It’s a more pertinent time than ever to improve your robustness to disease. This could be to increase resilience against a potential Coronavirus infection. Or, to reduce the risk of illness under the psychological, social and physical pressures of living in quarantine. It could also be to stay healthy, while limited medical care is available. Whatever the reason, here is a comprehensive guide to help you learn the most effective ways to boost your immune system for better health, both now, and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Is it Even Possible to Improve Your Immune System?
Yes, and there are two answers to this question. The first is simple. There are many unhealthy lifestyle factors, such as smoking or chronic stress, which pose clear and specific risks on the integrity of your immune system. Changing unhealthy lifestyle habits is a clear way to reduce those risks.
The second answer is multifaceted, because your immune system is so complex. For instance, the composition of your immune system varies according to our age and genetic make-up. Moreover, there are literally hundreds of functionally different cell types involved in guarding against diseases, each with different roles to play. These roles include identifying invaders, relaying messages at a biological level, consuming whole bacteria (literally), or learning how your body should deal with unknown threats. Understanding these complexities is a major challenge for the modern medical sciences.
That said, there are many healthy lifestyle choices which are likely to improve your immune system, but more scientific research is needed to clarify which are the most important. Right now, there is no silver bullet.
For this reason, avoiding unhealthy lifestyle choices and practicing relevant healthy lifestyle habits is the best route to ensuring you can fend off diseases whenever needed. We will cover the landscape point by point, but first it is useful to understand a little bit more about how your body’s first line of defense actually works.
How Does the Immune System Work?
Your immune system is continuously generating new cells, and generally speaking, it does an amazing job of defending you against myriads of disease-causing microorganisms that you aren’t even aware of.
In simple terms, it does this by analyzing infectious diseases, and then at the cellular level, mounting a bioengineered counterattack. This is based on the weaknesses of particular viruses, bacteria or fungi. Or, with an innate response, it can occasionally flush out the virus (think runny nose). In some cases, these responses can result in a very rapid recovery, or even better, no noticeable symptoms at all.
Yet as we all know from getting sick, your wellbeing can be vulnerable to certain types of diseases. This all depends on what you are exposed to and your current health condition. The Achilles heel of our immune system is unfamiliarity with certain types of pathogens. This is because the immune system can’t always recognize a threat that it has not previously been exposed to.
Once a disease has been successfully identified and dealt with, it’s likely that your immune system will be much more effective at recognizing and fighting off that same disease, if it reoccurs. This is known as an acquired response, which kind of operates a like a SWAT team called in for emergencies.
How do Disease Fighting Drugs Work?
Antibacterial and other similar treatments that are prescribed orally or intravenously, work differently. Instead, other organisms, which are known to be the enemy of certain types of diseases, are introduced into your system. Then, the organisms themselves do the work in directly killing off the infecting cells. There are a few downsides to this approach.
- There can be side effects to the treatment
- Your immune system may not have the opportunity to adapt to the disease and build up a natural resistance for future exposure
- With increasing exposure, the disease may mutate into a new disease which is resistant to any known treatments (currently the case with COVID-19)
Whatever the situation, it is more advantageous to build-up and maintain a balanced and well-functioning immune system, before being exposed to threatening diseases. The bonus is that most of the things we can do to help our immune system, also go a long way to enhancing your overall health and longevity. For that reason, lets now explore what we can actually do.
What Can I do to Avoid Harming my Immune System?
In terms of what to avoid, protecting your immune system from harm overlaps with a common sense approach to health and longevity. In terms of the ‘don’ts’, here are a number of familiar lifestyle choices you should be aware of.
Smoking – even the risks of light smoking are well established in promoting many major diseases. In particular, there is an increased risk of heart disease, cardiovascular disease and respiratory tract infections. Not surprisingly, there is also increased risk of esophageal, stomach, and pancreatic cancer. There are many other immune and autoimmune disorders associated with smoking as well.
Excessive alcohol consumption – clinicians have long observed the negative impacts of drinking too much alcohol and disease susceptibility. These include increased risks of pneumonia, acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS), sepsis, alcoholic liver disease (ALD), certain cancers, and impaired recovery from infections.
