The immune system is designed to protect your body against foreign invaders that can lead to illness. Once a disease-causing germ enters the body, the immune system goes through a series of responses in order to fight off these unrecognizable organisms. But why is it that some people get extremely sick with the flu while others fight it off in a few days or don’t get it at all? Let’s dive into the variety of factors that impact the highly variable immune system.
In a study by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that environmental factors outweighed genetics in about 75% of all immune parameters. Your “environment” can be defined as all exposures that come from outside of your body. For example, what we eat, breathe, touch, and drink can all have an impact on immune enhancement.
Exposure to contaminants that exist in our environment can have a negative impact on our immune system’s strength. One unavoidable exposure all humans face daily is air pollution. Breathing in contaminated air activates the release of white blood cells, causing an imbalance in the immune system. Air pollution can cause irritated eyes, a dry nose, mouth and throat allergies, lowered energy levels, headaches, and dizziness. More seriously, air contaminants may lead to respiratory diseases, leukemia, birth defects, cardiovascular problems, and neurological problems.
Every day, we encounter millions of germs that can cause severe disease. Proper hygiene practices can be used to help protect yourself and those around you by creating a line of defense against germs that make you sick.
Hand Washing & Sanitizing
Washing your hands often and for at least 20 seconds can help prevent infections. Think about how many times a day you touch your face without even realizing it – each time you touch your nose, eyes, or mouth, you give germs an access point into the body, which can make us sick. On top of this, germs can be spread from your hands to your food, drinks, objects, and to other people.
Although washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to get rid of germs, in times when you do not have the ability to wash your hands, an alcohol-based sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol is a great alternative. Sanitizers work to quickly reduce the number of germs on your hand.
Masks & Throat Mists
Another way to protect your immune functions, as well as those around you, is by using facemasks. Aside from using masks, oral antiseptics can be used to help reduce the risk of infection. Throat rinses work to prevent illnesses by coating your throat with a protective layer. For best practice, use throat rinses when in environments where risk for illness is high, for no longer than seven days.
3. Mental Health
Recent research has shown that your emotional patterns are strongly interrelated with your immune response, also known as the study of psychoneuroimmunology. Anxiety, stress, grief, and depression all have a dramatic impact on the immune system function due to the relation between neuronal and immune systems. Let’s dive into each specifically:
Anxiety & Stress
When faced with stressful situations, the body naturally reacts by prompting the release of hormones, resulting in a flight or fight response. When this response is triggered, the body prioritizes survival functions, causing other functions such as digestion, reproductive and growth hormones, and tissue repairs to be put on the back burner.
Although our flight or fight response is meant to benefit us, it becomes problematic when our bodies generate the response during non-threatening situations. When the body is battling with continual stress, it doesn’t get an opportunity to return to its natural functioning, resulting in a vulnerable immune system. A recent study found that social stress, such as discrimination and family problems, or job and money problems, can contribute to the premature aging of your immune system, which can increase one’s risk of cancer and heart disease.
Ever heard the phrase “laughter is the best medicine”? When it comes to stress, it is! Proactive steps you can take to decrease stress and anxiety include getting active, eating a healthy diet, taking up a new hobby – such as meditation, getting enough sleep, seeking counseling, and finally, having a good laugh.
Grief & Depression
Studies have shown that widows and widowers have a 41% higher risk of early death compared to their still married peers, proving that a broken heart can quite literally sicken our bodies.
Lasting grief can lead to depression, which can also be caused by a variety of other factors such as medications, age, major events, genetics, personal problems, stress, and much more. Grief and depression enhance inflammation in the body which damages the immune system and leaves you vulnerable to infectious diseases. When left untreated, depression can reduce the body’s ability to fight off infection and other serious illnesses.
If you are struggling with consistent mental health concerns, such as intense grief and/or depression, it is important for your mental and physical health to establish healthy coping mechanisms. Practicing behavioral interventions that are known to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, stress, and/or depression will help you achieve a more enhanced immune system. Some examples of behavioral interventions that can be useful include cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management, and lifestyle changes such as exercise and diet.
Interlinked lifestyle factors such as exercise, diet, and drinking can affect your immune system health for better or for worse based on habits formed. Simple changes to your daily routine can help to reduce inflammation and boost immune functions.
