The immune system is your body’s primary line of defense against things that can make you sick. Keeping your immune system in tip-top shape is becoming increasingly important in our changing world.
The immune system works to protect you from the small dangers in the world – ranging from flu season to the recent coronavirus crisis. There are things that you can do to help boost your immune system naturally.
Armed with knowledge about your immune system, you can take the steps necessary to improve your immune system function and lead a healthier life.
Your immune system can protect you from youth into old age if you understand it and do things to care for it. Boosting your immune system doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never get sick – but it does work to help your body fight when you do.
How the immune system works
Your immune system exists in order to prevent or limit infection in your body. At a high level, a healthy immune system works to distinguish between normal cells and unhealthy cells.
Cells can become unhealthy for a variety of reasons – ranging from infectious microbes like viruses and bacteria, to cellular damage from sunburn or cancer. A healthy immune system looks for cues called pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) and danger-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) and responds to address the issue.
Once a PAMP or DAMP is recognized, a healthy immune system responds to the problem. Your immune system is complex, with various different types of cells that do different jobs. Each type of cell has its own unique function, and has different ways of dealing with any issues that may arise.
Components of the immune system
The different parts of your immune system have individual roles in helping to protect your body from illness and infection.
- Skin cells work to produce antimicrobial proteins and act as your body’s first line of defense.
- Bone marrow is important, as it contains stem cells that can develop into different cell types that respond to infections.
- The bloodstream contains immune cells that circulate around the body.
- The thymus is a small organ in the upper chest where T cells mature. T cells can protect the body from pathogens and cancer cells.
- The lymphatic system serves as a sort of communication system between body tissue and the bloodstream. In the lymph nodes, immune cells process information from around the body.
- The spleen is also important for processing information from the bloodstream. Certain areas of the spleen enrich immune cells.
- Mucosal surfaces in the body can be entry points for pathogens, and that is why specialized immune cells are located within the tissue. This can help to stave off issues before they begin.
There are things you can do to help this complex system function properly. Chief among them is handwashing.
Why is handwashing so important?
Washing your hands regularly and properly can make it easier for your immune system to protect you from various diseases. There are a number of infectious diseases that spread from person to person via contaminated hands.
Keeping your hands clean not only keeps you safer, but it can keep those you come in contact with safer, as well. Some of the diseases that are spread from contaminated hands include respiratory infections like influenza, and gastrointestinal infections like Salmonella. Handwashing can help prevent the spread of the bacteria and viruses that cause these diseases.
When should you wash your hands?
During flu season and crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, you may find yourself washing your hands much more frequently than usual – and that’s a good thing!
But, as a general rule, you should wash your hands thoroughly:
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- After using the restroom or changing a diaper
- Before eating or handling food of any kind (including raw and ready-to-eat food)
- After handling animals
- After handling garbage or doing any work outdoors
- Before and after attending to sick people
How to wash your hands properly and thoroughly
Knowing when to wash your hands is one thing, but knowing how to wash your hands effectively is another thing entirely. Be sure you are taking all of the steps necessary to clean your hands as thoroughly as possible.
- Wet your hands with clean, running water at a warm – but not scalding hot – temperature
- Apply soap to your hands and lather well. Do this for at least 20 seconds – longer if the dirt is really ingrained
- Rub your hands together vigorously, ensuring that you cover all surfaces of your hands and wrists
- Make sure you cover the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails
- Since microorganisms can live under rings and watches, you should remove them when you wash your hands
- Once thoroughly covered in soap, rinse your hands well under running water
- Dry your hands using a clean towel
Washing your hands thoroughly is one way to give your immune system a boost. But what can you do from the inside out?
There are some foods that you can incorporate into your diet to help boost immune response. These include fruits and vegetables and other healthy options. You can help your body fight off germs, illness, and the seasonal flu by adding some of these foods to your diet.
Most people know that vitamin C can help build up your immune system. Too often, people don’t incorporate additional vitamin C into their diet until after they’ve caught a cold. But if you are regularly giving yourself a vitamin C boost, you may be able to help increase the production of white blood cells – which are paramount in fighting off infections.
Citrus fruits that you can incorporate into your diet include oranges, clementines, tangerines, grapefruit, lemons and limes. Adding these foods regularly to your diet, you can help your body keep up with its vitamin C needs. The body doesn’t produce or store vitamin C, so you need to keep supplying your body with this immune-boosting nutrient.