A nutrient deficient diet – guidelines for the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamins and minerals are based on the risks of developing major diseases. For example the RDA of 60 mg/d of vitamin C will keep you safe from scurvy. Falling below RDA levels, as typical with fast food diets, will directly impact your ability to fend off numerous forms of diseases. Also note that Triage Theory suggests that meeting RDA levels alone, may not be enough for protection from long term health risks such as heart disease. There is also some evidence that certain micronutrient deficiencies (including zinc, selenium, iron, copper, and folic acid) may negatively alter immune responses.
Obesity – being significantly overweight triggers a chronic inflammatory response. Obesity, like it’s opposite malnutrition, is known to impair immune function by altering leucocyte cell count.
Lack of exercise – you may be aware of recent research showing that prolonged sitting is correlated to shortened lifespan. A couch potato lifestyle has system wide effects across your body, including restricting blood flow and the movement of white blood cells. As such the latest science suggests that just a single workout can amplify our immunity.
Poor sleep quality – lack of sleep can increase the chances of being sick. Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep, or enough sleep, are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. This can also influence recovery time from illnesses. However, what constitutes a good night’s rest can vary from person to person. This guide can help you identify the quality of your sleep.
Stress – people may not automatically associate mental state with physical illness. However, research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology has been finding evidence since the 1980s that chronic stress can impair immune functions, leaving the body vulnerable to infections. Little research has been done on acute stress (short lived), but according to the American Psychological Association, if you are feeling stressed, lonely or depressed, don’t be surprised if you come down with something.
These are seven negative lifestyle factors that have been identified as risks. However, more research may show that the other habits of unhealthy living, such as drug abuse, may well interfere with immune system function. The bottom line for your defense against diseases is that it is best to avoid anything that is already known to be harmful to your health.
Now that we have covered the things to avoid, let’s take a look at methods you can use to actively improve your immune system.
How can Improve my Diet?
A balanced diet will certainly help prevent the risk of nutrient deficiencies. However, to give your immune system an extra helping hand, there are a number of superfoods known to have beneficial properties. The good news is that you can grab most of these in your local grocery store. Here are eight superfoods to remember to include in your regular diet.
Citrus fruits – these are the go-to supplement for vitamin C. There is evidence that vitamin C can increase the production of white blood cells – the primary way your body fights infections. They are also packed with supportive vitamins and minerals, as well as the enzymes that are needed to help get the nutrients where they need to go.
Red bell peppers – gram for gram, bell peppers have the most vitamin C content of any fruit or vegetable. They’re also rich in beta carotene, which has been found to visibly make people look healthier.
Broccoli – One of the classic superfoods, this dark green is loaded with vitamins and minerals while being extremely light on calories. Packed with vitamins A, C, and E, as well as many other antioxidants and fiber, broccoli is considered a favorite among health fanatics.
Garlic – used by many civilizations for centuries to fight infections, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health suggests that garlic can also help lower blood pressure and improve the health of your arteries. In terms of immune-boosting properties, its significant concentrations of sulfur compounds are known to yield anti-inflammatory effects, as well as immunomodulation.
Ginger – can decrease nausea, reduce inflammation (think of a sore throat), help with chronic pain, and has some cholesterol-lowering properties. It’s a potent supplement, so it’s easy to add small amounts to food or drinks and still reap the rewards.
Spinach – as well as having vitamin C, spinach harbors a whole spectrum of antioxidants, and like peppers, it’s a good source of beta carotene. Light cooking actually helps bring out its vitamin A and other nutrients.
Yogurt – in its natural form this probiotic can supplement the health of your microbiome, which affects how much nutrition you actually absorb from your diet. Probiotics are also thought to stimulate your immune system and are high in vitamin D.
Turmeric – traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory, modern science has been finding turmeric to be a powerful health supplement. Recent research shows that with sufficient curcumin levels, turmeric can help with muscle damage and potentially even cancer treatment.
Its worth noting that you are more likely to achieve immune system benefits by combining a balanced diet with a range of superfoods, rather than simply trying to load-up on a single type of superfood.
There is a curve ball to mention when it comes to diet, because occasional fasting also has the potential to be an effective strategy. Prolonged fasting (3 days or more) forces the body to use stores of glucose and fat, yet also breaks down some of our white blood cells. This effect has been found to trigger stem cell-based regeneration of new immune system cells. These effects have not been found with intermittent fasting, which in contrast has shown some indications of negative effects on the innate immune system.
