What your immune system is and 9 easy ways to keep it running strong

With worries about the coronavirus and another flu season around the corner, strengthening the immune system has become a priority for everyone; old, young and everywhere in between. Taking a holistic approach to your health and wellbeing goes a long way towards giving your immune system the best chance to do its job. But first, it’s important to understand what that system actually is and how it works.

What is the immune system?

Your immune system is a complex network of cells, proteins, organs and tissues that work together to protect your body from infection. Genetics certainly play a role in the strength and effectiveness of your immune system, but it is more largely impacted by non-inheritable factors. Every germ we are exposed to in our lives, along with the quality of our sleep and diet, the amount of exercise we get, and stress we are exposed to, impacts the strength of our immune response.

The immune system is composed of of two parts. Innate immunity launches the body’s immediate immune response, while adaptive immunity mounts over several days. 

Innate Immunity is the general protection with which everyone is born. It is our first line of defense against bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins, and the first to detect wounds or trauma. Upon activation of the innate immune system, cells are mobilized to attack and destroy invaders or to initiate repair.

Adaptive Immunity develops throughout your life when you’re exposed to bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins, or when you are immunized against them. The adaptive immune system is activated by the innate immune system. Once it recognizes a pathogen, cells will multiply to combat it, leading to the eradication of the pathogen (germ) and protection against its return.

If a person is immunocompromised in some way and an immune response cannot be activated when there is sufficient need, problems like infection and illness arise. On the flip side, when the immune system is in a heightened state when there is no real threat, allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases can occur. The goal, therefore, is to maintain a balanced and prepared immune system that can handle the challenges that come its way, and you don’t want to wait until you are too sick to do so.

Here are 9 easy ways to maintain a healthy immune system year-round:

1. Lower Stress

Research done over 20 years at Carnegie Mellon University has shown people who report less stress in their lives develop fewer cold symptoms. Manage stress with exercise, meditation, talking to a therapist or any other modality that works for you.

2. Improve Sleep

People who skimp on shut-eye are both more likely to get sick when exposed to viruses and take longer to recover. Cytokines, proteins that target infection and inflammation, are produced and released when we sleep. When we are sleep-deprived, our ability to mount an effective immune response is compromised. Do your best to get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

3. Maintain a Healthy Weight

The CDC has classified obesity as an epidemic, with two-thirds of Americans classified as overweight and one-third classified as obese. Obesity causes a chronic state of inflammation, which has a negative impact on the activation of immune cells when a real immune response is needed. Studies have shown obesity to be a risk factor for complications and hospitalizations due to the flu.

4. Get Regular Exercise

Scientists agree that regular, moderate-intensity exercise is beneficial for immunity. In the short term, it helps the immune system root out pathogens by increasing blood and lymph (fluid that flows through the lymphatic system) flow and subsequently, the circulation of immune cells. In the long term, exercise wards off the progressive weakening of the immune system.

5. Eat a Balanced Diet

Many superfoods and supplements are touted to increase immune function by supporting your overall health, but none of them will do any good if you’re not eating a balanced diet full of the vitamins, minerals and macronutrients your body needs to function. Ensure you get enough protein (the building block of immune cells), eat colorful fruits and vegetables, and limit your consumption of processed foods.

6. Check Vitamin D Level

Research has shown that adequate levels of vitamin D lead to 40% fewer colds over the course of a year. Many people avoid the sun altogether, and even those who are often outside typically cover with sunblock, which blocks absorption of vitamin D. Have vitamin D levels checked by your doctor at your annual physical. If necessary, load up on fatty fish like salmon, fortified dairy products or try a supplement like Kore Vitamin D3.

7. Avoid Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol can damage the gut microbiome, which is our body’s first line of defense against ingested pathogens, and can impair both key immune cells in the lungs and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Plus, according to the Cleveland Clinic, when alcohol is ingested, the body prioritizes the breaking down of the alcohol over other important bodily functions.

8. Take Common-sense Steps to Avoid Infection

Wash your hands often. Regularly disinfect frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, TV remotes, computer keyboards and cell phones. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Cook meats thoroughly and refrigerate perishable foods. Don’t share toothbrushes, towels, utensils, or drinking glasses. Use insect repellant and sunblock. Avoid contact with sick people, and if you’re sick, stay home.

9. Stay Hydrated

Drinking enough water helps the body naturally eliminate toxins and bacteria that could potentially cause illness. Water also helps carry oxygen to your cells, ensuring a properly functioning system. Divide your weight (in pounds) in half to determine the minimum number of ounces of water you should drink per day; for example, a 150-pound person should drink a minimum of 75 ounces of water daily.