By Angela Bates, Current ASU Nutrition Student
With flu season upon us, it’s a great time to check in on your health, specifically your immunity. The immune system has different kinds of cells to destroy microbes ranging from bacteria to viruses, some of which it learns to keep out. Humans have two types of immunity—natural and acquired. We are born with some natural immunity, so we don’t get sick as easily as newborns. Acquired immunity happens when we get sick and fight the microbes off or when we receive a vaccine. Unfortunately, our immune systems aren’t always up to the challenge of flu season.
Immune system issues can arise when it becomes overactive or underactive. An overactive immune system can present itself as an autoimmune disease or allergies to foods or environmental items which did not have an effect previously. According to Dr. Calabrese of the Cleveland Clinic, the immune system is hardwired to our nervous system. This means that the body automatically reacts when something invades, unless your immune system is weakened. Here are a few important ways to boost your immunity now.
Every college student cramming for finals and new mother waking up for the third time in one night can tell you, a severe lack of sleep will be felt. The National Sleep Foundation investigated a study on healthy young men who were either allowed to sleep normally or made to stay awake for 29 hours straight. Researchers found that white blood cells in the sleep deprived men mirrored the stress response of the body, weakening. The University of Washington performed a sleep study on identical twins and found that a shorter sleep duration depressed the immune system.
In our busy world, it can be difficult to find time to wind down and sleep, but there are some things you can do to make it easier. Electronics emit blue light, which tells the body it’s day time. Putting down the phone and turning off the television at least an hour before bed can help your body recognize it is time to sleep. Creating a routine before bed signals to your brain that it is time to relax and get to sleep as well. Ask for decaf after 3pm so your body has time to process it before bed. Finally, make your bedroom comfortable; cool temperatures, a supportive mattress, and a good pillow go a long way.
2. Eat Healthy
Eat your vegetables… and your fruits, fiber, protein, and so on. You don’t have to eat a salad every day to reap the benefits of a healthy diet. While there aren’t many studies that look directly at what foods improve immune system function, Harvard Health states there is quite a bit of evidence that nutrient deficiencies alter the immune response. Deficiencies in zinc, iron, copper, selenium, folate, vitamin A, B6, C, and E seem to have a direct impact on immunity. If you’re not sure you are eating enough nutrients, tracking your food intake can give you an idea. When in doubt, foods such as nuts and seeds, eggs, yogurt, and leafy green vegetables contain high amounts of these micronutrients. Discuss with your doctor if you feel a multivitamin may be needed to supplement your diet.
Other than giving you a cardiovascular boost, regular exercise can also help your immune system. Being overweight puts a strain on the body, including the immune system, but a healthy diet and regular exercise can help you get back to a normal weight. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, exercise causes white blood cells to circulate more rapidly, helps flush bacteria out of the airways, raises the body temperature which may prevent bacterial growth, and slows the release of stress hormones.
Does the thought of running on a treadmill for an hour make you want to run away? Don’t worry, experts say that just 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise of any kind in a day can make a difference. You can bicycle with the kids, go for a swim, play some golf with your friends, rake leaves in the yard, or take a walk in the park with your pet. Mixing up your routine will help keep the boredom from setting in and keep your body on its toes. If you get your heart rate up, you are giving your immune system a boost it may need.
4. Don’t Forget the Basics
Wash your hands. Your hands become a breeding ground when you neglect them. We already know to wash after using the bathroom and before eating, but don’t forget other opportunities to wash. When you cough or sneeze, give your pet a treat and a pat, visit a sick person, or perform other various tasks, your hands accumulate all kinds of gunk. Washing your hands with warm water and soap for 30 seconds, being sure to scrub under nails and around wrists, then drying can prevent the flu and takes just a few moments.
The advertisements in your local drugstore aren’t just to sell you a flu shot. In fact, your insurance most likely covers some or all the cost! Even if you think you are safe from an illness, your immunity ensures others with compromised immune systems won’t get sick. The elderly should take special care to get vaccinated for the flu, pneumonia, and shingles to prevent illness, as aging can also weaken the immune system.
If you do end up sick, please stay home. Your coworkers and hairdresser would like to prevent getting sick as well, so rest up and eat well until you feel better and get back out in to the world.
5. Chill Out
We all get stressed sometimes, especially with deadlines that never seem to stop coming, no time for vacation, and those bills that show up in the mailbox each month. Emotional stress can become chronic stress, increasing inflammation and working your immune system overtime. When your body is working so hard to stay regulated when it isn’t fighting off an invader, it cannot properly protect you when it needs to.
The American Psychological Association says that psychoneuroimmunology has become an important field where researchers are finding more ways each day that our minds and body are connected. As stress hormone levels rise, immunity lowers. Almost 300 studies all came to the conclusion that stress hinders the body’s ability to defend itself. If knowing your stress is hurting you stresses you out more, relax. Take a few minutes a day to meditate, do some yoga, read a book, listen to your favorite music, or get a massage. While you perform stressful work, check in with yourself and take some deep breaths, releasing your tense muscles. Studies have found that having a support system helps with stress, so talk to your friends, spouse, or a therapist and know that taking care of your stress protects your immune system too.
While these tips should not be taken as a replacement for medical advice, they may help fill in the gaps that were missing in your immune system building exercises. Making these 5 things into habits will ensure you are healthier and your immune system can protect you when you need it most, such as during this flu season!
Angie is a current student at Arizona State University in Nutrition Communications. When she’s not working on school work, Angie enjoys cooking and playing video games. She’s passionate about helping others and nutrition education. With an interest in food allergy awareness, Angie hopes to someday work for a non-profit focusing on food allergy awareness and education.