In times like these, everyone is understandably concerned with what they can do to improve their immune system. Let’s face it, we take it for granted how well our immune system generally works. Every second of every day, our body is aggressively fighting all kinds of microorganisms like bacteria and viruses that are invading thru any opening available. But it’s not perfect and there will be times that it will fail. Then the germ gets thru our defenses and proceeds to live off our body like a parasite until we fight back even harder. What we think of being sick is our body in full fighting mode and most of the time we wage a successful battle. But instead of taking our immune system for granted, are there ways we can help support it? Can our diet help? How about vitamins or supplements? Lifestyle changes? At the very least how can we avoid working against our immune system? There are all important questions we will address.
First things First
l need to stress that the first step is to follow the current safety measures such as washing your hands regularly, avoid touching your face, wearing a mask when appropriate, and practicing social distancing when possible. After all, full out war should be the last resort.
Also, there isn’t a single bullet or secret weapon. In fact, there are intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response that researchers just don’t understand.
How to boost your immune system
Incorporating a healthy lifestyle is the first step in improving your immune system. This shouldn’t surprise us since our parents and doctors have been drilling this into us all of our lives. Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when it has the support it needs. Here are some of the main points:
- Eat 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily
- Use Supplements when appropriate
- Identify and minimize stress
- Find ways to exercise on a regular basis
Diet and your immune system
Like any fighting force, the front line soldiers can only do their job if the supply corps in the rear are constantly providing the necessary food, supplies, and reinforcements. This is where a healthy diet plays a crucial role. A healthy, balanced diet is the key to enhancing your immune function and it involves hundreds of vitamins and minerals. We will highlight just a few below.
An essential nutrient, vitamin C acts as an antioxidant. Antioxidants help fight free radicals, a type of unstable molecule known to damage the immune system.1 There's some evidence that vitamin C may be particularly helpful in boosting the immune systems of people under major stress. To increase your vitamin C intake, add these foods to your diet: citrus fruits (such as orange and grapefruit,) kiwi fruit, red and green peppers, broccoli, and strawberries.
Vitamin E is also a powerful antioxidant. Research suggests maintaining ample levels of vitamin E is crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system, especially among older people. To get your fill of vitamin E, look to these foods: wheat germ, oil almonds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, and peanut butter.
Zinc is an essential mineral involved in the production of certain immune cells. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) caution that even mildly low levels of zinc may impair your immune function. Here are some top food sources of zinc: oysters, baked beans, cashews, raisin bran, and chickpeas.
Another type of antioxidant, carotenoids are a class of pigments found naturally in a number of plants. When consumed, carotenoids are converted into vitamin A (a nutrient that helps regulate the immune system). Carotenoids are better absorbed when cooked or eaten with fat. Look to these foods to boost your carotenoids: carrots, kale, apricots, papaya, mango, sweet potato, spinach, and collard greens.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of essential fatty acid known to suppress inflammation and keep the immune system in check.4 Although it's not known whether omega-3s can help fight off infections (such as the common cold), research suggests that omega-3s can protect against autoimmune disorders like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Try these omega-3-rich foods: oily fish (including mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines, herring, and trout,) flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds.
There are hundreds of other vitamins and minerals that are important to a healthy immune system. But if you are eating healthy foods you can be certain that you are getting them into your diet and in the right quantity and proportion to maintain a healthy immune system.
Supplements to Increase immunity
Many supplements claim to boost or support immunity but unfortunately, they rarely have any scientific studies to back up their claims. The immune system is too complicated with so many different cells and functions that it makes it difficult to know how and when they respond to one type of supplement. On top of that, there is no guarantee that what you are taking in fact is made of what the bottle advertises. There is no FDA regulation on the ingredients and potency of supplements.
There is some evidence that various micronutrient deficiencies — for example, deficiencies of zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E — alter immune responses in animals when measured in a lab. However, the impact of these immune system changes on the health of humans isn’t as clear cut. We do know that these same vitamins and minerals work better when taken as a package the way nature intended, in whole foods.
So, what can you do? If you know you aren’t eating a healthy balanced diet which should provide you with the micronutrient needs then taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement may bring some benefits, immune system and otherwise. Or if you have consulted with your doctor and are found to have a deficiency or in a higher age bracket, then some pharmacy grade supplements may be helpful. But taking more than you need probably won’t help and in fact it could cause more problems.
Immune system and age
As we age, our immune response capability becomes reduced, which in turn contributes to more infections and more cancer. As life expectancy in developed countries has increased, so too has the incidence of age-related immune conditions.
