Flu season is just around the corner. Combine that with the current COVID-19, and it's no wonder that immune-boosting tips and tricks are trending.
From Instagram to Facebook, I see advertisements claiming their supplement boosts your immune system. Or the ones that make me laugh; their product will protect you from getting sick.
I believe in some of these products' benefits, but no supplement is an instant boost all to immunity. There is no magic pill that you can take that can improve your immune system immediately or within a week or two. If there were, people wouldn't get sick!
But people still do get sick. And it's usually because their immune system is not strong enough to fight the virus. Hence why we see companies selling immune-boosting products.
Our immune system health is vital in fighting COVID-19 and for any infection or illness.
Maintaining a strong and healthy immune system takes a holistic approach. A holistic approach to boosting your immune system considers the whole picture – mental, physical, and social.
A holistic approach to a healthy immune system starts with a balanced diet, adequate sleep, exercise, and low stress. If you only pop a pill every day, hoping that keeps you healthy, but you lack sleep, eat lousy food, and barely get off the couch, you are not boosting your immune system at all.
Understanding How Your Immune System Works
Your immune system is your body's defense against infection and illness.
The immune system comprises of different types of cells and molecules, like antibodies. Parts of your immune system you can see, like your tears, your skin, and mucus. Other parts you can't see, like blood cells and bone marrow.
The immune system is pretty cool. It recognizes which cells in your body are supposed to be there and which ones have invaded your body. The immune system's function is to rid your body of any outside attacks before you get ill.
The First Line of Defense
The first line of defense is called the innate (or natural) immune system. The innate immune system's job is to stop harmful microbes from getting inside your body in the first place. These are the parts of your immune system you can see or feel: skin, mucus membranes, tears, saliva, and blood clots.
The Second Line of Defense
When the first line of defense doesn't stop the harmful microbes from entering your body, your body naturally activates the next line of defense. The cells in your body have antigens that identify your cells as a natural part of your body.
The antigens are how your body can detect an intruder. When your body detects an intruder, every cell in your body primes itself to make antiviral molecules. This response is immediate.
It is the cause of fever and inflammation of the tissues as the cells start to die. The cells dying is a natural mechanism when the cells recognize they are infected.
The immune system is pretty incredible; heck, the human body is pretty incredible. The immune system uses your defender cells (white blood cells) to fight off infection and bacteria.
Did you know your body makes about 1000 million defender cells every day in your bone marrow?
Macrophages, part of defender cells, are moving around your body, always looking for invaders.
The Third Line of Defense
Your natural immunity has been working to fight the invaders, but the sneaky intruders (infection) still got past your macrophages. Now your immune system goes to its third line of defense, the adaptive system.
The adaptive system is our immune system's defense gained throughout life as we are exposed to diseases or protected against them from vaccinations.
It can take 5-10 days for this system to identify the antibodies needed and produce them to attack the invader. This line of defense includes T- and B-cells.
T-cells try to kill infected cells. And B-cells produce antibodies that either neutralize the invader or coat them with a substance so the T-cells can recognize them and kill them.
The Strength of Your Immune System Depends on All 3 Lines of Defense
Our bodies need to be nimble (quick and smart) to find a virus and kill it. A robust, healthy immune system is nimble.
If you're not over the age of 60 or have a compromised immune system, you may have a pretty nimble immune system.
But people over 60 or with a compromised immune system don't. It's why they are more prone to getting sick and have a more challenging time recovering when they do get sick.
All three defense lines depend on each other to function correctly, and no single line of defense is more important than the other.
Generally, the immune system does an incredible job protecting us from infection or illness. But sometimes it does fail, and we get sick. It's why boosting your immune system is so appealing.
There is limited research to show whether you can boost your immune system with vitamins, supplements, or lifestyle changes. And boosting your immune system is not necessarily a good thing. When you "boost" your immune system, you increase the number of cells in your body.
There are many different kinds of cells in your immune system that respond to different microbes; knowing which cells you should "boost" and to what number is complicated.
A boosted immune system could mean your innate system is in overdrive, and you would continuously not feel well. A boosted immune system would mean a constant runny nose, fever, lethargy, and depression.
Here Are 4 Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System
Our immune system's strength should be our focus over a boosted system. And this happens by the germs exposed to us throughout life and individual lifestyle factors such as stress, sleep, diet, and exercise.
So how do you keep your immune system healthy, so it stays nimble and ready to fight against invaders, new and old?
