- Why Should You Boost Your Immune System?
- What Does Your Immune System Do?
- Benefits of Having a Healthy Immune System
- The Connection Between Immune Health and Heart Disease
- How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally
- The Bottom Line
Why Should You Boost Your Immune System?
Your immune system is amazing. It protects you from infectious diseases and fights battles daily to make sure you stay healthy and strong. Sometimes, though, it backfires, and you get sick with anything ranging from a minor common cold to something more severe that requires hospitalization.
So, how can you defend yourself from germs and make sure your immune system is strong and healthy?
The good news is that there are several lifestyle choices that you can make to boost your immune system and keep your immune system healthy. Of course, you want to follow precautions, like washing your hands regularly. It is also important to cover your mouth when you cough and stay away from sick people. Vaccines such as the flu shot can protect you and build up your immunity to infectious diseases.
There are other things you can do to build a robust immune system. Avoiding smoking, processed foods, and a sedentary lifestyle can all help you stay healthy; so you can incorporate more whole foods into your diet and making some changes to your lifestyle.
Before we get into details about what specific things you should do to boost your immune system, you should know what your immune system is and why keeping it healthy is so important.
What Does Your Immune System Do?
One reason it’s so complicated to keep your immune system healthy is that it is just that—a system. In particular, your immune system is made up of a complex web of moving parts, all working together to fight off viruses, toxins, harmful bacteria, and germs so you can stay healthy.
Unlike other systems, such as the digestive system, the immune system isn’t centralized in one part of your body. Instead, it is interconnected to every other system in your body, so it’s difficult to point to one specific thing that can make or break your immune health. That’s why balance and a healthy lifestyle are so important.
There are three crucial immune system functions:
- Fighting and removing disease-causing germs (called pathogens) from the body.
- Recognizing and neutralizing foreign toxic substances (called antigens) from the environment.
- Fighting changes in the body caused by disease, such as cancerous cells.
The immune system has two main parts that work together to keep us safe from foreign toxins and invaders—the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system.
The Innate Immune System
As soon as we enter the world, our bodies are prepared to fight off anything that tries to attack us. The innate immune system has cells called phagocytes, which engulf an invader and kill it.
The innate immune system provides general defense against foreign invaders. However, it’s not enough to combat many specific pathogens and antigens. When the innate immune system is faced with a contagion that it can’t kill, the adaptive immune system kicks in.
The Adaptive (Acquired) Immune System
As the name implies, the adaptive immune system (also referred to as the acquired immune system) adapts as you become exposed to new germs, toxins, and pathogens. Every time your body fights off a new pathogen, the immune system becomes stronger and better able to protect your body from the same invader.
As you age, your adaptive immune system will strengthen and develop antibodies to fight off infections and viruses. Cells called B lymphocytes develop antibodies after being exposed to an invader.
Unfortunately, our adaptive immune system peaks at a certain point. When we get older, our immune system’s capabilities start to reduce. This is why many people develop serious illnesses, such as cancer, when they are older. It’s also why older adults are grouped as a vulnerable population when it comes to severe illnesses like the flu.
Why Does Your Immune System Decline With Age?
Researchers aren’t sure why our immune system declines as we age. It could be due to a reduction in T-cells (a type of white blood cell), which are essential for fighting off infection. It could also be due to the bone marrow becoming less efficient. One thing researchers recognize is the importance of nutrition in immune health. People in the elderly population tend to eat less food than other age groups, which means they are less likely to get all the nutrients they need from their meals.
The best way to set yourself up to have a healthy immune system now and in the future is to take care of your body.
Parts of the Immune System
Think of your immune system as a network, running throughout your body to detect and kill invaders. Specifically, white blood cells, also called leukocytes, live throughout your body, specifically in your bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus (that’s a gland that sits between your neck and lungs).
When it finds a pathogen, a white blood cell will multiply and simultaneously send out a signal to have other white blood cells do the same, effectively creating an army of immune cells that is ready to attack and kill pathogens and antigens.
There are several types of white blood cells, each with a different role and function.