Broccoli is probably one of those foods that your mother tried to make you eat when you were a kid. And this is one of those cases where mom was absolutely right! Broccoli is full of vitamins and minerals that can help your immune system.
A daily dose of broccoli gives your body the vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E that it needs. Additionally, broccoli is full of antioxidants and fiber, making it one of the healthiest vegetables you can have in your diet. In order to keep all of these beneficial nutrients intact, you should either eat it raw, or cook it as little as possible. Steaming your broccoli is an excellent option.
Garlic seems to be a staple in virtually every type of cuisine – from Italian food, to Mexican food, and everything in between. Not only does garlic add a good amount of flavor to food, it also has immune-boosting benefits. Garlic has a heavy concentration of sulfur-containing compounds, like allicin, that can help improve your immune system.
There’s a reason why Popeye was so strong! It’s because he ate all that spinach and boosted his immune system. Much like broccoli, spinach is full of vitamin C.
It also has antioxidants and beta carotene – which can help increase your immune system’s ability to fight infections.
Chicken soup is a traditional home remedy for the common cold, and it’s not just because it’s a comfort food. Adding poultry like chicken or turkey to your diet can help to protect you from getting sick in the first place – and make you feel a little bit better when you are sick.
Poultry is high in vitamin B-6. In fact, a serving of turkey or chicken has nearly half of your daily recommended amount of this vitamin. And vitamin B-6 plays a role in the formation of new and healthy red blood cells.
Other immune boosters
This is just a sampling of the foods with the vitamins and minerals necessary to help keep your immune system functioning properly. You can also consider other leafy greens such as kale, red and green bell peppers, chili peppers, ginger, yogurt, almonds, turmeric, papaya, mango, kiwi, sunflower seeds, shellfish and even green tea.
Additionally, shiitake mushrooms are an excellent source of vitamin D, which can help support cardiovascular health. With a healthy bloodstream, your immune system will be able to get the information that it needs to fight off illnesses.
Exercise and immunity
We all know that exercise can improve your health in a variety of ways. A regular workout routine can lower your blood pressure, improve your cardiovascular health, and help with weight loss. Keeping yourself physically active can also benefit your immune system.
We’ve already talked about how a healthy cardiovascular system can benefit your immune health – and working out regularly can play a role in that, as well. When your cardiovascular system is functioning properly, the immune system can do its job more efficiently.
A moderate amount of exercise can play a role in keeping your immune system working properly – largely due to its cardiovascular benefits. Exercise can strengthen your heart and help blood move more efficiently throughout the body. When the bloodstream works well, the communication that needs to occur in your immune system flows more smoothly.
Simple exercises you can do at home
There are a variety of exercises that you can work into your routine to help boost your immune system. You can go for a walk, ride your bike, or do some strengthening and stretching exercises at home. Effectively exercising and stretching your hips, shoulders, knees, elbows, and feet can help you feel better during aerobic activity.
Additionally, regular, moderate aerobic exercise has been shown to have some direct effect on the immune system. Exercising can increase immunoglobulins – a type of antibody – in the blood. The increase in these antibodies ultimately strengthens the immune system.
Vitamins and supplements
We’ve talked about some foods that contain vitamins that are important for supporting your immune health, but what about supplements? While vitamins are more beneficial when derived directly from your diet, supplements can help fill in some gaps. There are a variety of quality vitamin supplements available to help give you an immune system boost. You should talk to a professional and seek medical advice before you begin taking any vitamin supplements.
Vitamins and how to get them
The following are the key vitamins to boost your immune system, and whether you should get them directly from your diet or use a supplement.
As we mentioned earlier, vitamin C is a great immune booster. If you lack vitamin C in your diet, you can leave yourself more susceptible to illness. Since your body doesn’t produce or store this vitamin, it’s essential to have a sufficient daily intake.
You can find vitamin C in foods like citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, kale, broccoli, and spinach. Since vitamin C is in a variety of foods, it’s unlikely that you’ll need a supplement in order to get the recommended amount.
Vitamin B-6 can help your immune system do what it needs to do. This vitamin supports the biochemical reactions in the immune system. B-6 can be found in green vegetables, chickpeas, poultry, and fish like salmon and tuna.
There are many B-6 and B-complex supplements available if you don’t get enough of these healthy foods in your diet.
