The immune system is a complicated system indeed. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) describes it like this: “The immune system is complex and pervasive. There are numerous cell types that either circulate throughout the body or reside in a particular tissue. Each cell type plays a unique role, with different ways of recognizing problems, communicating with other cells, and performing their functions.”
Our lymphatic system, bone marrow, spleen, mucous tissue and even our skin all play a part in recognizing and fighting off viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. “Immune cells constantly circulate throughout the bloodstream, patrolling for problems,” NIAID explains.
If we get sick, antibiotics and antivirals can help us—but how much better if we don’t get sick in the first place, thanks to our immune system! You may have read advertisements for products that claim to improve the immune system, but experts say those are largely useless. Instead, we can make lifestyle choices that promote immunity.
“There are many things about immunity that are beyond our control but there are some things we can do to help maintain a strong immune system so we can take care of ourselves,” says Libby Richards, an associate professor at Purdue University.
Here are seven ways to promote a healthier immune system:
Immunizations. Vaccines provide our immune system with a warning and a head start in protecting us against dangerous germs. A vaccine alerts our immune system to be on the lookout for a certain germ. Then, if we’re exposed to the germ, our immune system can kick right into action, giving the germ less chance to take hold.
Sleep. Good-quality sleep, in the right amount (between seven and nine hours for most of us), is important for a healthy immune system. Many studies show that long-term sleep disorders put us at higher risk for infectious diseases.
Exercise. Exercise supports overall good health, as well as improving circulation. Researchers from Bath University in the UK explain, “In the short term, exercise can help the immune system find and deal with pathogens, and in the long term, regular exercise slows down changes that happen to the immune system with aging, therefore reducing the risk of infections.”
Eat well. A healthy diet with plenty of veggies, fruits, fiber and low-fat protein can help the immune system. It’s best to take in the nutrients we need from the foods we eat. Should we take a supplement? Ask your doctor—many such products are not helpful. And watch the salt! Researchers from Bonn University say that people who eat a lot of salt—most notably from fast foods—are more likely to suffer from severe infections.
Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity causes our immune system to respond in a dysfunctional way. Of note during the pandemic, a recent study from the University of Michigan, published by The Endocrine Society, says that obesity raises the risk of a severe case of COVID-19. “Obesity causes a chronic, low grade activation of some parts of the immune system. When someone with this preexisting condition is faced with an infection, this could lead to hyper-activation of the immune system, but in a detrimental way that does not fight infection,” report the study authors.
Don’t smoke. Smoking negatively affects the immune system in a number of ways. Smokers are more likely to contract a number of infectious diseases—including, according to several studies, COVID-19. A UCLA study reported that smoking affects the upper airways of the body. “If you think of the airways like the high walls that protect a castle, smoking cigarettes is like creating holes in these walls,” says UCLA pulmonary specialist Dr. Brigitte Gomperts. “Smoking reduces the natural defenses and that allows the virus to set in.”
Control your stress. Stress raises the level of the hormone cortisol, which can interfere with our immune response and raise the risk of infections. These are stressful times! Worrying about our financial situation, caring for an older or ill loved one, and social isolation are just a few of the stressors we face right now. If you feel that your stress is out of control, talk to your health care provider. Stress management techniques and counseling can help.
Talk to your doctor about all the lifestyle choices that might affect your immune system. It’s good to know that all of these changes can improve your health in many other ways, as well.