- Monocytes: These help break down bacteria and have a longer lifespan than other white blood cells.
- Lymphocytes: These white blood cells create antibodies to fight potentially harmful invaders such as viruses and bacteria. They are made up of T-cells and B-cells.
- Neutrophils: These kill and digest bacteria and fungi. They are your body’s first line of defense when infection strikes and, in a healthy person, are the type of white blood cell that has the most volume in your body.
- Basophils: These white blood cells secrete chemicals to control your body’s immune response and “sound the alarm” when they notice that an infectious agent has invaded your bloodstream.
- Eosinophils: These cells attack and kill cancer cells and parasites. They also help with allergic responses.
Interestingly, the majority of your immune system resides in your gut. Research suggests that as much as 70 percent of our immune system resides in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, otherwise known as our gut. As we will discuss in depth below, eating the right foods promotes good gut health and can help you build a strong immune system.
Benefits of Having a Healthy Immune System
When you have a healthy immune system, you are less likely to get sick from both minor and major illnesses. As a result, you are also less likely to pass on an illness to those around you, including your loved ones. This can be especially important for those who live and work with people in vulnerable communities, such as children, the elderly, and people who are immunocompromised.
A healthy immune system isn’t just important during cold and flu season. Every time you enter a new environment, your body is exposed to potential pathogens. That means that you could be exposed to pathogens when you go to work, visit a friend, or pick up groceries. When you boost your immune system, it’s able to ward off most pathogens effectively. But when it’s weak, it can let in germs and bacteria that it would otherwise inoculate.
Weak vs. Strong Immune System
Most of us are born with a robust immune system. It can become weak over time due to lifestyle habits. The immune system can also become weak from certain diseases that compromise it. Some conditions that weaken the immune system and are classified as autoimmune diseases include the following:
- Graves’ disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus
- Inflammatory bowel disease
There are several cons to having a weak immune system. First, a weakened immune system means that you are more susceptible to getting illnesses of all kinds, from minor ones to those that can become life-threatening. When you do get sick, you are more likely to stay sick for longer than you would if you had a healthy immune system. That’s because when your immune system is weak, your body has a more difficult time fighting off infections.
Even worse, people with a weakened immune system are more likely to suffer severe symptoms, up to and including death from illnesses that a healthy immune system would have been able to fight off.
You don’t need to have an autoimmune disorder to have a weak immune system. Running low on sleep, eating unhealthy foods, skipping out on workouts, and experiencing bouts of prolonged stress can all negatively impact your immune system and weaken it.
Some signs that you may have a weakened immune system include the following:
- You feel stressed all the time
- Your wounds take a long time to heal
- You have frequent infections that require antibiotics
- You frequently experience gas, constipation, or diarrhea
- You’re always getting sick, even when it’s not cold and flu season
- You’re exhausted even when you have slept for seven or more hours
Importance of Having a Healthy White Blood Cell Count
Having a healthy white blood cell count in your body is essential for proper immune function. You might think that a high white blood cell count equals a healthy immune system, but that isn’t necessarily the case. When it comes to white blood cells, you don’t want to have too few or too many.
Both extremes can cause problems for an otherwise healthy adult. If you have concerns about your white blood cell count, you can talk to your doctor about having your white blood cell levels checked. The process is relatively simple. You will get blood drawn, and then it will be sent to a lab for testing.
Impact of a low white blood cell count
White blood cells are made in your bone marrow. They only have a lifespan of about 1 – 3 days, so your bone marrow is always making them. A normal range for white blood cells is 4,000 – 11,000 per microliter of blood. If your blood test shows that you have less than 4,000 white blood cells per microliter, then you could be considered to have a low white blood cell count.
In many cases, you are still perfectly healthy and have nothing to worry about. In others, though, a white blood cell count could point to a more significant underlying health issue that your doctor will be able to diagnose.
You could have a low white blood cell count (also called leukopenia) because your bone marrow is unable to create enough white blood cells to keep you healthy. You could also have a low blood cell count because you are fighting off an infection, or because your body has been exposed to radiation or cancer treatment that is killing off your white blood cells.
