No matter what time of year, our bodies are constantly exposed to viruses and germs that might make us sick. Winter ushers in flu season, fall often introduces colds and sinus infections, and even in the spring and summer, we are exposed to viruses that we need to fight off to stay healthy and active. Unless you want to live in a bubble, you will come in contact with pesky viruses and bacteria.
The good news? Your immune system is always at the ready to fight off illness and help you stay healthy. The best thing you can do is help your body protect itself by paving the way for your immune system to do its thing.
Immune System Recap
For those of you who may not know or perhaps have forgotten, let's review immune system basics. Your body comes pre-loaded with bug-fighting cells. These cells get stronger and more abundant as you are exposed to germs throughout life. You collect more and more of these immune cells through breastmilk, the floor you licked as a child, and all the illnesses you survived.
Here's how it happens: When a virus gets into your body (usually through your nose, eyes, or mouth), it quickly starts making little virus babies. Then they make more virus babies and the virus tries to establish a little virus village inside your body. But as soon as that virus touches your body's insides, your immune system sends out soldiers (immune cells) to destroy the virus before it can make all those babies. These two processes work at the same time.
Sometimes your body is successful and you win over the virus. You don't get sick. But sometimes those soldiers are overwhelmed and you get sick. But even when you get sick, your body learns. Your immune system educates itself on how a new virus operates through the course of your illness. That way, if it sees that bug again, it will be able to fight it off much more effectively next time.
How to Improve Your Immune System
So what can you do to help our immune system overpower those pesky viruses? You can boost your immune system through diet, exercise, and good sleep. Basic lifestyle habits can play an important role in how well your body functions.
Our bodies run on a balance of nutrients that we feed ourselves. The fuel (food and drinks) we consume decide how well our body can run. If you can choose healthier nutrients, you arm your body with the tools it needs to fight off worrisome viruses. More on this later...
Exercise and its effect on the immune system are well-documented. You can't exercise a sickness away, but if you exercise as part of your lifestyle, your immune system can fight those bugs better. The only caveat is that if you exercise too much, it can actually decrease your immune function.
Try to follow expert advice for exercise. Current guidelines suggest that you should get at least 150 - 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise. Or you can choose 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. Guidelines also suggest that you should do muscle-strengthening activitiesthat involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.
Your immune system doesn't like stress. Simply put, it doesn't work as well under all that pressure. To lower stress in your life, you can try:
- Deep breathing exercises
Everyone copes differently. Try these one at a time and don't be afraid to ask for help from a trusted loved one or even your healthcare provider if these aren't working.
Have you ever noticed how much you want to sleep when you're sick? That's because sleep is your immune system's sidekick. The more you can get good sleep, the more your immune cells can adapt to whatever the world throws at them. So if you feel tired, give your body the rest it needs.
As your weight edges toward the high end of healthy, your immune cells aren't able to keep up. If the number on your scale measures far above the obesity line, this effect can be even more pronounced. If you can keep your weight in a healthy range, your immune may benefit.
Your gut = your intestines. Your gut closely connects to your immune system. When your large intestine is heavily populated by good bacteria, your immune system can run at full capacity. You can build up your gut bacteria with a balanced diet, including plenty of probiotics and fiber.
Smoking cigarettes shackles your immune system. Not only does it make your immune cells less effective, it disrupts your that system's balance. Quitting can be hard, but you can start today! Reach out for help if you want to start your tobacco-free journey.
One or two drinks will not make you catch a cold more easily. But drinking large amounts of alcohol over an extended time can depress your immune system. Try to drink in moderation, and your body will fight off illness much more effectively.
Vaccines have been saving lives since colonial times (seriously, since 1796!). Remember how your immune system learns from new viruses and bacteria? Vaccinations give your body a cheat sheet to get ahead of this process. They let your body know what a bug looks like so your immune system can fight that invader if it ever tries to make a move.
You can also give your immune system a helping hand by washing your hands well or using hand sanitizer often throughout the day, but especially after getting home, using the bathroom, and before eating or preparing food. As you've read above, the healthier you keep your body overall, the better your immune system can get it done hun.
Foods to Improve Immune System
Let's get back to diet. The foods you eat and the beverages you drink give your body the building blocks it needs to keep you breathing, moving, digesting, thinking, and living. To give your immune system a boost, try to include healthy food and drink options full of vitamins and probiotics.
All vitamins help your immunity work at its highest potential. Vitamin C is perhaps the most famous for this, but they're all pretty useful. Some vitamin-rich foods include:
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits
- Green leafy vegetables
- Root vegetables
These options will give your immune cells a lift and are delicious to boot.
As we've established, your gut bacteria have a big impact on your body's ability to fight off germs. You can beef up your gut microbiome with probiotics from these natural sources:
Not a fan of fermented food? Some dairy products add active cultures (like Activia yogurt) to build up your gut bacteria.
Vitamins and probiotics don't get all the credit. You can also help your immunity with these foods:
- High-fiber fruits, veggies, and whole grains feed your gut microbiome, which directly improves your immune system.
- Protein gets broken down into amino acids, which your body then uses to build immune cells. You can get protein from many sources, including meat, beans, and soy.
- Zinc deficiency can cause immune dysfunction. No thanks! Bring on the zinc with beans, seeds, meat, and poultry.
Be sure to check your food labels for these goodies, or for fresh food, look them up on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's free database.
Immune System Supplements
Many companies claim to sell supplements that help improve your immune system. They say that this tablet or that powder, or such-and-such tea will prevent you from getting sick or even stop an invading virus in its tracks. Unfortunately, studies do not back up these claims. What's more, the FDA regulates none of these supplements, at least not in the same way that they regulate medications. Use supplements with caution and always under the direction of your healthcare provider.
You can change your immune system for the better through lifestyle adjustments and diet. Improve your immunity with restful sleep, relaxing meditation, and delicious fruits and vegetables. And if you do get sick, remember, your body is working hard to learn how to deal, so pamper yourself and let your immune system get down to business.