Building a strong immune system is important for staying healthy and key to preventing illnesses, hospital visits, and medical bills. Fortunately, boosting your immune system isn't complicated, time-consuming, or hard to do.
What is the Immune System and Why Is it Important?
The immune system includes cells, tissues, and organs that protect your body from harmful organisms, such as germs, viruses, and bacteria, that can cause infections. It can also help prevent complications from chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes.
There are two parts of your immune system:
- The innate immune system – your body's first line of defense against infection. You have it since birth and it includes physical barriers, such as the skin, mucous membranes, cells, and chemicals.
- The adaptive immune system – your body's secondary line of defense that you develop when exposed to various germs. It produces antibodies or T-cells, which are proteins that bind to specific bacteria or viruses and help to destroy them.
The Benefits of a Strong Immune System
- Protects against harmful pathogens, infections, and diseases from taking hold and wreaking havoc in your body.
- Identifies and removes damaged or abnormal cells, such as cancer cells, before they can grow and harm you.
- Promotes healing and tissue repair after an injury or infection.
- Supports overall health and well-being and improves the quality of life, reducing medical bills and hospital visits.
- Adapts and responds to new and emerging threats, such as new viral and bacterial strains.
- Triggers immune memory by remembering past infections and developing immunity against them, preventing future infections.
- Maintains homeostasis – a state of balance and stability in the body.
Factors Affecting Immune Health
The following factors typically affect your immunity:
Your immune system weakens as you advance in age, making it less effective. As you age, your body produces fewer white blood cells, making it harder to fight off infection. The skin and other physical barriers also become less effective at protecting you from germs. That's why older adults, especially seniors are more susceptible to illnesses like the flu, pneumonia, and shingles.
Sleep & Rest
When you sleep, your body produces cytokines – proteins that help control inflammation. Additionally, enough sleep helps your body rest and repair the damage caused by inflammation. Sleep deprivation can increase the chances of you suffering from depression, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, further weakening the immune system. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the following sleep amounts:
- Infants - 12-16 hours
- Toddlers and preschoolers – 10-14 hours
- Preteens and teens – 8-12 hours
- Adults – 7-9 hours
Regular exercise helps to increase the production and circulation of white blood cells, antibodies, and cytokines. Additionally, exercise helps to reduce inflammation and produce endorphins – feel-good hormones – that reduce stress and improve your mood.
Chronic stress increases the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and suppresses the production of infection-fighting components, such as white blood cells. Additionally, experts state that stress can damage the cells in the gut by altering your gastrointestinal movement and secretions, enhancing gut sensations, and negatively affecting your intestinal microbiota.
When you're highly stressed, you're at a higher risk of infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
Your immunity can weaken when exposed to certain environmental factors, such as air pollution, cigarette and secondhand smoke, toxins, and climate change. Certain chemicals, such as pesticides, cause inflammation and damage your respiratory system, making it harder for your body to fight infections.
Diet and Nutrition
Nutrients are critical for all bodily functions, including the immune system. Specifically, nutrients help the immune system in several ways, including:
- Maintain skin and mucus membranes as a barrier to infection
- Regulate enzymes and proteins that protect cells from virus and bacteria
- Produce antibodies and white blood cells that respond to infection
- Support growth and activity of immune cells
- Support immune system signaling and response
A well-balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, good protein, and healthy fats should provide most of the nutrients you need for good health and a well-functioning immune system. The most supportive nutrients for the immune system include:
- Vitamin C – can be found in leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries, cantaloupe, baked potatoes, and tomatoes
- Vitamin D3 – can be found in fatty fish (salmon/tuna), cheese, egg yolk, and mushrooms. Your skin can also produce vitamin D3 when exposed to sunlight
- Vitamin E – can be found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, and green vegetables
- Selenium – can be found in seafood, meat and poultry, eggs, dairy products, breads, cereals, and grain products
- Zinc – can be found in oysters, red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, nuts, dairy products, and whole grains
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – can be found in fish, algae, and flaxseed
Support Your Immune Health with Over-the-Counter (OTC) Products, Dietary Supplements
There are several available over-the-counter products and dietary supplements that may help build your immunity.
While many Americans consume sufficient amounts of the nutrients that support the immune system through their diet, some nutrients are consumed in amounts that fall below daily recommendations. This can cause your immune system to become weakened and slow to respond to foreign invaders.
In addition to the dietary supplements that help fill in nutrient gaps – such as the examples provided above – there are other supplements that help support your immune system response, including elderberry, echinacea, and probiotics.
Probiotics & Prebiotics
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can help support a healthy digestive system, while prebiotics are types of fiber that feed the good bacteria in the gut. Together, probiotics and prebiotics can help maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria for added immune function support. You can get a good source of probiotics and prebiotics from fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and kimchi.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Your nutritionist or other healthcare professional can help you find the right OTC or supplement for your nutritional needs.
Essential OTC Medication Safety Tips
- Read the label carefully for information on dosage, frequency, treatment duration, potential side effects, and any warnings or precautions
- Stick to the recommended dose
- Avoid OTC medications if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or have underlying health conditions.
- Keep medications out of reach of children or pets.
- Store medications in a cool, dry place.
- Consider proper and safe medication disposal by taking them to a local pharmacy or hazardous waste disposal center for proper disposal.
- Avoid sharing medications with others, even with similar symptoms or conditions.
Staying healthy begins with being proactive in taking care of your immunity. While there's no guarantee that you'll never get sick, these tips will drastically reduce your chances of falling ill.
So, whether you're looking to prevent an illness or recover from one, OTC products can be a great addition to your daily self-care routine - and get you steps closer to achieving strong immune health for years to come.