Some common reasons for a low white blood cell count include the following:
- Severe infections
- Autoimmune disorder
- Bone marrow disorder
- Bone marrow damage
- Diseases in the liver or spleen
- Radiation therapy or chemotherapy
- Certain medications, including antibiotics
Impact of a high white blood cell count
On the other end of the spectrum, you can have a high white blood cell count (called leukocytosis). This could indicate an underlying problem, such as chronic stress, inflammation, trauma, infection, allergies, or be a sign of certain diseases.
Generally, a white blood cell count of 10,500 or higher is considered high (this can vary based on the doctor or lab you are working with). People with leukocytosis could have symptoms such as bleeding, bruising, general pain, fever, weight loss, and fainting.
Some common reasons for a high white blood cell count include the following:
- Certain immune system disorders such as Chron’s or Graves’ disease
The Connection Between Immune Health and Heart Disease
Even though there are plenty of serious illnesses out there, heart disease is the number one cause of death around the world. The troubling thing about heart disease is that you don’t necessarily need to have high blood pressure or other risk factors. In fact, many people who die from heart disease don’t have common risk factors, such as a history of smoking, obesity, an unhealthy diet, diabetes, family history, or high blood pressure. If you do have any of these risk factors, then it’s especially important to take steps to improve your immune system and heart health.
It turns out, inflammation is a likely culprit of heart disease, and inflammation is closely connected to your immune system. Doctors have observed inflammation at the site of plaque for at least a century. Until recently, though, they didn’t consider that inflammation could be a cause of heart disease, not just a result of swelling.
There’s evidence to suggest that the buildup of cholesterol crystals in plaque can trigger the immune system to release molecules that cause inflammation and lead to heart attacks and strokes by injuring blood vessels and destabilizing plaque. In serious cases, this can result in death.
So, what does all this mean in real terms, and how does it impact your health?
Essentially, by sticking to a diet that supports immune health, you will also be reducing inflammation in your body and reducing your risk of heart disease. You don’t need to have any of the common risk factors of heart disease to get it. By proactively following a lifestyle that supports healthy immune function, you will be setting yourself up for good cardiovascular health, thereby lowering your chances of getting heart disease.
How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally
Now that you know a little more about how your immune system functions, you should know what you can do to boost it naturally so that you can keep your body strong and healthy. Even those who are immunocompromised due to an autoimmune disorder or cancer treatment can practice some healthy lifestyle habits that can lead to better overall immune system health.
The best things you can do to help boost your immune system include:
- Staying hydrated
- Eating the right foods
- Getting regular exercise
- Sleeping enough every night
- Trying holistic treatments, such as acupuncture
Drink Water to Boost Your Immune System
Staying hydrated is important in general. But especially during flu season or if you think you have a weakened immune system. It is vital for you to put down dehydrating drinks. So say no to drinks like sodas, coffee, and alcohol, and instead pour yourself a nice big glass of water.
Water won’t necessarily boost your immune system on its own. It doesn’t contain any immune-boosting properties that can turn you into Superwoman (unfortunately). It does, however, have the ability to help you stay focused and healthy as it naturally flushes out toxins, all of which can prevent illnesses.
Without enough water in your system, you can quickly become dehydrated. When you’re dehydrated, you are more susceptible to headaches, which can hinder your physical performance and cause you to have adverse effects on your heart and kidney functions. Being dehydrated can also negatively impact your digestive system, leading you to become more susceptible to illnesses.
How Much Should You Drink?
In general, adults should aim to drink at least eight eight-ounce glasses of water per day. If you are active or outdoors in the heat, you should drink more to make up for the loss of fluids. Many adults can get the water they need simply by following their thirst signals and choosing water instead of sugary drinks when they are thirsty. However, as we age, we tend to lose our ability to signal thirst. This leads many people to drink less water than they need as they grow older if they only follow their thirst signals.
