when compared to chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and promises a brilliant future for their use in treating specific types of cancer.
Finally, there is emerging research linking gut health to the immune system and there is promising research highlighting the benefits of probiotics supplementation in improving the body’s response to bacterial infections.
Balanced nutrition, especially in terms of adequate vitamin, mineral and protein intake (for those essential amino acids), enhances the resistance against infections. If you are not sure that you can provide everything your body needs through your diet alone, it might be worth investing in a quality multivitamin to help cover any inconsistencies from your diet.
7. Maintain a healthy body fat percentage
It has been observed that overnutrition can potentially increase the risk of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. A healthy body fat percentage ranges between 10-20% of the total body weight for men and 18-28% for women. Therefore, a percent body fat higher than this may impair the immune response.
Studies have shown that the link between obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes could be explained through the subsequent activation of the innate immune system. The same system that is implicated in the pathophysiology of obesity-related liver damage. A healthy immune system does an excellent job in protecting you from disease, but permanent activation causes the release of immune cells that promote inflammation in the body, making it a lot harder for the immune system to concentrate on its primary goal; to keep you healthy.
The solution is simple in this case. You can reverse the negative effects of a high body percentage by improving your body composition. Less body fat, specifically visceral fat, equals less immune cells circulating in the bloodstream, promoting inflammation and wreaking havoc on the natural processes of the body.
In addition to losing fat, gaining more muscle mass, as we spoke about before, can further improve body composition and reset a dysfunctioning immune system, laying the foundations towards long term health.
Putting it All Together
Your immune system works day and night to keep you healthy and often has to fight you in its efforts to maintain normal homeostasis. You can become its best friend by applying these 7 small changes in your everyday life:
- Quit smoking
- Drink alcohol in moderation
- Try to keep the stress away
- Get enough sleep
- Exercise regularly, but avoid overtraining
- Eat enough calories and include foods rich in antioxidants in your diet
- Maintain a healthy body fat percentage through diet and exercise
You may read this article and think that all these are just too much change for you. Small changes are still a step in the right direction. Change your habits one at a time to help support your immune system, and it will help you bounce back quickly next time you catch a common cold. After all, a strong, healthy body depends on your daily decisions.
Take care of your body, so that it can take care of you.
Rafaela Michailidou is a Biomedical scientist, and a freelance health and wellness content writer. Aspiring to help people achieve their goals, she is currently studying to be a Health Coach.