Your immune system plays a vital role: It protects your body from harmful substances, germs and cellular changes that can make you sick. For many of us, we hardly give our immune system a moment of thought as long as it is running smoothly. It often isn’t until we get ill from a virus or bacteria that we are forced to slow down and consider steps to better support our health and wellness.
I’ve outlined 4 simple and mostly free ways to give your immune system a tune-up.
STEP #1: Embrace a balanced and health affirming lifestyle. Many of us find prioritizing our self-care every day to be challenging. Whether it be our spouses, children, careers, etc. we often put ourselves last in the pecking order. I challenge you to consider this – you will be much more available to support your loved ones if you first take care of yourself. When I think of what is means to take care of oneself there are a lot of things that come to mind:
Understand your stressors and work towards positive strategies to reduce them and/or engage with them in a healthy way. While not everyone may be into meditation or qigong, incorporating various strategies and finding the ones that work for you are key. Several key go to strategies include: exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, counseling, talking with friends, dancing, yoga, qigong, art, and much more. I would venture to say that things that bring you joy are generally the most effective at reducing stress levels.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise. Not only an excellent strategy for stress reduction, exercise also boosts your immune system. A study conducted at Appalachian State University and the University of North Carolina, with results published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that the more physically fit and active you are, the less likely you are to suffer colds in the winter months. One possible mechanism hypothesized by researchers is that each bout of exercise causes a transient increase in immune system activity, increasing the numbers of white blood cells and immunoglobulin in the blood, which acts to reduce a person¹s susceptibility to illness. A good rule of thumb if you aren’t currently exercising is to start slowly and steadily build yourself up to 30 minutes of exercise, 5-7 days per week.
Ensure you are getting enough quality sleep. Studies have shown that lack of quality sleep and inadequate amounts of sleep increase someone’s susceptibility of getting sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold virus. Lack of sleep can also factor in to how fast you recover when you do get sick. While asleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, i.e., chemical messengers. When you have an infection, inflammation, or are under stress, certain cytokines need to increase in response. Sleep deprivation is thought to decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods of time when you don't get adequate sleep. To be put simply, our body needs sleep to fight infectious diseases. It doesn’t stop there. Long-term lack of sleep also increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease. You may wonder how much sleep do you need to bolster your immune system? The optimal amount of sleep for most adults is 7 to 9 hours of good sleep each night. Teenagers need 9 to 10 hours of sleep. School-aged children may need 10 or more hours of sleep.
STEP #2: Feed your body the building blocks it needs to thrive. Your body is like a well-oiled machine. If you want your immune system to perform optimally, you have to eat in a way that is nourishing to your body. Below I’ve provided a few key tips:
Eat your veggies! This may bring flashbacks from your childhood but it is still excellent advice. Vegetables are high in vitamins and minerals. Both of which are essential to the function of your immune system and metabolic pathways. I recommend aiming for 6-8 servings of vegetables per day.
Avoid refined and processed foods. Highly refined foods such as white flour, sugar, and corn syrup have been shown to decrease the immune response. Chemicals and preservatives in processed foods put an added burden on your liver, the powerhouse of organs for detoxification. With increased toxins needing to be cleaned up, your body will have less energy to focus on defending against external threats, such as viruses and bacteria.
Consume alcohol in moderation. Alcohol is processed by your liver placing added stress on your major detoxification organ, thus pulling resources away from your immune system. Be a liver lover and limit your consumption of alcohol to 1 drink per day. If you feel you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, reach out to your health care provider for support and resources.
STEP #3: Provide your body and cells with adequate hydration. All too often overlooked, proper hydration is a key factor to a well-functioning body. Staying hydrated helps your body naturally eliminate toxins and other bacteria that may cause illness. Two of your lesser known (yet still very important) organs of detoxification include your kidneys and skin, both of which rely on adequate hydration to excrete waste products from our bodies. This is accomplished through the production of urine by your kidneys and the release of toxins through sweat from your skin. The cause and effect are pretty simple. Inadequate water results in the buildup of waste products in your body. Your body must then expend extra resources to breakdown these harmful metabolites which draws resources away from your immune system. I like to use a basic equation to determine how much water you need daily. Take your body weight in pounds and divide it in half. This is the number of ounces per day that you should drink (i.e., if you weigh 150 pounds a good daily water goal is 75 ounces).
STEP #4: Don’t forget the importance of good hygiene. Hand washing is a classic, right? It will always be a top recommendation because it minimizes your exposure to a virus. If you touch a surface that is contaminated with a pathogen, simply by washing your hands thoroughly, you are able to remove it from the surface of your body before it migrates to the interior and makes itself at home and wreaks havoc on your immune system.
I encourage you to be strategic with your hand washing as well. If you are in close proximity to lots of people during the course of your day or if you know you have come in contact with someone displaying symptoms of a virus, washing your hands more frequently and immediately following a potential exposure is critical. Although maybe not convenient, these means rewashing your hands even if exposures are only five minutes apart. Likewise, if you have minimal interactions with other people throughout your day your need for hand washing will be less. Keep in mind, while hand washing you want to thoroughly clean all surfaces of your hands with soap for at least 30 seconds.
With a more severe pathogen in our midst, many are on the hunt for ways to avoid exposure to the virus and minimize the possibility of becoming sick. I encourage you to support your immune system from within by incorporating the steps outlined above into your daily routine. If you are interested in finding additional steps to bolster your immune system, please consider reaching out to a naturopathic doctor to discuss an individualized plan specific to your unique health care needs.