Supplements are often touted as panaceas for fending off disease. Yet most products found in health food shops lack sufficient evidence when it comes to immune functions, even though they may give the opposite impression.
Demonstrating whether a certain herb, for example, can enhance immunity is a highly complicated matter. This is especially true for determining what the biological mechanisms of any potential benefits could be. As we mentioned before, there is no silver bullet.
With that said, as far as early scientific research goes, there are some supplements that stand out as being promising. Here are the ones to look out for, with links to further information on each.
In addition, some vitamins are notable for playing a key role in disease resistance. Vitamin C in high doses is used as an established therapy in cancer treatment. Internal synthesis of vitamin C is also the primary response to sickness in almost all mammals. Vitamin D is associated with reduced risks of many life-threatening diseases, including heart disease. Vitamin B complexes play an integral part in the condition of your microbiome, allowing it to absorb and synthesize nutrients more efficiently.
Taking these vitamin supplements in combination with a balanced diet may be helpful, with negligible risks of side effects when the recommended dosage is followed.
How Important is Exercise?
A slew of research in recent decades has found exercise to be advantageous for a multitude of health benefits. However, for the immune system there have also been specific benefits discovered.
- Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways, reducing the chances of a cold or flu virus taking hold before your immune system responds. It is likewise known to improve cardiovascular circulation, speeding up your immune system’s highway throughout the body.
- Exercise can increase your body’s levels of antibodies and help your ‘SWAT team’ response circulate more rapidly. At the same time, it is known to reduce stress hormones, which can hamper how responsive antibodies are.
- Cardiovascular exercise creates significant fluctuations in body temperature, which can kick-start your immune system into high gear (like taking a sauna). This may discourage harmful bacteria from spreading throughout the body. The act of sweating also releases toxins out of your blood stream, reducing the chances of your immune response being predisposed.
Keeping physically fit is likely to be a very effective way to improve your overall resistance to infectious disease. A large study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that compared to sedentary individuals, people who exercised at least five days a week had almost half the risk of coming down with a cold. If they did get sick, they also reported less severe symptoms.
On the flip side, this does not mean that extreme amounts of exercise are going to give you an extra boost. There is on-going scientific debate as to whether or not high-intensity exercise actually has negative effects. For example, studies with marathon runners have reported a 2 to 6 fold increase in risk in developing a respiratory infection in the weeks following competition.
Can Mental Wellness Play a Role?
Modern medicine has discovered many interrelationships between mind and body, and it appears that mental wellbeing and the immune system may be one of those relationships.
Mindfulness meditation research is still in its infancy, but there are already a number of mechanisms of meditation being researched for their positive effects on our disease defenses. These include regulation of inflammatory proteins, gene expression, immune cell count, immune cell aging, and antibody response. Early findings are positive, but require replication studies to confirm.
Aside from direct benefits, meditation and mindfulness have been established as effective methods for controlling the harmful effects of stress. They are similarly linked to improvements in sleep quality. As we mentioned earlier, poor sleep quality and chronic stress are threats to the integrity of your immune functions. Perhaps most importantly, meditation is virtually free and accessible to everyone.
What are Common Myths about the Immune System?
As we’ve already covered, your immune system is far more complex than most of us would begin to imagine. Likewise, modern science shows that there are no silver bullets for disease prevention.
Aside from these points, there is still a common misconception that antibiotics are an effective cure-all for severe colds or flus. Increasing disease resistance to antibiotics means that these treatments need to be reserved for life threatening situations wherever possible. In addition, antibiotics are likely to attack your healthy microbiome bacteria, potentially increasing your disease susceptibility afterwards.
Lastly, does being cold give you a weak immune system? There are some mixed research findings across different types of populations, but the overall consensus is that there is a lack of evidence to support this. Instead, most experts agree that cold weather simply leads to more close contact with others indoors, making it easier for viruses to spread.
We have covered a lot of do’s and don’ts in this blog, but these 3 takeaways are fairly straight-forward to remember.
- Avoid lifestyle habits that are known to have significant health risks
- Practice a healthy lifestyle overall, to provide benefits to your immune system
- To be able fight off infectious diseases more effectively, take an integrated approach, rather than rely on a single ‘cure-all’
If you’re looking for more information, here are some helpful resources.
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