Since your immune system defends your body against infections, it’s extremely important to keep your immune system healthy, especially as we head into cold and flu season. That’s because a strong immune system can more readily fight pathogens, or organisms that can produce disease. Therefore, the stronger your immune system is, the less chance there is of you getting sick.
Understanding The Immune System
Made up of different organs, cells, and proteins that work together, the immune system protects your body from outside invaders such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins. There are two subsystems within the immune system, which are known as the innate immune system and the adaptive (or acquired) immune system.
Everyone is born with innate (or natural) immunity, which is a type of general protection. The main job of the innate immune system is to fight harmful substances and germs that enter your body. When the innate immune system recognizes an invader, the cells of the innate immune system immediately surround and engulf the invader, killing it inside the immune system cells, which are called phagocytes.
The adaptive immune system, with help from the innate immune system, produces cells (antibodies) to protect your body from a specific invader. These antibodies are developed after the body has been exposed to the invader. Then the antibodies stay in your body. It can take several days for antibodies to develop, but after the first exposure your immune system will recognize the invader and defend against it. So, your adaptive immune system will change throughout your life.
6 Ways To Keep Your Immune System Healthy
The most effective way to naturally keep your immune system working properly is to choose a healthy lifestyle. So, let’s take a look at six healthy-living strategies to keep your immune system functioning properly.
1. Maintain A Healthy Diet
All food is ultimately broken down in the gut, or gastrointestinal tract, to a simple form that can enter the bloodstream and be delivered as nutrients throughout your body. However, this is only possible with a healthy digestive system. A healthy gut contains healthy bacteria and immune cells that ward off infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
The foods that you eat affect the diversity and composition of the gut microbiome, which in turn affects immune cells. In fact, about 70% of the immune system is located in the gut. Therefore, a truly healthy immune system depends on a healthy balanced diet over time.
A healthy balanced diet can help ensure that you’re getting sufficient amounts of the micronutrients that play a role in maintaining your immune system. So, make sure to eat a well-balanced diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats.
The Top Vitamins And Minerals For Your Immune System
Some of the top vitamins and minerals that your immune system needs to perform are vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D, vitamin A, zinc, iron, and selenium.
Vitamin C is thought to increase the production of white blood cells, which are key to fighting infections. Since your body doesn’t produce or store vitamin C, you need daily vitamin C for continued health. Citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes are all high in vitamin C. Red bell peppers, spinach, strawberries, kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are all good sources of vitamin C, as well.
The body needs vitamin E to boost its immune system so that it can fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and peanuts, as well as nut butters like peanut butter and almond butter are among the best sources of vitamin E. Vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil are also excellent sources of vitamin E.
Vitamin D is one of the most important and powerful nutrients for supporting the immune system. Fatty fish like trout, salmon, and tuna are among the best natural sources of vitamin D. Almost all of the U.S. milk supply is fortified with vitamin D, as well. Vitamin D is also added to many breakfast cereals.
A fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in many foods, vitamin A is important for normal vision, your immune system, and reproduction. Dark leafy green vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and cantaloupe are all great sources of vitamin A.
Zinc metabolizes nutrients, is needed for the production of new immune system cells, and also grows and repairs body tissues. Some foods that are high in zinc are lean meats and poultry, baked beans, yogurt, chickpeas, and oysters. Dark chocolate also contains reasonable amounts of zinc, too.
Iron is required for many biochemical reactions of immune cells and non-immune cells, and pathogens. Since the body absorbs two to three times more iron from animal sources than plants, some of the best animal sources of iron are lean beef, oysters, chicken, and turkey. That said, adding a source of vitamin C to vegetarian sources of iron will enhance absorption. Some of the top plant sources of iron are beans and lentils, cashews, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, whole-grain and enriched breads, and baked potatoes.
Selenium is an essential mineral and antioxidant that plays an important role in the health of your immune system. Selenium helps lower oxidative stress in your body, which reduces inflammation and enhances immunity. Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of selenium. Some other good sources of selenium include fish, ham, enriched foods, pork, beef, turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, eggs, brown rice, sunflower seeds, baked beans, mushrooms, oatmeal, and spinach.
2. Stay Hydrated
Also, a fluid in your circulatory system called lymph, which carries infection-fighting immune cells around your body, is largely made up of water. Being dehydrated slows down the movement of lymph, which can sometimes lead to an impaired immune system.
Since a hydrated body is better able to eliminate bacteria and ward off infection, it’s extremely important to hydrate with healthy fluids such as water instead of immune-suppressive beverages like sugary drinks and/or alcohol.
3. Try To Minimize Stress
Long-term stress leads to chronically elevated levels of cortisol, which is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. Cortisol also has a very important role in helping your body respond to stress. However, when cortisol levels are high, it essentially blocks the immune system from doing its job to protect the body against potential threats from germs such as viruses and bacteria. Therefore, this stress response increases your chance of infection or illness.
To minimize stress, try meditation, yoga, journaling, or doing an activity that you enjoy such as painting or going for a hike. Activities like mediation and yoga may also calm your nervous system and help to reduce inflammation.
4. Move Your Body
In addition to being a great stress reliever, regular physical activity is also an important part of being healthy and supporting a healthy immune system. Studies have shown that engaging in as little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day helps stimulate your immune system.
And when you get moving, your body temperature rises and this brief increase can help strengthen your immune system by preventing bacteria from growing. Participating in a regular exercise routine a few times each week can also flush bacteria out of your lungs and airways.
5. Make Sure To Get Enough Sleep
Sleep and the immune system have a bidirectional relationship. Consistent sleep strengthens the immune system, allowing for balanced and effective immune function, while immune response, like that caused by a viral infection, can affect sleep.
Adequate sleep is critical for a healthy immune response because while you sleep your body heals, regenerates, and regulates key immune cells and molecules. However, when you don’t get enough sleep, you may not be able to do these things as well. Then your body won’t be able to defend against harmful invaders, which will make you more likely to get sick.
Research has also shown that both short- and long-term sleep deprivation can make you sick. And one study found that short sleepers (people who sleep less than six hours per night) are four times more likely to catch the common cold than people who get more than seven hours of sleep per night.
6. Spend More Time With Good Friends
Studies have shown that people who feel connected to friends have stronger immunity than people who feel alone. One study found that first-year college students who felt lonely had a weaker immune response to the flu shot than first-year students who felt connected to friends.
The bodies of people with good friends and strong social support systems also show better anti-inflammatory responses to disease and wound-healing, which can lead to better health and reduced risk of illness.
So, if you want to strengthen your immune system, eat a well-balanced diet and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, minimize stress the best that you can, take part in a regular exercise routine, get enough quality sleep each night, and make sure to spend lots of time with your best friends!