How to Keep Your Immune System Strong
As winter approaches, so does cold and flu season. Because of that, this is the time of year we typically talk and think more about our immune systems.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year our immune system has already been top of mind, and now with the upcoming increased risk of our usual cold weather illnesses, it is even more important to do all we can to ensure our immune system is strong to protect us. What exactly is the immune system? How does it keep us from getting sick? Does exercise play a role in keeping us illness free?
The immune system is a complex group of cells, tissues and organs in our body that work to prevent or limit infection.
Without it, bacteria and viruses would constantly be making us sick. It can tell the difference between normal, healthy cells and unhealthy cells.
Cells may be unhealthy because of non-infectious agents like sunburn or cancer. Another red flag to the immune system are cells made abnormal by infectious microbes such as viruses and bacteria. Whatever the cause of the potential infection in our body, the immune system recognizes the problem by our molecular patterns.
When the immune system first sees these signals, it responds to address the problem. If an immune response cannot be activated when needed, or as much as is needed to completely fight the problem, we get sick or an infection occurs.
When an immune response doesn’t stop after the danger is gone, or if it responds when there isn’t danger, we may see an allergic reaction or auto-immune disease. There are also immune system disorders individuals can be born with and illnesses that can suppress the immune system.
The cells of the immune system (also called white blood cells) can occur in different parts of the body and are made in our bone marrow, which is a lymph organ.
The lymph, or lymphatic, system is a major part of the immune system. This system includes a network of lymph nodes, organs and vessels. The lymphatic vessels carry lymph (a clear fluid that contains tissue fluid, waste products and immune system cells) throughout our body.
Have you ever had an illness that resulted in swollen lymph nodes? That is because lymph nodes are clumps of white blood cells that trap viruses, bacteria and other invaders.
Luckily, most of us do have some control over the health of our immune system and subsequently our risk of getting sick.
Things That Weaken The Immune System
- Stress – According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can result in impaired communication between the immune system and the hypothalamus. This has been linked to numerous physical and mental health disorders, including immune disorders.
- Low Vitamin D – Vitamins D, C and zinc have been touted as the micronutrients that most support the immune system. There is some evidence that some micronutrient deficiencies change immune responses in animals. However, the impact of these immune system changes have not been assessed in humans. While there isn’t a scientifically proven direct link on these deficiencies negatively impacting the human immune system, there are other reasons to be sure you are not lacking in micronutrients. We do know that Vitamin D is important for healthy blood cells which is an important part of the immune system. A few good sources of Vitamin D: sunlight, eggs and fatty fish.
It is best to eat a varied diet with fruits and vegetables to get all of the vitamins and minerals you need, but if you suspect you aren’t getting enough from food, you may consider a multivitamin. If you suspect your diet might be lacking, your doctor can test you for any nutritional deficiencies.
- Certain Medications – Many medications can suppress the immune system. They include drugs to treat lupus, arthritis, IBS and corticosteroids. Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns and before you adjust an prescription medication.
- Smoking (including vaping) – Research suggests that nicotine can weaken your body’s ability to fight germs. And it’s not just the nicotine. Other chemicals in e-liquids seem to suppress your immune system, especially when you inhale them through vaping.
- Alcohol – Excess alcohol consumption weakens the immune system. Research cited in a publication by the National Institute of Health describes alcohol-related changes in the cells and molecules that shape the immune response.
Things That Strengthen The Immune System
- Sleep – Experts recommend between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Our bodies repair themselves while we sleep, and we don’t function well in any area if we aren’t getting enough rest. One of the many processes that happen during our sleep is the release of certain proteins called cytokines that help the immune system. They are only produced while we are sleeping.
- Fruits and Vegetables – These foods contain the micronutrients that can help your body make more of the white blood cells you need to fight off infections. Fresh or frozen produce can pack a lot of zinc, beta-carotene, vitamins A,C, and E, along with other nutrients you need for a healthy body.
- Exercise - Exercise can be a powerful tool in keeping you safe from illness. Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. It also helps in other specific ways:
A 2019 scientific review in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that exercise can improve your immune response, lower illness risk and reduce inflammation.
The study looked at “acute exercise,” meaning that of moderate to vigorous intensity lasting less than an hour. Other research has shown that good circulation allows the cells of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently and exercise improves circulation.
This study specifically looked at the number of immune cells present in a group of individuals before and after exercise. It found that after a 45 minute brisk walk, participants had more immune cells circulating in their body than prior to the exercise.
Consistent activity, at least 30 minutes most days of the week, will allow this response to add up. A 2011 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that those who did aerobic exercise five or more days of the week lowered the number of upper respiratory tract infections (like the common cold) over a 12-week period by more than 40%.
In addition, exercise is linked to many of the factors that can impact the immune response. As mentioned above, stress can weaken the immune system and exercise is a great stress-busting tool.
Also, exercise has been shown to improve sleep, which is much needed to keep the immune response strong.
Keep in mind it is possible to over-exercise, especially if you are feeling run down or are sick. This is pretty difficult to do though, as you would have to be working out at a very high intensity for over 90 minutes at a time to qualify as extreme according to most studies.
What is considered high intensity will differ from individual to individual and depend on your current fitness routine. It is best to listen to your body and not to go over 70% of your max heart rate too often in your training to stay at the moderate level of exercise most studies have demonstrated improves immune system function.
If you are looking to increase your fitness level, do so incrementally, by 10% per week.
A personal trainer can help you develop a plan to safely increase your workouts or if you need to ensure you have the correct amount of rest time in your plan to avoid over-exercise.
Especially important to limit your risk of COVID-19 is to help prevent the virus from entering your system in the first place by washing your hands frequently (for at least 20 seconds with soap and water), wearing a mask when unable to social distance yourself from others and staying away from large groups.
Reducing your exposure to the virus is key. LivRite is committed to maintaining a clean and safe environment for members to keep up their fitness.
Social distancing is maintained in group classes as well as on the club floor and sanitizing spray is always available.
Please don’t hesitate to ask any staff member about our safety procedures if you have questions.
These are not comprehensive lists, but highlights of some of the ways we can help ourselves stay well. Following general healthy guidelines, a healthy diet and regular exercise, is the best step you can take toward keeping your immune system strong and healthy.
Every part of your body, including your immune system, works better when taken care of with a healthy lifestyle.
Topics: LivRite News