To make it easier to drink water throughout the day, fill up a 20-ounce water bottle and set it on your desk or carry it with you as you go through your day. Fill it up at least two additional times during the day, and then have a glass of water at the end of the night. If you don’t like the taste of plain water, try dressing it up. Add a lemon or lime wedge, cucumber slices, or citrus fruits.
How to Boost Your Immune System with Food
It’s probably going to come as no surprise to you that the best foods to boost your immune system are natural, whole foods. That means limiting your intake of sugars and sweets, along with processed foods, starches, and alcohol and increasing your intake of whole fruits and vegetables, swapping out processed meat for organic meat, and adding probiotic-rich foods to your daily diet.
Instead of eating processed foods and sugars, try adding these foods that boost your immune system to your diet:
Oranges and other citrus fruits can help improve your immune system. While you should incorporate them into your daily diet, adding some extra vitamin C when you start to feel that tickle in the back of your throat can shorten the amount of time that you have to suffer through a cold.
Citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes, have been shown to raise the number of white blood cells in your body. This can help you fight off infections and make sure you don’t end up with a dangerously low white blood cell count level. Because your body doesn’t store vitamin C, you can eat citrus fruits every day without worrying about going overboard or having too much vitamin C
Good news for garlic lovers—in addition to adding delicious flavor to your meals and making your kitchen smell like a gourmet restaurant, garlic can also be good for your immune health!
The National Cancer Institute recognizes that garlic may have certain anti-cancer properties; however, it does not recommend that people take garlic supplements as a way to prevent cancer altogether. Also, if you are taking blood thinners or are preparing for surgery, you should check with your doctor before taking garlic supplements as they may increase bleeding.
Often used to handle nausea and upset stomachs, ginger can also help improve your immune system by decreasing inflammation. Rich in antioxidants, ginger can do everything from helping soothe a sore throat to reducing chronic pain. You can buy fresh ginger root from your local grocery store and add it to your foods for a deliciously healthy flavor burst.
Spinach is another vitamin C-rich food that can improve your immune system health. In addition to vitamin C, spinach also has beta carotene and antioxidants, which can both increase your immune system’s ability to fight infections.
To get the most benefits out of your spinach, eat it raw or with as little cooking as possible so that you can retain the nutrients. A spinach salad can be a great lunch or dinner, or you can add spinach to your morning smoothie.
Full of antioxidants, matcha is one of the best drinks for your immune health. It’s natural detoxification qualities help rid your body of toxins and other things that don’t belong there. It is also full of minerals and vitamins that help replenish the body.
There are fun ways you can enjoy matcha, including smoothies, lattes and you can even cook with it too. Be wary of matcha drinks that can be falsely advertised as healthy. Many of these drinks are loaded with sugar, so be sure to ask before ordering out. Matcha is best made at home.
As we mentioned, most of the immune system lives in the gut, which is where bacteria and microorganisms live. The key to a healthy immune system is healthy gut bacteria, which you can get from eating fermented foods. These foods naturally contain probiotics, which have been shown to improve gut health.
The process of fermentation is ancient. It was traditionally used as a way to store foods before they went bad. During the fermentation process, yeast and bacteria break down carbs such as sugar and starch. Some examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, olives, yogurt, cheese, and kimchi. Some people experience side effects such as gas or a sore stomach, so keep that in mind if you start eating fermented foods. It may be best to begin slowly instead of going all in.
When it comes to fats, they aren’t all created equal. Incorporating more healthy fats into your daily diet can improve your overall health and positively impact your immune system. Researchers have found that increasing fatty acids can boost the number of T-cells in your body. Some examples of healthy fats include avocados, nuts, olive oil, and eggs.
Omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties, meaning they can reduce inflammation throughout your body and support heart health. Find them in eggs, fatty fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, herring, lake trout, and mackerel). You can also get Omega-3 fats in walnuts, flaxseed, hemp seeds, and chia seeds.
Immune System Boosting Vitamins and Minerals
Sometimes, eating the right blend of fruits and vegetables still isn’t enough to boost your immune system and get all the nutrients you need. Several vitamins are known to boost immunity. Here’s a breakdown of what they are and how you can incorporate them into your diet.