1. What You Eat Is Crucial to a Healthy Immune System
Stop looking for a quick fix and create a balanced nutritious lifestyle. Eat foods that are good for your heart, lungs, and kidney. To keep it simple, avoid highly processed foods and foods with lots of added sugar.
A balanced diet doesn't mean you need to eat one vegetable three times a day and call it good. A balanced diet requires you to eat nutrients from a range of healthy food sources.
Your body needs foods that contain vitamins A, B, C, D, and E and the minerals iron, zinc, and selenium.
These nutrients play essential roles in your immune system.
- Vitamin A and Zinc help maintain the integrity of the skin and lining of vital organs and the respiratory system (first line of defense)
- Vitamin B12 and Iron are essential for the production of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to the blood.
- Vitamin C, E, and Selenium help control inflammation by cleaning up the impact of oxidative stress generated by free radicals that enter cell walls causing the contents to leak.
oily fish, eggs, cheese, tofu, nuts, seeds, whole grains, & legumes
Vitamin B6 (riboflavin)
cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, chicken, & meat
| Vitamin B9 (folate)
green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts & seeds
animal products, including eggs, meat & dairy, & also in fortified soy milk
| Vitamin C
oranges, lemons, limes, berries, kiwifruit, broccoli, tomatoes, & capsicum
mainly sunlight, but is also found in some foods such as eggs & fish
| Vitamin E
nuts, green leafy vegetables, & vegetable oils
meat, chicken, & fish
Vegetarian sources include legumes, whole grains, & iron-fortified cereals
oysters & other seafood, meat, chicken, dried beans & nuts
nuts, especially Brazil nuts & meat, cereals, mushrooms.
2. Maintain Low-Stress Levels
Stress hurts your immune system, literally. The stress hormone cortisol turns off cells in your immune system, making it harder to fight infection.
But when the world seems to be in crisis, how does one stop stressing?
- Exercise. Thirty minutes a day helps maintain physical and mental health and lowers stress.
- Yoga. There are excellent yoga fitness programs available online. Try one out. It's called a practice for a reason. The more you do it, the better you feel.
- Meditation. Supports brain chemicals and hormones that help you regulate stress and fight off sickness.
- Mindfulness. Combines meditation, body awareness, and yoga to help one become more mindful and present. It can even rewire your brain!
- Massage. Ask your loved one to give you a brief 15-minute massage once a week to help lower the stress hormone cortisol.
- Nature. Taking walks in green spaces or even looking at pictures of nature can increase your resilience to stress.
- Chores. Who knew washing dishes, gardening, or other house chores could calm the mind and decrease stress. We should all have spotless homes and lawns by the end of "stay at home."
- Help Others. Lots of people need help right now. Leaves need raking, and groceries need delivering. There are ways to help others while practicing social distancing to help you feel good and lower your stress.
Do you have other suggestions on how you lower your stress? We would love to hear from you. Comment below!
3. Get Your Body Up and Moving
Long-term or regular exercise is beneficial for healthy living.
Exercise improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects against various diseases. It also promotes good circulation, allowing cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body more freely and do their job more efficiently.
Just because exercise is good for your health doesn't mean you need to workout hours a day or train like an elite athlete. Over-exercising will weaken your immune system. But low and moderate-intensity exercise helps with immune-system function because it lowers your cortisol levels.
Remember, slow and steady wins the race. Go for a walk every day. Start at 30 minutes and work your way up to 60 minutes. Then try jogging, biking, or add other forms of movement- yoga, HIIT, weights, swimming, or tennis.
4. Turn Your Phones Off and Get Some Good Sleep
Lack of sleep affects your immune system. People who don't sleep enough or don't sleep well have a higher chance of getting sick.
Sleep is essential to your immune health. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which helps promote sleep. Specific cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation or are under stress. A lack of sleep may decrease the production of these protective cytokines.
Your body needs sleep to fight infections and diseases.
- Adults need 7-8 hours of sleep.
- Teens need 9-10 hours of sleep.
- School-aged children need 10+ hours of sleep.
More sleep is not necessarily better, but the quality of sleep is crucial. To get quality sleep:
- Stick to a sleep schedule.
- Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual.
- Avoid electronics before bed.
A holistic approach to health and wellness is about creating a lifestyle, not a quick fix. Exercise, sleep, and a balanced diet have so many benefits to your health and helping your body benefit from the vitamins and supplements you are taking.
Use this fall to create new, healthy habits for you and your family. Don't boost your immune system; create a balanced lifestyle that keeps it nimble all year long.
Now, turn this off and go for that walk!