6 Steps to Strengthen Your Immune System
Boost Your Body’s Defenses
— By Liza Barnes, Health Educator
Your immune system is important. Very much like your own personal army, it guards your body against attacks from invaders (like bacteria, fungi, and viruses), defending against infections and several kinds of cancer. And it’s smart, too, often “remembering” certain infections so it’s ready for them the next time they try to attack. But just like any other body system, your immune system can deteriorate if you don’t treat it well. Keep it functioning at its peak performance, so you can stay healthy, too, by following these six steps.
1. Eat Right
In theory, this one is pretty simple: Eat just enough of the right foods when you feel hungry. Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple to put into practice. We’re tempted by unhealthy options everywhere we turn, we eat for emotional reasons, or we don’t even know what the “right” foods are. For those of us who struggle in this area, this may take some work.
Avoid eating too much, which can lead to weight gain and harm the immune system. Research performed by scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine has shown that obesity prevents the immune system from functioning properly, increasing its vulnerability to infection. In the study, obese mice were found to be 50 percent less capable of killing the flu virus, compared to lean mice. The researchers believe that the same holds true in humans.
Just as important as how much you’re eating, is what foods you’re eating. Some nutrients and foods that have been found to enhance the immune system include:
- Vitamin C-rich foods, like citrus fruit and broccoli
- Vitamin E-rich foods, like nuts and whole grains
- Zinc-rich foods, like beans, turkey, crab, oysters, and beef
- Bioflavanoids, which are found in fruits and vegetables
- Selenium-rich foods, like chicken, whole grains, tuna, eggs, sunflower seeds, and brown rice
- Carotenoid-rich foods, like carrots and yams
- Omega-3 fatty acids, found in nuts, salmon, tuna, mackerel, flaxseed oil and hempseed oil.
Of course, you can find these nutrients in pill form, but food is always the best and most usable source of vitamins and minerals. Supplements can be shady, since no regulating body ensures that they contain what they claim to, or that they’ll be absorbed as well as nutrients you get from food.
Some immune system all-stars that have recently garnered a lot of attention in the scientific community are vegetables from the brassica family, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage. According to a new study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and published online in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, a chemical produced when these vegetables are eaten can stop the growth of cancer cells and boost the production of certain components of the immune system. Turns out, Mom was onto something when telling you to each your broccoli!
2. Exercise Regularly
According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (PCPFS), data from numerous studies show that regular exercise reduces the number of sick days. In three separate studies cited in the June 2001 issue of the PCPFS’ Research Digest, women who engaged in 35-45 minutes of brisk walking, five days a week, for 12-15 weeks experienced a reduced number of sick days compared to the control (sedentary) group. Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to provide these benefits—in fact moderate exercise may even achieve a better result. A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that upper respiratory infections were more common among athletes during heavy training. Whatever you do, listen to your body. If you’re under the weather already, take it easy until you feel better.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Deep sleep stimulates and energizes the immune system, while sleep deprivation has the opposite effect. According to authors of a sleep study published in 2001 in the journal Seminars in Clinical Neuropsychiatry, significant detrimental effects on immune functioning can be seen after a few days of total sleep deprivation or even several days of just partial sleep deprivation. According to the National Institutes of Health, the average adult needs between 7 and 8 hours a night, although some people may need as few as 5 hours or as many as 10 hours. To make sure you are getting enough quality sleep, avoid caffeinated drinks (and other stimulants), decongestants, tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol can assist falling into a light sleep, but it interferes with REM and the deeper stages of sleep, which are restorative.
4. Manage Stress
Between fender benders, work deadlines, marital problems and hectic schedules, keeping stress out of your life is impossible. But how you choose to react to stress can greatly impact your overall health. Sweeping problems under the rug as opposed to solving them can turn short-term stress into chronic stress, which can cause health problems. According to the National Institutes of Health, hormones (like cortisol) that hang around during chronic stress can put us at risk for obesity, heart disease, cancer, and a variety of other illnesses. These stress hormones can work in two ways, either switching off disease-fighting white blood cells or triggering a hyperactive immune system, which increases your risk of developing auto-immune diseases. So find ways to de-stress a few times per week, whether you exercise, practice yoga, meditate, or take a relaxing bath.
5. Quit Smoking
In an older but still relevant study published in the 1983 edition of the Medical Journal of Australia, immune system markers in 35 smokers were analyzed before they quit smoking and then again three months after they had quit. Compared with a control group who continued to smoke, the ex- smokers had significant, positive changes in many measurements of their immune systems. Smoking and using tobacco products contributes to a host of health problems, and this is one more you can add to your list for reasons to quit.
6. Consume Alcohol in Moderation
Chronic alcohol abuse is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as the use of alcoholic beverages despite negative consequences. Besides the social and economic consequences of chronic alcohol abuse, a 1998 article in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research states that alcohol abuse can also cause lead to immunodeficiency, making you more susceptible to bacterial pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases. But the moderate use of alcohol (one drink daily for women, and two for men) has not been associated with negative effects on the immune system. In fact, according to a 2007 article in the British Journal of Nutrition, there is an increasing body of evidence linking health benefits with moderate consumption of polyphenol-rich alcoholic beverages, like wine or beer. The article states that, while heavy alcohol use can suppress the immune response, “moderate alcohol consumption seems to have a beneficial impact on the immune system compared to alcohol abuse or abstinence.” So for the time being, the advice remains: everything in moderation.
Liza has two bachelor’s degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza’s articles.