The effects of zinc are amazing! Researchers have found that zinc is an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory actions. This mineral has been shown to improve immunity for everything from a common cold to preventing blindness in patients who had age-related macular degeneration.
One study found that participants who took a zinc supplement of at least 75 mg when they had a cold reduced the duration of their cold by 33 percent. Imagine spending 33 percent less time in bed when you were sick!
You can find zinc lozenges at your local store or pharmacy. You can also add zinc supplements to your routine. If you want to get zinc naturally, it can be found in meat, nuts, seafood, dairy products, beans, and some fortified cereals.
It should be noted that taking more than 40mg of zinc a day can affect your body’s ability to absorb copper, which can lead to anemia, so talk to your doctor first about the safest dosage for you.
You probably have wondered, does vitamin C boost the immune system? The answer is a resounding YES. The average person should get about 90 mg of vitamin C per day. You can usually get this if you eat a balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables. If you have one orange, you’re already over three-quarters of the way toward meeting your recommended daily intake.
Vitamin C impacts immunity in a few ways. First, it reduces inflammation, which, as we know, can affect your immune function. It has been shown to increase the amount and spread of lymphocytes in your body (these are the immune cells that increase the number of antibodies that circulate in your bloodstream). Studies have also shown that taking vitamin C when you have a cold can reduce your amount of sick time.
As we mentioned above, you can get vitamin C from a variety of citrus fruits, plus spinach and broccoli. You can also take supplements too.
A lot of people don’t realize they are deficient in vitamin D This deficiency can lead to a variety of problems, including fatigue, decreased bone density, depression, and a weakened immune system. Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to lead to an increased risk of developing an infection or catching a disease.
Vitamin D is essential for your immune health. Research has demonstrated that it has anti-inflammatory properties that make it crucial for activating your immune system’s defenses. Vitamin D also enhances your immune cell’s functions, specifically your T-cells.
You can get vitamin D naturally from the sun. Depending on the time of year and where you are located, it will vary how much sun exposure you need. For example, if you are living in Florida, you will only need 15-20 minutes of direct sunlight in the summer. This will help you reach your daily dose of vitamin D. The best time to do this is midday. It is also important to remember that direct sunlight means without sunscreen, as it can hinder your body’s vitamin D absorption.
You can also find vitamin D in fortified foods and milk as well as eggs, tuna, salmon, and swordfish. If you think you might be deficient in vitamin D, talk to your doctor. She can do a blood test to test your vitamin D levels and recommend a supplement dosage to get you where you need to be.
Initially used in folk medicine, elderberry is quickly becoming known for its healing and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s been known to help fight upper respiratory and boost your immune system for centuries. And there are plenty of anecdotal stories that support the claim.
You can buy elderberries in a lot of forms, including elderberry tea, jam, and syrup. You can also find elderberry gummies, pills, and tablets. Because elderberry use is still debated among medical professionals, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before taking a supplement. It may be harmful to people who have compromised immune systems. Women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid taking elderberry. There is not enough known yet about how it can impact fetal or newborn development.
In addition to drinking enough water and eating the right foods, it’s also essential to make sure you are getting enough exercise so you can have a healthy, functioning immune system.
Exercise can boost your immune system in several ways. First, it improves your overall circulation, which can improve the way that your immune cells flow through your body. In addition, research has shown that acute exercise can enhance your body’s defenses and reduce inflammation.
The key here is “acute.” Intense exercise can weaken your immune system. The same study found that the risk of getting a serious illness increased for athletes when they were training intently or competing. However, habitually exercising at a moderate intensity level can improve your body’s immune regulation. As a bonus, regular exercise improves your mental health and can lead you to follow other healthy habits. This can include drinking water, eating the right foods, and getting the sleep you need to stay healthy.
What Is The Best Type Of Exercise?