On top of boosting mental health, exercise also helps increase immune health. When exercising, you are increasing the movement of blood and white blood cells, which in turn increases the movement of more immune cells into the bloodstream.
Exercise helps the immune system by:
- Stimulating cellular immunity: An increased circulation of immune cells, which helps the body prepare for infections by detecting potential threats earlier
- Raising body temperature: May prevent bacteria from growing and help the body better address an infection
- Decreases stress and depression: Slows down release of stress hormones and proactively handles stressors
- Reduced inflammation: Keeping immune response in check
Eating a wide variety of foods rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients can help keep the immune system functioning optimally. A great rule of thumb is to add color to your plate! Different colors of foods represent various nutrients, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that are necessary for protection and recovery from illness. On top of this, protein, which is a building block of immune cells, should be added to meals throughout the day. Most adults need at least 50 grams of protein a day (or a palm-sized portion per meal).
Eating a low-variety diet, often consisting of highly processed foods and refined sugars, can negatively affect a healthy immune system. A junk food diet rich in saturated fat may impair the action of the immune system by making T cells (a central part of the adaptive immune response) slow and sluggish.
Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol makes it difficult for the immune system to defend the body against harmful germs. Alcohol intake can affect the lungs by damaging immune cells and fine hairs that clear out viruses. If these cells are damaged from alcohol intake, viral particles can easily gain access, leading to an increased risk of severe disease and complications. Additionally, alcohol that lives in the gut can destroy microorganisms that maintain a healthy immune system and trigger inflammation. Research shows that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to adverse immune-related health effects such as susceptibility to pneumonia, acute respiratory stress syndrome, and certain cancers, as well as slower recovery from viral infection.
Most of our bodily functions change as we grow older, including our immune system. Specifically, the deterioration of the immune system begins at around 60 years old. As our immune cells start to misbehave, this becomes problematic for white blood cells, which function as the body’s first line of defense. As we age, the speed and reliability of this defense is reduced, giving invaders more time to form a foothold. Hence why elderly individuals are more susceptible to illnesses than young individuals are and must take extra precautions to stay healthy.
Although aging is inevitable, there are certain factors that can accelerate the decline of your immune system functions. According to the National Library of Medicine, people who smoke or who are obese are particularly likely to have an immune system that is older than their chronological years. Taking small amounts of Vitamin E, Vitamin D, and exercising may help to rejuvenate the immune cells and slow immune system aging.
There are a wide variety of medicines, often called immunosuppressants, that, when taken, make your immune system less active. Reasons for taking immunosuppressants include treatment of autoimmune conditions, allergic reactions, asthma, organ transplants, and cancer cells.
If you are someone who has a condition that requires you to take immunosuppressants to stay healthy, make sure to practice good hygiene, limit contact with sick people, keep from touching your face, practice safe food preparation, and talk to your doctor.
7. Supplement Intake
On top of eating a well-balanced diet, taking certain supplements can help build an enhanced immune system. According to Medical News Today, in the United States, 95% of the population is not meeting the daily requirements of Vitamin D, 46% does not get enough Vitamin C and 15% does not get enough Zinc – the three most essential micronutrients for immune system function. Factors such as stress and infection can further deplete nutrient stores throughout the body. If a person thinks they have a vitamin deficiency, it is important to speak to a doctor about testing and solutions.
8. Innate & Adaptive Immunity
Your body’s first line of defense is its innate system, which consists of the protection offered by the skin and mucous membranes, and protection offered by immune system cells and proteins. The adaptive immune system kicks in when the innate system can’t destroy the germs, specifically targeting the germs that caused the infection. Your adaptive immunity is acquired during your lifetime from exposure to certain antigens from previous illnesses and vaccines.
Overcoming Previous Illnesses
Immune system memory is the reason that there are certain illnesses that you can only get once in your lifetime. It may take a few days for the adaptive immune system to respond to the illness originally, but once it is remembered, the body can react immediately if you get the same illness again. This is why the second infection is often mild and sometimes even unnoticed.
When you get a vaccine, it sparks your immune system response by imitating an infection, helping your body to use antibody cells to remember and fight off the germs before they make you sick. Sometimes after getting a vaccine, the body can have minor symptoms as the body gains immunity and will certain illnesses a vaccination may not prevent you from contracting the disease entirely, but it helps prevent you from becoming seriously ill.