Keep your immune system strong

When your body is under attack from invading bacteria and viruses, you want the best defenses possible. Unfortunately, there are many factors like age, lifestyle, stress and chronic illness that can keep your immune system from functioning at its best.

While there isn’t a magic pill or shot to rev the immune system like a car engine, there are many things we can do to support better immune system function. Try these tips to keep your immune system strong.

Get some regular R&R

There’s something to be said for good sleep habits. Experts believe that a lack of regular sleep not only lowers the levels of infection-fighting T cells, it also increases the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines — molecules which affect the body’s response to infection. People who have fairly consistent sleeping and waking patterns (known as circadian rhythms) have stronger immune systems.

In addition, studies show that well-rested people have a better response to vaccinations. Their bodies respond faster and they produce more antibodies than people who are sleep deprived.

If you do get sick, you can aid your recovery with sleep because our immune systems are hard at work while we snooze. Doctors note that our fever reaction — which is necessary to fend off infection — is heightened when we sleep.

Bottom line: A sleepless night or two isn’t your enemy, but you’re more likely to pick up an infection — and have it last longer — if you don’t get enough rest. Most adults need between seven and nine hours a night, but it really depends on individual needs. Some simple steps to improve sleep can help, like keeping a regular sleep schedule and establishing a restful bedtime routine. (See Wanted: More sleep for more tips.)

Exercise regularly

Regular physical activity is good for us for many reasons, but has a specific role for immunity. Exercise boosts the level of white blood cells, also known as leukocytes, which produce antibodies and help destroy foreign invaders. Exercise also releases endorphins, those feel-good hormones that improve our sense of well-being and quality of sleep.

There are many indirect benefits too, like helping to maintain a healthy weight. Studies have shown that a high number of fat cells hampers the immune system because they produce inflammatory chemicals.

How much is enough? You know the drill: 30-60 minutes, most days a week. Even if the exercise is in short bursts — like a 10 minute walk three times a day — you’ll still see benefits. (See Get some balance back in your routine for more information.)

Reduce stress

We all have it — but too much of it over time will wear down the body. Chronic stress exposes us to steady levels of adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that are helpful in the short term but suppress the immune system over time. Stress can also rob us of sleep and contribute to bad habits like a poor diet.

While we can’t always avoid the causes ongoing stress — like work or caregiving — we can take more steps to mitigate the effects. Some expert-approved ways include relaxation and breathing techniques, exercise and laughter. People who have an active spiritual life and a network of friends and family report less stress and better health. (See Spirituality and stress and Bring more laughter into your life for more information.)

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

“Superfoods” sound sexy, but loading up on one or two items won’t cut it. Experts say nearly all nutrients play a role in keeping the immune system strong, and a balanced diet is king.

While iron, protein and healthy fats are important, experts generally agree we could use more antioxidants. Current research shows these protective compounds help neutralize the effects of cell-damaging molecules known as free radicals. Diet is the best source, so choose foods that contain plenty of vitamins C and E, polyphenols, flavonoids, beta-carotene and zinc — like brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, leafy greens and lean meats.

Another benefit to a balanced diet is that some nutrients are more effective in pairs — like vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. (Need some ideas? Try 5 perfect food pairings and 50+ immunity-boosting recipes.)

Consider supplements

When diet isn’t enough, many people turn to supplements to fill in the gap. It’s not unusual for people to reach for vitamin C, Echinacea and zinc when cold and flu season arrives, and the market is flooded with supplements and herbal remedies containing ingredients such as American ginseng, Echinacea, elderberries and astragalus. Probiotic supplements and foods containing these beneficial bacteria are also believed to help support the immune system by supplying “good” bacteria to the gut.

While many people report benefits from certain supplements, there are still a lot of questions surrounding their use. Their effectiveness hasn’t been proven to everyone’s satisfaction, and you may find different opinions from doctors and alternative medicine practitioners. Also, be aware there’s a difference between supplements that help prevent illness versus ones that help treat symptoms.

If you decide to go the supplement route, learn more about what you plan to take and seek some expert advice from a doctor, healthcare practitioner or pharmacist. Not all products are suitable for everyone, and many can cause side effects or alter the effectiveness of prescription medications. It pays to do a little research before you buy, and make sure all your health care providers are kept in the loop. (See When supplements and prescriptions don’t mix for more information.)

Talk to your doctor about immunizations

Last year’s H1N1 vaccine caused considerable controversy, but many doctors still recommend vaccinations to help give our immune systems a hand in fighting certain illnesses — especially ones that can be dangerous for people who have weak immune systems or certain health conditions. While adult vaccinations aren’t a 100 per cent guarantee against illness, they help prevent infection and reduce the severity and duration if the illness does occur.

In addition to the flu shot, many people seek the pneumococcal vaccine (for pneumonia), herpes zoster (shingles) as well as preventatives for foreign travel. If you’re not sure what you need, talk to your doctor and do some research to weigh the benefits and risks. (For more advice, see Adult vaccinations: What do you need? )

Dial down the vices

They may feel good in the moment, but smoking, drinking alcohol and loading up on sugary and fatty foods all affect immune functioning. For instance, a hefty dose of sugar prevents white blood cells from effectively doing their jobs for up to five hours after consumption, so a steady diet of sweets can be detrimental. Foods high in saturated fats can have the same effect, according to other studies.

What about alcohol? Its sugar content is one issue, but overindulging on a regular basis can also disrupt the absorption of immune-supporting nutrients. Experts note that one drink won’t do much harm, but drinking enough to get intoxicated — especially on a regular basis — could spell trouble.

Smoking has its own hazards in addition to an increased risk for lung cancer and COPD. Whether it’s legal or not, inhaling foreign substances irritates the lungs and can make them more susceptible to serious infection.

Stay connected

Staying home won’t necessarily keep you healthier. It’s still sound advice to avoid people who are sick and stay put when you’re unwell, but social isolation has it’s own risks. Studies have shown some surprising effects, like the potential for social isolation to affect us at a genetic level — specifically the genes that affect immune response. Also, people who reported feeling lonely were found to have a decreased response to vaccinations.

However, people who had strong relationships and a strong social network had stronger immune systems too. Being connected to others is good for our mental and physical health in ways that doctors haven’t fully uncovered.

Overall, there’s still a lot that experts don’t know about the immunity — it’s a complex system with many contributing factors. It’s hard to find clear cut answers, and a lot of the research is still in its early stages.

While these healthy habits won’t guarantee you’ll avoid infections, they all contribute to a healthier lifestyle in general — which is good news now and in the future.

Sources: WebMD, The, Eat Right Ontario,, The Calgary Herald, Encyclopaedia Britannica, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Photo © Kevin Lohka

Top immunity-boosting foods
Survive sniffle season
8 ways to avoid the flu