The best types of exercise to do to boost your immune system are cardiovascular. These include walking at a pace of at least a 15-minute mile, running, cycling, swimming, or working out on the elliptical machine. Keep your workouts to 60 minutes or less, as your body starts to become stressed when it hits the 60-minute mark.
Strength training hasn’t been shown to reduce immune function, but there haven’t been conclusive studies to indicate that it helps. The same is true for interval training.
If you’re feeling sick, it’s better to rest than to stick to your regular workout routine. Working out when you’re sick can deplete your body of the energy it needs to repair and heal. If you feel like you need to move even though you’re starting to feel sick, stick to a light workout, such as taking a short walk or doing restorative yoga.
We’re all guilty of skipping out on sleep now and then. But habitually skimping on sleep can lead to a decrease in immune function and leave you susceptible to getting sick more frequently.
The average adult needs 7 – 8 hours of sleep per night. While getting less sleep for a night or two won’t cause permanent damage, consistently falling below the seven-hour mark can take a significant toll on your health.
When we sleep, our bodies run through a series of processes that are designed to repair injuries and help our bodies recover from stress. One of these processes is the release of cytokines from the immune system. Some of these proteins increase with stress or inflammation. If you skip out on sleep, then you will skip out on getting these essential proteins. These essential proteins are needed to help your body heal.
Lack Of Sleep And Its Toll On The Body
Getting enough sleep has also been correlated with enhancing T-cell responses. Researchers have found that getting an adequate amount of sleep can improve the way that your T-cells respond, which can have dramatic effects on how your body feels and acts physically and mentally.
Missing out on sleep can lead to a higher risk of several serious illnesses, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. If you have a night or two in which you get less than the recommended amount of sleep, you can make up for it by taking a nap during the day. Try to limit your nap to only 20 – 30 minutes. If you take a nap that’s too long, you’ll likely have trouble falling asleep at night.
We live in stressful times, which can lower our immune responses. There are a few ways you can reduce your stress levels naturally. The best way is by using holistic methods that have been used for centuries.
Studies suggest that meditation can improve your immune system’s responses by reducing inflammation and improving circulation. Even five minutes of guided meditation a day can help you lower your stress levels and improve your immune health. Find a quiet space to sit. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. If it’s challenging to sit still and quiet, you can find guided meditation apps that can gently help you calm your mind.
Research has shown that eucalyptus and ginger essential oils may have properties that can improve your immune function. You can inhale them using an oil diffuser or put a few drops into a bath to help you relax and fall asleep easier.
Adopt a Positive Attitude
It might seem impossible at times, but having a glass-half-full type of attitude could help you stay healthy. Feeling anxious or stressed can lower your body’s immune responses in the short-term and long-term. Try to focus on finding the good in stressful situations.
People have been using acupuncture as a holistic medical treatment for thousands of years. Research shows that it can help treat a range of ailments. It can also keep you from getting sick and improve your immune system’s function by releasing white blood cells. Talk to your acupuncturist about any specific concerns you have so they can provide the right type of treatment. And don’t worry about pain–the needles used in acupuncture are extremely thin and don’t hurt when they get inserted.
Yup, you read that right. Researchers have discovered that people who have sex once or twice a week have more antibodies in their bodies than people who have sex less than once a week. Sex helps your body produce antibodies that can protect your body against viruses and germs that could otherwise compromise your immune system.
The Bottom Line
Your immune system plays a significant role in your overall health. It protects us from toxins and invaders that can make us sick. It also keeps us from getting sick from the same disease twice by building up immunity.
If you are concerned that your immune system isn’t living up to its full potential, take steps to improve your health. Drinking enough water, eating the right foods, getting the right nutrients, exercising, getting enough sleep at night, and trying holistic methods are natural steps you can take to improve your overall health. When you’ve boosted your immune system, and it is working correctly, the rest of your body will be able to function as well.
Make sure you talk to your doctor about any specific questions or concerns that you have about your immune health. If you are taking medications or have a diagnosed disorder, speak with your doctor before trying supplements. Do this to make sure there aren’t any risks or interactions that you need to be aware of.