The immune system: the silent protector of our bodies. This intricately connected system works constantly to defend against foreign invaders like pathogens, bacteria and viruses. When functioning healthily and in-balance, it keeps our cells and organs well by detecting and attacking harmful attackers. Our daily habits can have a profound effect on immune health, however. Read on to learn what behaviors *not* to exhibit to avoid an immune “crash” which can lead to higher susceptibility to illness and infection.
For the most part, we can physically feel major physiological “systems” in our body, including the digestive, circulatory, nervous, urinary system, among others. We can feel our blood rushing to our head, our stomach feeling upset, or a ping of nervousness. These systems are sensed in the body to alert our brains to danger or pleasure. The immune system is a bit more nuanced. While we can feel its powers when we are physically hurt (we can sense swelling in a sprained ankle from an inflammatory response, for example), it’s more difficult to assess the wellbeing of the immune system internally, at the cellular level. What can we sense? When it crashes. An exposure to a pathogen turns into an infection, which wreaks havoc on the body while the immune system fights off the invader by producing symptoms that make us feel, well, pretty crummy.
While it’s common to want to “strengthen” the immune system, the key word here is actually “balance.” There can actually be too much of an immune response over time which can lead to systemic problems. When the immune system works in overdrive, it can work against us by attacking healthy cells. Upwards of 80 illnesses are caused by improper immune system function, many of which lead to chronic inflammation. Too little immune response does not protect cells from an attack. While the immune system can’t necessarily “crash” all at once, its function can be severely deteriorated by outside factors. Fortunately, many of these are daily habits we have the power to control to keep the immune system functioning properly so all systems of the body can work optimally to support health.
Eliminate these following five habits from your lifestyle to avoid poor immune system health:
Lack of sleep
Getting enough high-quality sleep is one of the most significant behaviors associated with good health, especially when it comes to the immune system. The body releases certain immune-supporting antibodies called cytokines only during sleep. Without enough sleep, you become more susceptible to pathogens or viruses and may take longer to recover if infected. Aim for at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep to best support immune health. Restless at night? Add a magnesium or melatonin supplement to support sleep.
Smoking & alcohol use
Exposing the body directly to harmful irritants is a sure-fire way to disrupt the immune system. Nicotine from cigarettes or vaping devices can decrease the antibody-forming cell response, while alcohol disrupts immune pathways that can impair the body’s ability to defend against an infection. Quitting smoking has shown to dramatically improve immune system function due to increased circulation, decreased inflammation, among other health benefits. Even moderate alcohol consumption can affect the body’s ability to protect itself, and stopping drinking all-together allows crucial organs to heal from related damage and decrease susceptibility to illness.
Anxiety & mental health
Mental health can affect immune health in substantial ways. In fact, an entire field of study in psychology exists, called “psychoneuroimmunology,” to study this phenomenon. When anxiety hits, our body is immediately put into fight or flight mode. This response suppresses immune system function, as it is no longer becomes a priority system to supply energy to. Studies have also shown that depression and other mental health disorders can weaken immune responses to viruses and bacteria. In these cases, it becomes very clear that mental health is physical health. Whatever works to lessen anxiety and address mental health will also help support the immune system.
A sedentary lifestyle
An alarming percentage of children and adults in the U.S. live sedentary lifestyles, not reaching the recommended 150 minutes of activity per week dictated by top health governing bodies. Physical activity is important in immune system health by allowing the body to flush bacteria or pathogens from the lungs and airways, and supports antibodies and white blood cells that fight infections. Establishing healthy habits around regular exercise also helps the immune system patrol the body to detect bacteria or viruses. Increase the amount of moderate exercise you get per week to best support these pathways of immune support.
A poor diet
Last but in no way least, nutrition plays a large role in immune system health. A diet of mostly processed and high unhealthy fats can weaken immune response due to lack of essential nutrients needed for proper white blood cell development. Fats from unhealthy oils can also inhibit white blood cell function, cause dangerous inflammation, and upset immune-supporting gut bacteria. Filling up on nutritious fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins A, C, E, zinc and other minerals, as well as fiber, is your best shot at a healthy immune system (and all other body systems, for that matter). A healthy diet full of substantial calories from fresh sources of food or healthy supplements also serves to keep body composition healthy by lowering body fat and increasing lean muscle mass, which can strengthen immune response.
In the age of COVID-19, it’s important to keep the immune system balanced and working to our advantage to fight off the virus. This means developing healthy habits around nutrition, exercise, sleep, mental health and substance use (or lack thereof) to give your body a fighting chance against the millions of possible invaders it comes into contact with every day. Eliminating unhealthy habits can also help allow the body to use its own innate knowledge to heal itself and protect itself against harm, as it was meant to do.