There are no shortcuts or magic pill to good health and immunity. Attaining a healthy immune system requires work and smart lifestyle choices. Good nutrition, consistent moderate exercise, conscious stress reduction, and good sleep hygiene are important for your overall health and longevity.
Adequate good nutrition
The nutrients that the body needs to keep us healthy come from a broad, well-balanced nutritional diet containing lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, low-fat protein, and dairy products. Vitamins and other supplements are no substitute for the breadth of nutrients that we gain from eating healthy food.
Vitamins (A, D, E, B6, B12, folate and C) and trace elements (selenium, zinc, copper, and iron) are necessary for normal immune function, based on data collected in the studies conducted to date. However, beyond achieving the recommended daily amounts of nutrients, there is no data to suggest that further supplementation can improve immune function in people.
Consistently adhering to a healthy diet can also keep your heart and gut healthy, reduce your risk of cancer, help maintain a healthy weight, and improve your memory and mood.
Long-term moderate-intensity exercise is proven to improve immune functioning and health. Physical activity of some manner, whether walking, biking, swimming or dancing, stimulates the brain chemicals, called “endorphins”, which help you feel happier and more relaxed. During periods when you are home bound, such as during a pandemic, take time to interact with your community in a new way. For instance, you can go on walk with family and friends, maintaining a safe distance from each other if appropriate, or ride bikes, play regular golf, and other activities.
The type of exercise suitable for you depends upon your underlying state of health. While exercise is good for you, do not overdo it as strenuous exercise can suppress your immunity.
It is estimated that chronic sleep problems afflict about 70 million Americans. In today’s world, working long hours is more often a necessity than not. Attending meetings and finishing work assignments, handling domestic chores, dealing with bills and expenses, caring for children and/or older parents, and much more fill our days and nights. Our “to do” lists are often long, leaving us less time to rest.
During sleep, the immune system releases chemicals, called “cytokines”, that protect us from infections and inflammation. Sleep deprivation may decrease the production of these protective cytokines and infection-fighting antibodies.
How much sleep is needed to bolster our immunity?
- Most adults need 7-8 hours of good sleep each night
- Teenagers need 9-10 hours of sleep each night
- School-aged children may need 10 or more hours of sleep each night
Too much sleep is also not recommended. You can experience inadequate quality of life, and difficulty in falling or staying asleep if you sleep for more than 9-10 hours a night.
Ways to help me sleep better
- Avoid caffeine intake late in the day
- Alcohol can prevent deep sleep. Avoid alcohol during bedtime.
- Avoid drinking a lot of fluids close to bedtime to avoid waking up during the night to use the bathroom
- Some regular physical activity plus a balanced, varied diet daily can help you sleep well. Meals with a high amount of fat can make it harder to fall asleep, so avoid these later in the day.
- Reduce the amount of time you spend using electronic devices later in the day, and avoid them completely an hour before you go to bed.
There are several ways in which stress can suppress immunity:
- The brain responds to stressors, which can be due to the loss of a family member, traumatic injury or illness, major natural disaster, intense work pressure, change in relationship, or some other emotional or physical experience, by releasing certain substances, which include cortisol. These can affect and inhibit the immune system by binding to receptors in the white blood cells, the cells which help fight infection.
- In an effort to manage or overcome the stressful experience, people may engage in behaviors such as alcohol use, unhealthy eating and inconsistent sleep hygiene, which can modify our immune system processes.
- Stress is also linked to causes of other health conditions which can affect immunity, such as headache, flu, diabetes, asthma and heart disease.
Several coping strategies for stress
- Relaxation. Techniques include yoga, meditation, deep breathing and listening to music.
- Connecting with people. Spending time with caring family and friends may help you relax, be calm and lower your stress.
- Changing negative thoughts and feelings. Choose to replace them with constructive, positive thoughts and feelings. Thoughts, emotions and stress are closely intertwined.
- Laugh therapy. Laughter improves our mood and our immune system.
- Talk therapy. Talk to a therapist who can guide you towards approaches that might help, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy is a psycho-social intervention therapy that is effective in developing coping strategies for stressors.
The bottom line
As we age, our immune system changes. This is referred to as immunosenescence. This makes us highly susceptible to an increased risk of inflammation, infections, cancer and autoimmune disorders.
Maintaining a healthy immune system, and hence, improving our quality of life requires some discipline and effort. The magic solution to keeping an immune system in top shape is a combination of multiple healthy lifestyle habits.
“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”– George Burns
“We can boost our immune systems by strengthening our social networks and decreasing stress.”– Jane McGonigal
“Sleep is the best meditation.”– Dalai Lama
“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cure for anything.”– Irish proverb