Vitamin E can be found in nuts, seeds, and spinach. This vitamin helps your body fight off infection.
Recent studies recommend against taking vitamin E supplements, as there may be some associated health risks. You should get your recommended daily dose of vitamin E directly from your diet.
Reduce stress to boost your immune system
Nobody likes being stressed, but sometimes it’s just a fact of life. That can be especially true when things get hectic at work, at home, or in the world at large.
But that’s when it’s more important than ever to use effective coping skills to reduce stress. When you’re stressed, your immune system becomes less capable of fighting off antigens, and you can become more susceptible to infections.
Additionally, some unhealthy stress coping mechanisms (such as drinking or smoking) can leave you more vulnerable to illness. Stress has been shown to be linked to headaches, infectious illnesses like the flu, and cardiovascular disease, among others.
Stress reduction techniques
It’s important to be aware of the simple stress that can occur in your daily life. When you’re aware of what causes stress, you are more capable of coping with it effectively. This reduction in stress may help boost your immune system.
Engage in relaxation exercises
There’s a connection between your mind and your body – when you feel good mentally, it may help you feel better physically. Mindful engagement in relaxation exercises can be beneficial in this connection. A simple daily meditation may be exactly what you need in order to organize your thoughts and reduce stress.
This is often easier said than done! Between kids running around, the dog barking, and the phone ringing, it can be difficult to find time to relax. But finding time to meditate amidst the chaos can benefit both your mind and body. At the very least, clearing your mind of the daily stressors of life can help you put things in perspective. Making stress a little less overwhelming in this way can put your mind at ease.
There’s power in positive thinking
The way you think about things can sometimes affect the way that you feel about things. If you try to put a positive spin on the things that you’re going through, it may help to reduce chronic stress. Stuck at home due to social distancing?
Think about it as being able to spend more quality time with your family. Work throwing more at you than you think you can handle? Think about it as an opportunity to show them what you can do. If you become overwhelmed with anxiety, stress, or hostility, it can have a negative effect on your mental health and immune system.
Seek social support
Research has shown that people with a solid social support system have better overall health. Social support can be difficult to come by sometimes – you may live far away from family, or you may be living through a period of social distancing.
What can you do to maintain those social bonds? Set up a phone call with a loved one, reach out to a friend, have a virtual hangout with your friends over a video chat.
Get enough sleep
Getting a sufficient amount of sleep can give you the energy that you need to get through the day. But can it help your immune system? Studies have shown that people that don’t get enough sleep may be more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, like the common cold or the flu. Additionally, the lack of sleep can affect your recovery time if you do get sick.
While you’re sleeping, your immune system works to keep your body healthy. It releases certain proteins that can help produce sleep – called cytokines. Certain types of cytokines need to increase if you have an infection, illness, or are under a lot of stress. If you don’t get enough sleep, your immune system cannot produce enough of these protective proteins.
Your body needs enough sleep in order for your immune system to effectively fight off a large number of diseases. Additionally, if you suffer from a long-term lack of sleep, you increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, and some cardiovascular diseases.
Tips to get the right amount of sleep
The following tips can help you get your sleep schedule back on track so that you can help boost your immune system and improve your overall health.
- Have a sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day – even on the weekends.
- Have a bedtime ritual that relaxes you. This may be meditation, some quiet time reading a book, or listening to peaceful music.
- For a good night’s sleep, avoid napping in the afternoon. This can help prepare you for better sleep at night.
- Ensure a comfortable sleep environment. The room should be cool, and free of noise or light sources that may disturb your sleep.
- Have a comfortable and supportive mattress. Most good quality mattresses last for about 10 years.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed. Consuming these substances can disrupt your sleep.
- If it’s bedtime and you’re not tired, try doing something relaxing until you feel tired. Avoid anything with screens, like computers, phones, or the TV.
Build up your God-given defense system
As a Primary Care Physician, disease prevention is one of my top priorities. As you can see, there are a variety of things to consider when it comes to your immune system.
The immune system plays a huge role in keeping your body healthy and functional – during flu seasons and all year round. Ensuring you have healthy eating habits that include the right immune-boosting vitamins, getting the right amount of exercise, reducing stress, and sleeping well can help keep your immune system on the right track.
If you’re unsure what changes you should make to your lifestyle to boost your immune system, seek medical advice from a professional to discuss a plan that’s right for you.