Living well Preventive care Your Health & Wellness

How to strengthen your immune system

Written by Diane Archer

Last week, I wrote about the risks of taking supplements as a way to strengthen your immune system and protect yourself against COVID-19. There is no silver bullet. That said, there are ways to build up your bodies’ defenses against the novel coronavirus and other viruses and bacteria. As you might expect, the best ways are through exercise, good nutrition, sleep and calm. 

Our bodies are equipped with cells, cell products, tissues and organs that serve as a defense against infection. These immune systems develop based on both the environments in which we grow up and how we treat our bodies. Diet, exercise, sleep, stress all contribute to the functioning of our immune systems. 

Reducing your stress level, sleeping well, eating well, having enough vitamin D in your system, keeping your alcohol consumption down, and exercising all help to keep your body armed against respiratory and other illnesses.

  • Stress: Studies show that your immune system works best when you are not feeling stress. One study found that people who said that they had less stress in their lives were not as likely to catch a cold after being exposed to the cold virus with nose drops as people who felt more stress. A second study found that marital conflict weakened people’s immune systems. The study mildly wounded the arms of married couples. Couples who then argued with each other tended to have wounds that took longer to heal than couples who exhibited less anger. Techniques for managing stress and strengthening your immune system, include meditation, talk therapy, and controlled breathing.
  • Sleep: Studies show that people who sleep more than seven hours a night are better at fighting off infection than people who sleep less than six hours. In one study conducted at UC San Francisco, people who slept less were more than four times as likely to get sick after being exposed to a cold virus than people who slept more. In fact, people who slept less than five hours were more likely to get sick than people who slept six hours.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Eating a healthy balanced diet helps keep your body functioning well. As much as possible, get your nutrition from unprocessed foods rich in vitamins, minerals and fibers, not from supplements. Whole fruits are better than fruit juice. In particular, blueberries, apples and grapes have been associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes. And, try to minimize eating foods and drinks with saturated fats, added sugar, high sodium content and that are high in calories. But, still eat modest amounts of foods with unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D produces proteins that kill viruses and bacterial infections. If you eat fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna or mackerel, drink milk with vitamin D, eat cheese and mushrooms, or spend time in the sun, you should have a good vitamin D level.
  • Alcohol: Studies show that if you drink too much, you can compromise your immune system and are more likely to suffer from pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses. To live longer, a recent study published in  the Lancet finds that you should not drink more than five drinks a week. People who drank more than five alcoholic drinks a week had a higher risk of stroke, coronary disease, heart failure and death than people who drank five or fewer alcoholic drinks.
  • Exercise: To stay healthy, sit less and exercise. Two and a half hours a week of physical activity is important for a longer life and to deter all kinds of chronic conditions.  You should spend at least 20 minutes a day increasing your heart rate. That benefits your heart, your mind, your muscle, your skin and more. Also, avoid sitting too much. Sitting can increase your likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. It can lead to high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and extra body fat around the waist. And, it can hurt your cholesterol.

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