While some people age healthily, the conclusion of many studies is that, compared with younger people, the elderly are more likely to contract infectious diseases and, even more importantly, more likely to die from them. Respiratory infections, influenza, the COVID-19 virus and particularly pneumonia are a leading cause of death in people over 65 worldwide. No one knows for sure why this happens, but some scientists observe that this increased risk correlates with a decrease in T cells. Others are researching whether the bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing the stem cells that give rise to the cells of the immune system.
There appears to be a connection between nutrition and immunity in the elderly. A form of malnutrition that is surprisingly common even in affluent countries is known as "micronutrient malnutrition." Micronutrient malnutrition, in which a person is deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals that are obtained from or supplemented by diet, can happen in the elderly. Older people tend to eat less and often have less variety in their diets. One important question is whether dietary supplements may help older people maintain a healthier immune system. Older people should discuss this question with their doctor.
Stress and immune function
It took awhile but modern medicine has come to appreciate the closely linked relationship of mind and body. A wide variety of illnesses, including stomach upset, hives, and even heart disease, are linked to the effects of emotional stress. Despite the challenges, scientists are actively studying the relationship between stress and immune function.
For one thing, stress is difficult to define. What may appear to be a stressful situation for one person is not for another. When people are exposed to situations they regard as stressful, it is difficult for them to measure how much stress they feel. It is hard to perform what scientists call "controlled experiments" in human beings. In a controlled experiment, the scientist can change one and only one factor, such as the amount of a particular chemical, and then measure the effect of that change on some other measurable phenomenon, such as the amount of antibodies produced by a particular type of immune system cell when it is exposed to the chemical.
Despite these inevitable difficulties in measuring the relationship of stress to immunity, there is no doubt that whatever you can do to identify and mitigate the stressors in your life is key to a healthy mind, body, and immune function.
Does being cold give you a weak immune system?
Almost every mother has said it: "Wear a jacket or you'll catch a cold!" Is she right? It’s good advice to keep you comfortable but exposure to moderate cold temperatures doesn't increase your susceptibility to infection. There are two reasons why winter is "cold and flu season." In the winter, people spend more time indoors, in closer contact with other people who can pass on their germs. Also some viruses stay airborne longer when air is cold and less humid.
But researchers remain interested in this question in different populations. Some experiments with mice suggest that cold exposure might reduce the ability to cope with infection. But what about humans? Scientists have dunked people in cold water and made others sit nude in subfreezing temperatures. They've studied people who lived in Antarctica and those on expeditions in the Canadian Rockies. The results have been mixed. For example, researchers documented an increase in upper respiratory infections in competitive cross-country skiers who exercise vigorously in the cold, but whether these infections are due to the cold or other factors — such as the intense exercise or the dryness of the air — is not known.
A group of Canadian researchers that has reviewed hundreds of medical studies on the subject and conducted some of its own research concludes that there's no need to worry about moderate cold exposure — it has no detrimental effect on the human immune system. Should you bundle up when it's cold outside? The answer is "yes" if you're uncomfortable, or if you're going to be outdoors for an extended period where such problems as frostbite and hypothermia are a risk. But the direct connection to immunity is not evident.
Exercise: Good or bad for immunity?
Regular exercise is one of the pillars of healthy living. It improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects against a variety of diseases. But does it help to boost your immune system naturally and keep it healthy? Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system.
We do not know exactly how exercise increases your immunity to certain illnesses. There are several theories. However, none of these theories have been proven. Some of these theories are:
Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. This may reduce your chance of getting a cold, flu, or other illness.
Exercise may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently.
Exercise causes change in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body's immune system cells that fight disease. These antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before. However, no one knows whether these changes help prevent infections.
The brief rise in body temperature during and right after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing. This temperature rise may help the body fight infection better. (This is similar to what happens when you have a fever.)
Exercise slows down the release of stress hormones. Some stress increases the chance of illness. Lower stress hormones may protect against illness.
Okay, so what weakens your immune system?
- Maintaining an unhealthy weight
- Not getting enough sleep
- Not taking steps to avoid infection, such as prepping foods carefully and cooking meats thoroughly
- Excess alcohol intake
Give yourself a fighting chance
Whether you’ve been prone to getting sick or just want to maintain your immunity, there are many things you can do. Choosing healthy foods that support a healthy gut microbiome is more important than ever. Managing your mental health, staying physically active and getting enough sleep will also help to keep your immune system in good shape. And don’t forget to wash your hands!
If for whatever reason you have an injury or limitation that prevents you from getting started with exercise, you can contact Emery Physical Therapy at (847) 786-2014. Let us help you get back on track.