Why Your Immune System Needs TLC During Trying Times

4 min read

women working out in park to boost their immunity

Our immune system is a network of cells, tissues, organs and proteins that work together to prevent damage to our bodies by foreign invaders such as bacteria, parasites, viruses and other microbes that reside in the air, land and water.

Although the exact percentage is still up for debate, many scientists believe that genetics are responsible for approximately half of how well our immune system functions. The other half is influenced by everyday habits — which is good news, because it means that if you’re deficient in some areas, you can make adjustments to strengthen your immune system.

"Our study reveals one way in which vitamin D metabolites can dramatically influence the immune system." — Professor Richard Mellanby, University of Edinburgh

Due to the recent disruption of our everyday lives, it’s more important than ever to be mindful of choices you make that could degrade your immune system. Here are eight factors that may weaken your immune system during these trying times:

  1. Your stress level goes up. When your normal routine is disrupted, it’s only natural for your stress level to increase. When this happens, your body produces more cortisol (often referred to as “the stress hormone”). While cortisol does help reduce inflammation, if you are under stress for an extended period, cortisol may suppress your immune system — leaving you more vulnerable to illness. So try to keep calm and be optimistic, and hopefully it won’t be too long before everything is back to normal.
  2. You get less exercise. For those aged 18 to 64, Health and Human Services recommends you get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (a leisurely bike ride, doing light yard work, or a brisk walk) per week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity (hiking, running, swimming laps), plus muscle-strengthening exercises. A 2019 review published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that “acute exercise is an immune system adjuvant that improves defense activity and metabolic health” and “habitual exercise improves immune regulation, delaying the onset of age-related dysfunction.” Block off time each day (or as your schedule allows) to keep your body moving. Exercise is one of the best investments you can make in yourself.
  3. You drink more than usual. The 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that if you are of legal age and drink alcohol, you should  drink only one drink per day if you’re a woman and two if you’re a man. (Note: It’s not intended to be an average over several days.) A 2015 review by Alcohol Research explores the association between alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects ” They mention how this list has been expanded to include “a greater likelihood of respiratory challenges. So if you drink, do so in moderation; you’ll be less prone to ailments and you’ll feel better each morning.
  4. You get less sunlight (and Vitamin D). A 2019 study from the University of Edinburgh examined how Vitamin D affects the immune system and whether it influences one’s susceptibility. Professor Richard Mellanby of the University of Edinburgh is quoted as saying "Low vitamin D status has long been implicated as a significant risk factor. Our study reveals one way in which vitamin D metabolites can dramatically influence the immune system." Even though you may be cooped up inside longer than normal, get some sun regularly.
  5. You’re not getting enough Vitamin C. Vitamin C is an essential micronutrient for humans. It’s necessary for the growth, development and repair of body tissues. A 2017 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that “Vitamin C contributes to immune defense by supporting various cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune system.” Make room in your diet for foods high in Vitamin C such as oranges, strawberries, plums, acerola cherries, grapefruits, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, black currants, chili peppers, tomato juice and other foods high in Vitamin C. (Note: Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin E and Zinc have also been found to support a healthy immune system.)
  6. You don’t eat as healthy as you once did. Eating or drinking too much sugar curbs immune system cells that attack bacteria. The American Heart Association sets the recommended daily intake level of sugar at 37.5 grams (nine teaspoons) for men and 25 grams (six teaspoons) for women. A review by the Nutrition Journal found that overindulging in foods full of sugar, salt and fat may ruin our immune systems. Track how much sugar you are eating daily and try to keep it within the daily recommended amount. Avoid drinks high in sugar, processed foods and white flour.
  7. You smoke cigarettes. If you smoke, one of the best things you can do for your health is quit.  You will improve your circulation and boost your oxygen levels. Plus, it will make it easier for your immune system to ward off illness.
  8. You’re not getting enough sleep. Most healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night (children need even more). A good night’s sleep can strengthen your immune system, according to researchers. To increase the likelihood of getting a good night’s  sleep, exercise regularly; be smart about what you eat and drink; and keep your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle intact by going to sleep and getting up at the same time each day.

How many of the above points impact you? Make a note of them and put a plan in place to correct or improve each area in which you are deficient. When you do, your body will be much better equipped to ward off all foreign invaders.

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