Healthy Living with a Healthy Immune System

The last year we heard the words “immunity” and “immune system” bandied about a lot. Having an optimal immune system was of paramount importance. Even now, it is still as important as it was at the start of the pandemic, what with the Delta variant and other mutated strains. But improving your immunity is no easy feat; it can take sustained lifestyle changes to meaningfully boost your immunity. But better late than never, right?

How does the Immune System Work?

You may have gone over the basics of the immune system in school. But that can often feel like a different era, and you may have forgotten what your biology textbooks said. So let’s do a quick refresher, shall we?

The immune system is our body’s natural defense against harmful microbes like bacteria and viruses. It is a complex set of monitors and responses that can roughly be divided into two major categories: innate immunity, and acquired immunity. Innate immunity is immunity you are born with. These include physical barriers like your skin which prevents harmful microbes from entering your body, the mucus lining of your nostrils which traps microbes that you breathe in, stomach acid that destroys the microbes you swallow, enzymes present in your sweat and tears that help destroy certain bacteria, and immune system cells that attack all foreign organisms that enter the body.

Acquired immunity is, like the name suggests, immune responses that you build up throughout your life. The acquired immune system works by recognizing certain microbes and creating attack cells (antibodies) that are specific to these microbes. It functions through a complex series of monitoring cells and response cells that are regulated by organs like the spleen, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. It is also an adaptive immune system as the microbes that triggered a specific immune response will be remembered by the body, and the antibody produced to fight these can be deployed quicker in the event of a re-exposure leading to faster recovery (this is how vaccines work, BTW!).

Maintaining Healthy Immunity

Improving your immunity is easiest done by improving your lifestyle. One of the most important tenets of building a healthy immune system is by eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the human body to function properly. A deficiency in any of these can cause the weakening of the immune system. Fruits and vegetables are also high in fiber which feeds the community of healthy bacteria in your gut. These bacteria can prevent harmful microbes from entering your body through the digestive tract and improve your innate immunity. If you find that you cannot have enough vegetables and fruits in your diet, you may wish to supplement your diet with multivitamins or other immunity-boosting supplements like DIM to ensure you get the vitamins and minerals your body needs. Some of the best immunity-boosting fruits and vegetables are citrus foods, red bell peppers, turmeric, broccoli, ginger, garlic, and spinach.

Exercising is also important for your immune system. It isn’t necessary to undertake rigorous exercise to boost your immune system. Moderate exercise has been shown to be enough to increase the effectiveness of vaccines in immunity-compromised people. Regular exercise may help your immune cells regenerate regularly.

Sleep is another important factor for a healthy immune system. Sleep is the time when cells repair themselves which is needed to strengthen your innate immunity. This may be a reason why sleep is so important for the immune system to function efficiently. Poor sleep quality or inadequate sleep has shown a correlation to a higher susceptibility to illness. Adults need to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night whereas teens need 8-10 hours of sleep. Young children and infants, on the other hand, may need up to 14 hours of sleep.

Stress may also be an important factor affecting the immune system, in particular prolonged chronic stress. Some studies have shown long-term stress to promote inflammation and imbalances in the immune cell functions. Studies have also shown that prolonged psychological stress may be particularly harmful to the immune systems of children. Minimizing stress in your life may be difficult as oftentimes the stressor can be outside of our own direct control. But we can control our reactions to them. Stress-alleviating activities like meditation, journaling, exercise, or therapy may help.

These are a few ways on how to improve your immune system. To those unused to the habits mentioned above, making these changes in lifestyle may be difficult. But having a healthy and well-functioning immune system is very important, especially in this climate. So even if it is difficult, view it as a journey towards which you need to take the first step. And the first step can be a very small one.