You know your immune system plays a role in warding off infectious disease, but you may not realize just how important an ally this system really is in protecting you from foreign invaders like bacteria, parasites, fungi, viruses and other pathogenic microbes.
If you’re one of the many thousands who get sick without fail every fall and winter, this article is for you. Because as you are probably aware, getting sick is NOT an inevitable part of the change in seasons. You surely know a handful of people who seemingly never get sick — maybe they work in your office or even share your home. These people are able to avoid illness not because they aren’t exposed to germs, but because their immune system is able to keep them healthy.
You Don’t Get Sick Just Because You’re Exposed to Germs
There’s a common misconception that if you get the flu it’s because you were exposed to a flu virus, whereas if your officemate stays healthy it’s because he was not. But the truth is germs are literally everywhere, and while taking commonsense measures to avoid them, like washing your hands regularly, is smart, it’s naïve to think you can avoid them entirely.
But this isn’t really a big deal if you’re healthy, because your body is built to deal with these pathogen exposures and will keep you from getting sick as long as your immune system is strong.
In fact, new research in PLoS Genetics revealed that when 17 healthy people were exposed to a flu virus, only half of them got sick.1 All of them had an active immune response, but the responses yielded different outcomes, with some avoiding illness and others manifesting symptoms like sniffles, sneezing and fever. The researchers therefore concluded that your immune system’s response to the flu virus is an important factor in whether or not you get sick, likely an even more important one than virus exposure. They state:
“Exposure to influenza viruses is necessary, but not sufficient, for healthy human hosts to develop symptomatic illness. The host response is an important determinant of disease progression.”
Knowing this, what can you do to ramp up your immune system and get it into top working condition just in time for winter? Plenty!
Want a Strong Immune System? Do These 5 Things…
1. Eat Antioxidant-Rich Foods
Eating an antioxidant-rich diet is one of the best ways to curb free radical damage in your body while also optimizing your immune system. Ideally, try to include a wide range of fruits and vegetables in your diet, as this will give you an equally wide range of antioxidants, which is important since each antioxidant has a slightly different impact on your immune health.
For example, glutathione, found in whey protein, asparagus, avocado and parsley, has been described as the “most important antioxidant” because it empowers your immune system to exert its full potential by quenching free radicals, recycling vitamins C and E into their biologically active forms and regulating DNA synthesis and repair.2
Carotenoids in sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, peaches, pumpkin and other orange, red, yellow and dark green fruits and veggies are said to enhance many aspects of immune function,3 and selenium, found in Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry, oats, brown rice, sunflower seeds and wheat germ, helps prevent cellular damage from free radicals and plays a role in your immune system health as well.4
2. Check Your Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D helps activate your immune system. In fact, research published last year revealed that when your body is exposed to a pathogen, your T cells (a type of white blood cell that is key to your immune system function) extend a vitamin D receptor to search for vitamin D. If you don’t have enough vitamin D, the T cell will not be able to activate and your immune system will not be able to take action appropriately.5
Many Americans are vitamin D deficient, so it makes sense to get your levels tested to ensure you’re in a healthy range. Vitamin D can be obtained from safe sun exposure, fortified foods and/or supplementation.
A regular exercise program is about much more than weight loss and muscle strength. Physical activity, even just brisk walking, can enhance your antibody and natural T cell response. Research shows that people who exercise are about half as likely to catch a cold as those who do not, and even if they do catch a cold, their symptoms tend to be much less severe.6
It’s a good idea to regard exercise like you do eating, breathing and sleeping — as an essential, unmovable part of your day. Schedule your day around your exercise, instead of vice versa, and you’ll enjoy better health — and fewer sick days — because of it.
4. Keep Stress in Check
Taking a stroll through a nature preserve, curling up in your favorite chair with a good book, having lunch with a dear friend … all of these are ways to help keep your immune system in top working order because they help you relieve stress.
Chronic stress impacts your body’s ability to fight infections in a number of ways, including altering the number of T cells that regulate an immune response and greatly reducing the effectiveness of your immune system. When you’re under stress, you’re also more likely to eat poorly, have trouble sleeping and resort to other unhealthy behaviors, like drinking excess alcohol, which can all further dampen your immune response. Cell-mediated immunity actually increases along with a person’s level of optimism,7 so it’s essential that you have a handful of tricks up your sleeve to pull out when you’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or worried — and do so on a regular basis to keep chronic stress at a very low level (as opposed to waiting until you’re approaching burn-out levels). Yoga, journaling, prayer, knitting, woodworking — you know better than anyone what makes you feel good, just be sure you give yourself permission to do those things on a regular, ideally daily, basis.
A lack of sleep will weaken your immune system, not only reducing T cells but also impacting levels of proteins called cytokines. Research shows that your risk rises significantly if you sleep for under seven hours a night, and the less you sleep, the more likely you are to weaken immune function.8
The hormone melatonin is also secreted while you sleep, and since insufficient melatonin production is linked to decreased immune function, this is another route by which your sleeping habits influence your immune health. You should know that exposure to light at night will also interfere with your production of melatonin, so it’s important to keep your bedroom very dark, and also keep the light off if you wake up at night to use the bathroom.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, you can find 11 sleep tips here. In addition, some people find that supplements such as melatonin and valerian help them achieve a more restful night’s sleep.
If you implement the lifestyle changes above now, there’s a good chance your immune system will have no problem warding off invaders this fall and winter. Remember to keep these healthy habits up come spring and summer, though, as this will help you stay well throughout the entire year.
1. PLoS Genetics August 2011
2. WebMD.com July 30, 2001
3. The Journal of Nutrition September 13, 1988
4. National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: Selenium
5. Nature Immunology 2010 Apr;11(4):344-9.
6. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2011 Sep;45(12):987-92.
7. Psychological Science February 24, 2010
8. Archives of Internal Medicine 2009;169(1):62-67.