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The immune system is your body’s built-in armor against outside invaders, including viruses, germs, and bacteria. When this stuff gets into your body, you can develop infections, which can get pretty bad if your immune system is not as strong as it should be.

As long as your immune system works properly, you won’t notice any problems; it does all its work behind the scenes. But if it stops working properly, whether because it is weak or has met a germ that it is not a match against, you become sick.

Not only can a weakened immune system result in you getting sick more often, but it also means that your body will have a harder time recovering from the illness, so you may have a more severe illness that lasts longer.

What can cause your immune system to weaken? There are many factors at play, including:

  • nutrient deficiency
  • drinking alcohol
  • smoking
  • too little sleep
  • not enough exercise
  • too much stress
  • aging

Ways to Strengthen the Immune System

As the name suggests, the immune system is a system of parts that work together. Because of this, it is difficult to improve one single area of your life and expect it to give your immune system a boost. If you want to strengthen your immune system, you will want to make sure that you adopt all of the following healthy lifestyle habits, and not just one or two.

Daily Vitamins/Supplements

Vitamins A, C, and D and the mineral zinc all play essential roles in supporting the immune system. You can get these vitamins through the food you eat, or in the case of Vitamin D, by standing in the sun for a few minutes. However, some people may not be able to eat as much of these vitamins and minerals as their body needs to support a healthy immune system. In these cases, supplements provide a way to ensure that you are getting enough of these vitamins and minerals every day, no matter what you eat.

While these vitamins and minerals play a role in how well your immune system functions, it is important to understand the benefits they actually provide so that you are not expecting too much.

For example, a review of 11,000 people found that taking a vitamin C supplement daily helped to reduce the duration of a cold by 8%, but it did not prevent the cold to begin with. Yet another study found that taking a zinc supplement shortened the duration of the common cold by 33%.

Another study found that vitamin D deficiency can increase the chances of getting sick, but supplying the body with more vitamin D than it needs did not further improve the chances of not getting sick.

In addition to supplementing the body with the above vitamins and minerals, yet another supplement that is beneficial for your immune health is a probiotic because of the connection between your gut and immune system.

Probiotics are a type of beneficial bacteria that reside in your digestive tract. Research has found that having a large amount of gut bacteria can aid your immune system in distinguishing between healthy cells and invader organisms, meaning your immune system can better identify the germs and destroy them.

Reduce Stress Levels

While short-term stress can temporarily enhance your immune system, long-term or chronic stress suppresses the immune system and dysregulates the immune response by altering the cytokine balance, inducing low-grade inflammation, and suppressing immune system cells. Because of this, it is crucial for those under high stress or who suffer from chronic stress to take steps towards managing their stress levels.

Some ways to help reduce stress include:

  • meditation
  • yoga
  • counseling
  • massages
  • delegating time to spend on hobbies and enjoyable activities
  • reaching out to friends and family

Get Enough Sleep

Not only does getting enough sleep strengthen your ability to fight off germs before they infect your body, but sleep is also essential for allowing your body to fight any infections it currently has. This is why allowing your body to rest is especially important when you are sick.

Research has shown that not getting enough sleep can impact the body’s immune system in a similar way that stress does. In addition, sleep deprivation limits the production of white blood cells, which are an important part of the immune system.

One study found that adults who slept for fewer than 6 hours a night were more susceptible to catching a cold.

Adults should be aiming for at least 7 hours of sleep each night. If it’s difficult to hit this number, try improving your sleep hygiene, which include habits that help promote a good night’s rest.

Good sleep hygiene habits include:

  • sleep in a dark, cool, and quiet room
  • avoid electronics for the hour before bed
  • keep a consistent sleep schedule
  • limit caffeine and alcohol

Stay Hydrated

While the amount of water you drink, and thus your hydration levels, do not play a role in whether or not you are infected by germs and viruses, your hydration levels do impact your overall health.

Headaches are a common sign of dehydration, and those who do not drink enough fluids also experience a decline in focus, physical performance, digestion, mood, and heart and kidney function. All of these complications can impact how susceptible your body is to illness.

Exercise

A study found that regular, moderate exercise may help your immune cells regenerate and reduce inflammation. So, to help your immune system, you will want to be sure to fit in some moderate exercise to your schedule. The key is to do moderate exercise, though, as prolonged intense exercise can actually have the opposite effect, suppressing your immune system.

Some examples of moderate exercises include:

  • bicycling
  • brisk walking
  • jogging
  • light hiking
  • swimming

The general recommendation is to aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

Strengthen Your Immune System

Following the above guidelines will help you increase the health of your body, which then helps to improve the function of your immune system. A stronger immune system means you will be sick less often, and when you do get sick it won’t be as severe or last as long, so adopting these healthy habits allows you to look forward to more healthy days in your future.

 

 

References

InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. How does the immune system work? [Updated 2020 Apr 23]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279364/

 

Ackermann, K., Revell, V., Lao, O., Rombouts, E., Skene, D., & Kayser, M. (2012). Diurnal Rhythms in Blood Cell Populations and the Effect of Acute Sleep Deprivation in Healthy Young Men. Sleep, 35(7), 933-940. doi: 10.5665/sleep.1954

CDC – How Much Sleep Do I Need? – Sleep and Sleep Disorders. (2022). Retrieved 14 January 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html

Prather, A., Janicki-Deverts, D., Hall, M., & Cohen, S. (2015). Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep, 38(9), 1353-1359. doi: 10.5665/sleep.4968

Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Haack, M. (2019). The Sleep-Immune Crosstalk in Health and Disease. Physiological Reviews, 99(3), 1325-1380. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00010.2018

Wu, H., & Wu, E. (2012). The role of gut microbiota in immune homeostasis and autoimmunity. Gut Microbes, 3(1), 4-14. doi: 10.4161/gmic.19320

Simpson, R., Kunz, H., Agha, N., & Graff, R. (2015). Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions. Progress In Molecular Biology And Translational Science, 355-380. doi: 10.1016/bs.pmbts.2015.08.001

President’s Council | health.gov. (2022). Retrieved 14 January 2022, from https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/presidents-council

Popkin, B., D’Anci, K., & Rosenberg, I. (2010). Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition Reviews, 68(8), 439-458. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x

Hemilä, H., & Chalker, E. (2013). Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Of Systematic Reviews, 2013(5). doi: 10.1002/14651858.cd000980.pub4

Vanherwegen, A., Gysemans, C., & Mathieu, C. (2017). Regulation of Immune Function by Vitamin D and Its Use in Diseases of Immunity. Endocrinology And Metabolism Clinics Of North America, 46(4), 1061-1094. doi: 10.1016/j.ecl.2017.07.010

Dhabhar, F. (2014). Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunologic Research, 58(2-3), 193-210. doi: 10.1007/s12026-014-8517-0

 

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