Basic Steps to Improve Your Immune System
I'm often asked, "How do I improve my immune system?"
Especially this year, as we have been faced with so much illness and pandemic fears with the COVID pandemic, I have been asked over and over again, "am I doing enough to stay healthy? What else do I need to do to keep my immune system strong?"
Now more than ever, the phrase "boosting our immune system" seems to be all the buzz these days.
Your immune system is the part of your body that helps you fight off infection. If and when you get sick, it is your immune system that keeps any infection under control, kills the infection, and removes it from your body. We definitely want to keep this incredible system of ours running at an optimal performance level.
How do you do this? Here are some basic steps you can take that might seem small, but these are manageable things that you can do to actually help your immune system and its immune cells.
It's Not a Cliché; It's a Medical Fact - Sleep is Crucial
First of all, sleep is incredibly important and often under-rated. As important as a healthy diet and exercise are, proper sleep is also crucial. Sleep deprivation can create a chain reaction of negative health consequences. Poor quality sleep and lack of sleep can cause many physical health issues and can also affect what may not appear as a physical issue – at least not right away – and that is your mood.
Sleep deprivation can increase the effects of stressors, and, as a result, external stressors can seem much worse than they otherwise might. Depression and anxiety often follow closely behind. In addition, if we don't get enough sleep, physical health is often affected; blood pressure changes, our metabolism is affected, and our diet can be negatively affected (hello carbs and sugar to stay alert!). If sleep-deprived, we often don't have time – or make the time – to exercise. Hence, our physical activity level suffers which directly affects our brain and even our emotional regulation.
Sleep is actually involved in the regulation of the immune cells mentioned above, and these cells are responsible for fighting off infections, like Covid-19. So, those of us who are sleep deprived actually have an increased risk of contracting a virus or bacterial infection when exposed to these pesky germs.
Also, we often cannot think clearly or make sensible decisions without proper sleep. This affects our concentration in school and work. For example, I am the quintessential "napper" and I chuckle when I admit that power naps are THE way I got through medical school. I could literally shut my brain off in two minutes, close my eyes, and take a power nap for 25 minutes – and then wake up and hit the books again! Get your sleep. It is precious and good for your immune system!
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Remedy the bedtime routine and practice good sleep hygiene. This sounds bizarre but it IS a thing. Establish that bedtime routine to unwind and use your bed for sleep and sex only. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time daily. Most adults need 6-8 hours of good quality sleep per night.
Decrease caffeine intake in the afternoon and evening. People often wonder why they can't drink several cups of coffee once they get into their 30s or 40s as they could in college. After all, it's not unheard of for college students to drink several cups of coffee (or even a few pots of strong caffeinated coffee before exams), AND they are still able to go to sleep at night!
This is because our liver does a beautiful job of detoxifying when we are young but when we are a bit older, not so much. This is just simply part of life and aging and can cause us to have lighter sleep , which is less restorative, and not to mention the trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Limit media exposure and don't use technology close to bedtime. Blue light (TV, phones, gaming devices, tablets, computer monitors and other tech screens) is bad news for sleep and can affect one's stress response and anxiety level. Set an alarm for yourself to stop using these devices at least an hour before bedtime.
Socialize and Supplement
Talk to other people. In times of stress, the best way for us to handle our own stress and anxiety can be to reach out to others who may be feeling the same way. You can social distance but you don't have to be emotionally distant or isolated.
Consider supplements. If your food is not rich in the many immune boosting ingredients you need, considering taking vitamins and supplements.
Some important nutrients for boosting immunity are:
Vitamin B6, which is crucial to support biochemical reactions in the immune system. B6 rich foods include chicken, cold water fish, (salmon/tuna) and green veggies, chickpeas. (Yum! Hello, hummus!)
Vitamin C, which is one of the biggest immune system boosters of all, is crucial. The lack of Vitamin C can make you more prone to illness. Foods rich in Vitamin C include oranges, grapefruit, tangerine, strawberries, bell peppers, kale, broccoli, spinach. Also remember, your body does not store vitamin C so you need to take it in daily, but it's in many foods. And if you don't get enough, you can always supplement with a high-grade supplement. A study on the efficacy of vitamin C on the immune system you can read is here.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps the body fight off infection and some foods rich in vitamin E include, nuts, seeds and spinach.
Zinc helps the immune system too. Zinc, known as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, helps the main immune cells perform their job, and, in turn, helps our bodies recover from and respond to illness. Adding a zinc supplement to your regimen, especially right now, helps to ensure that you are better prepared for those pesky germs we discussed earlier.
For more on supplements, keep an eye out for my next "Ask the Doctor" article at NorthWestPharmacy.com.