Boost Your Immune Health: Ways to Support the Body’s Defenses
by Marcia Prenguber
The new year brings new opportunities: perhaps a new start on goals we have been pondering, or maybe a new angle on something we previously hoped to accomplish. This time of year also follows occasions when many of us have been celebrating the holiday season with family and friends, including exposure to the colds and the flu shared by those around us. The body’s ability to address those challenges—bacteria, viruses, toxins—is dependent on our immune health. Refreshing your defense system and boosting your immune health is a great way to start fresh in the new year!
Our Finely Tuned Machine
The complex network of cells and tissues that work together to keep us healthy is a collaborative effort to defend our bodies. Because our bodies are challenged by such a broad variety of bugs, pollutants and toxins, our immune system first identifies potential invaders that pose a threat to our health and responds appropriately. The immune system’s first line of defense is a series of barriers to stop any potential invaders from entering the system. The physical and mechanical barriers include the skin and mucous membranes—for example, the layers of cells that line the nose and the mouth. The mucous helps to trap and expel bacteria, viruses and toxins. The nasal hairs help to trap particles, and the tiny hair-like structures in the respiratory tract help to move invaders back out.
Our bodies are also equipped with chemical barriers, such as pH levels, more often thought of as the level of acid in the stomach. The pH level on the skin, based on the production of oil and sweat glands, also offers protection against potential intruders. Defense molecules within the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, in addition to those on the skin, provide additional protective mechanisms. The GI tract, as well as other entryways into the body, contains hundreds of different species of microbes, which offer additional forms of protection. These same microbes also assist in the digestive process.
Should any of the invaders pass through these barrier systems of defense, additional chemical and molecular defenses that support the immune system, such as our white blood cells, take up a role in resisting intruders. Ours is a finely tuned system, presenting one line of defense after another.
However, let us not take the immune system for granted. Our day-to-day lifestyle and habits can significantly affect the health of our immune system and consequently how well we feel, and function, every day.
How can we improve our immune health? The three most basic lifestyle habits that influence immune health are diet, exercise and sleep. Additional lifestyle factors that affect immune health include maintaining a healthy weight, the use of tobacco products, consumption of alcohol, stress management and, of course, hand-washing.
Start With Your Diet
A diet rich in natural colors is a great place to start. Consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, typically rich in antioxidants, to support your ability to resist infection. Think colorfully and include fruits such as the broad range of berries, citrus fruits, apples and papaya. Include vegetables such as kale, spinach, arugula, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, broccoli, carrots and beets to support your immune system. Incorporate approximately two to three cups of vegetables daily in your diet.
Other foods, such as garlic, onions or any of the wide variety of mushrooms, including button and shiitake mushrooms, have been found to have antimicrobial and immune-enhancing properties and are easy to add to the diet. They can provide a significant boost to your ability to resist infections; adding them to winter soups is a simple way to include these nourishing foods in your diet.
Foods to limit in the diet are those that are largely empty calories and contain high percentages of refined flours and added sugars. These are generally found in prepared foods, like holiday cookies, candies and pies.
Maintaining a healthy weight is another key factor in supporting immune health. Addressing dietary choices and incorporating exercise into daily lifestyle habits can go a long way in helping to achieve a healthy weight.
Limiting alcohol intake can reduce the risk of a variety of health conditions, including cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and is a sound strategy to support overall immune health.
Adopting a habit of exercise in your daily life is important for supporting your immune system, in addition to achieving and maintaining an appropriate weight and reducing the risk of a whole host of conditions and diseases. Taking a walk each day, or a series of short walks, can boost immune health. For motivation, measure your walks by distance or time, count your steps with a handy counter built into your watch or phone or make a pact with a friend to walk daily. Join and use the gym, find a pool and swim regularly, take a yoga class or try any other of a multitude of ways to simply get moving.
Get Some Shut-Eye, Too
Although we may think of it as simply a passive activity, sleep plays a critical role in supporting the immune system. Without adequate sleep, we are more vulnerable to infections and diseases, in addition to simply feeling fatigued. Experiencing deep sleep, as well as ensuring an average of seven hours of sleep each night, has been found to support health in ways that reduce the risk of a broad range of health conditions and diseases. Sleep hygiene habits that foster the ability to fall asleep, get deep sleep and wake up refreshed are important to maintaining a healthy immune system.
Managing stress is another important strategy in supporting immune health. While we cannot eliminate all the stressors in our lives, the ways in which we respond to those stressors can make a significant difference in our overall health. Regular physical exercise, breathing exercises, practicing meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, incorporating spiritual practices and developing and maintaining supportive relationships are all tools that can help us to cope with the stressors we encounter.
And the Not-So-Little Things
Avoidance of all forms of tobacco products, including smoking, vaping and chewing, also reduces the stress on the immune system.
Last, but certainly not least, be vigilant about hand-washing. Be mindful of ways that viruses and bacteria are shared in day-to-day actions and interactions, such as a sneeze or a cough; minimizing exposure is a critical part of prevention.
Start the new year right by putting into practice some of these strategies to boost your immune health and reduce risk of infection. A few changes in your lifestyle and habits can make a significant difference!
Marcia Prenguber, ND, FABNO, is the director of the School of Naturopathic Medicine at the University of Bridgeport College of Health Sciences. See ad, page 31.