A well-balanced, strong immune system is key to preventing disease or disease complications. But, is it really possible to strengthen the immune system?
December is here; the weather is turning cold, and flu season well underway, which is reason enough to start thinking of your immune system and how to protect yourself against diseases and infections. The stakes are higher this year, though – as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread all across the United States, people are looking for ways to boost their immune systems and keep their bodies’ defenses as healthy as possible.
But, is boosting the immune system really possible? Experts say the answer is complicated. A common misconception surrounding the immune system is that people must ‘boost’ or ‘strengthen’ it to ward off disease. However, an exceedingly strong immune system can be just as problematic as a weak one. An overactive immune system that continually produces too much of an immune response can encourage the body to attack itself.
Instead, we should strive for a more balanced immune system, one that can identify and attack harmful microorganisms without turning against its own cells and tissues. To do so, it’s important to understand that the immune system is a complex and dynamic network of organs, tissues, and cells that work closely together to defend the body against harmful pathogens.
It makes sense, then, that certain diet and lifestyle changes may positively impact the body’s natural defense mechanism and influence your immune response.
Here 5 tips for balancing your immune system naturally.
Each year, more than 480,000 people in the United States die from tobacco-related illnesses. That means that smoking kills more than car accidents, guns, illegal drugs, and alcohol combined. Smoking cigarettes is also associated with many diseases and leads to acute changes in the immune system.
Numerous chemical compounds found in cigarettes are proven proinflammatory and immunosuppressive agents, meaning that they can trigger inflammatory responses and lower the body’s ability to mount an immune response, respectively. In fact, studies have shown that people who smoke are twice as likely to contract a respiratory tract infection, such as the flu or COVID-19. Smoking also seems to reduce the flu vaccine’s effectiveness among older adults.
Fortunately, much of the damage from smoking is reversible. Up to 79% of cigarette’s harmful effects and changes and genetic modifications can be reversed after a person quits smoking, according to a 2007 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Genome Biology.
Get Enough Sleep
Several studies have looked at the relationship between sleep and immunity and found that the two might be more connected than initially thought. Research shows that people who don’t get enough sleep or are sleep deprived are more likely to catch a cold or get sick after being exposed to a virus. It can also affect how long it takes you to get better and how often you get sick.
A study led by sleep investigators at UC San Francisco reported that people who sleep six hours or less were four times more likely to get sick when exposed to the common cold virus, compared to those who slept seven or more hours per night. Another study conducted in Germany found that sleep is vital for regulating T cells, a type of white blood cell essential for immune function.
Immune chemicals may also be closely intertwined with your nightly slumber. When you are asleep, your immune system gets busy secreting proteins called cytokines. Cytokine is the general term for a cluster of chemicals that carry out several important jobs, like aiding cellular communication during immune responses and mediating and regulating inflammation.
The immune system raises specific cytokines in response to infections, stress, inflammation, and trauma. But if you don’t get enough sleep, your immune system doesn’t get the chance to produce these cytokines, potentially leaving you more vulnerable to harmful pathogens.
Limited Added Sugars
Eating high doses of processed sugars can temporarily “deactivate” or suppress the immune system, increasing the risk for infectious diseases. Although research is being conducted on how added sugars affect the body, we know that sugar seems to affect how white blood (immunity) cells fight harmful pathogens such as viruses and bacteria.
The most common sources of processed and added sugars are candy, bakery items, soda, etc. But it also hides in many savory foods such as bread, salad dressings, yogurt, breakfast cereals, and more. These are a few of the (many) names sugar may show up as in food labels:
- Corn syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Maltose/malt sugar
- Invert sugar
- Agave nectar
- Cane sugar/cane crystals
- Brown sugar/molasses
- Evaporated cane juice
Stress produces hormonal changes that decrease the body’s ability to fight colds and other infections. When you are under stress, the body releases cortisol, also known as the “fight-or-flight” hormone.
In appropriate quantities, cortisol can boost the immune system by limiting inflammation. However, chronic stress, or a prolonged cortisol secretion, may drive the immune system to become “resistant.” As a result, the body may need to release more cortisol, causing a disproportionate inflammatory response.
Fill Nutritional Gaps
One of the best ways you have to make sure your immune system and its components are functioning is to maintain a healthy diet. Your immune system (just like the rest of your body) runs on the nutrients you get from your food and other sources like nutritional supplements.
The foods you eat have direct consequences (both positive and negative) on how your immune system responds. For example, some nutritional deficiencies can negatively impact the number of immune cells circulating in your bloodstream. Eating certain things excessively, such as fats, can also disrupt your immune system’s ability to craft a response.
Animal studies show that Andrographis, also known as Indian echinacea, can effectively treat and prevent lung inflammation, as demonstrated in a study of mice with chemically induced bronchitis. Double-blind clinical trials have also shown that people taking 48 to 60 mg of Andrographis extract tend to have milder symptoms and recover faster from the common cold.
Elderberries have been considered one of the most healing medicinal plants in the world. Historically, Native American and European civilizations used these tart fruits to heal wounds, treat infections, and lower fevers. Nowadays, elderberries are a popular supplement to fight off common viruses like the common cold and the flu.
100 grams of elderberries provide about 60 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C. Black elderberry extract also contains important compounds like flavonoids, which are potent antioxidants with immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. Evidence shows that supplementing with black elderberry extract can significantly reduce upper respiratory symptoms, like those produced by the cold and flu viruses.
In traditional Eastern medicine, Siberian ginseng was used as an “adaptogen.” An adaptogen is a substance that might help the body cope better with stress. Nowadays, it is used as a natural immune booster. The active compounds in Siberian ginseng, called eleutherosides, may stimulate the immune system and reduce the duration and severity of some respiratory infections like pneumonia.
Vitamin C is involved in many cellular processes that benefit immunity. As a powerful antioxidant, vitamin C is capable of decreasing inflammation and neutralizing free-radical damage. It also promotes phagocytes’ activity, and research shows it may reduce lung inflammation caused by certain respiratory viruses.
A systematic review of more than 30 studies about the effects of vitamin C found that ingesting 1 to 2 grams (1,000 to 2,000 mg) of this vitamin every day reduced common cold duration by 8 percent in adults and 18 percent in children.
Zinc is a mineral essential for DNA synthesis and regulating immune function. People who have zinc deficiencies tend to have weaker immune systems and may be more prone to infections. Studies have shown that zinc supplements may reduce the number of respiratory infections in children and may reduce the duration of the common cold in adults when started early on the disease.
These 5 simple lifestyle changes can go a long way towards building and maintaining a strong immune system and protecting yourself from viruses and infections during cold and flu season.
Curt Hendrix, MS, CCN, CNS
Akeso Health Sciences Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Curt Hendrix, MS, CCN, CNS, has an unwavering commitment to help people with chronic health issues. Curt holds advanced degrees in chemistry and clinical nutrition and has dedicated his life to the research and development of innovative natural medicines.
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