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You’ve probably heard of the H1N1 virus. Every cold and flu season, there’s a big push to encourage people to get vaccinated. If your immune system is strong and healthy, you might be able to weather the storm of symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, congestion…). But if it’s not, the consequences can be a lot worse than a few days in bed.
For example, during the 1918 flu pandemic an estimated 500 million people around the world were infected. An estimated 40 million people died. And many more suffered from this virus.
While there’s a vaccine for this virus now, it’s still around. And it’s just one example of millions of viruses and infections that can attack your immune system and take a toll on your health.
Ever wonder what you can do to boost your immune system?
Build a fortress to keep invaders out
Your immune system isn’t like your heart, liver, or kidneys. It’s actually “network of cells, tissues, and organs” that work together to protect your body from harmful viruses, bacteria, and infections.
It’s a system. And when all the parts of your immune system are working properly, you probably feel pretty good. But when your immune system is compromised or weakened, you probably don’t feel like yourself.
Think of your immune system like all the defenses of a castle designed to keep intruders out. When the moat, drawbridge, guards, artillery, and castle walls are working properly, everyone inside the castle is safe from attack. But as soon as one defense is compromised, it gets harder to keep the intruders out.
If your immune system is weak…
If you have a weakened immune system, your body’s ability to fight infection is compromised. In some cases, a person is born with a defective immune system. But in many cases, a weakened immune system is the result of poor lifestyle choices. If your immune system is weak, you’re a lot more likely to develop:
- Conjunctivitis or pinkeye
- Sinus infections
- Cold and flu
- Digestive problems
- Breathing problems
- Yeast infections
- Hair loss
- Poor circulation
- Sudden weight loss or weight gain
- Organ damage
- Other serious health problems
How to boost your immune system
Take a look at the list of symptoms of a weakened immune system, and it’s not exactly a cheery list. Any one of these symptoms can have a major impact your health, happiness, and quality of life.
While you can’t predict all cancers, accidents, or circumstances that could impact your immune system, you can take steps to strengthen your immune system based on your lifestyle choices. Here’s how:
Don’t smoke. If you do, quit.
It’s no secret that people who smoke are more likely to develop lung disease and certain types of cancer. But puffing away also weakens your immune system, according to a recent study. Researchers found that smoking actually helps create an environment in the body that helps harmful bacteria grow, and even interfere with antibiotics meant to fight infection.
Eat a healthy diet.
If you want fortify your immune system in case of an attack from a virus like H1N1 or something else, eating a healthy diet is one of the most important things you can do. Eating more whole foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts, and seeds, fuels your body with the essential vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and antioxidants your immune system needs to defend your body from invaders.
Watch your weight.
If you’re overweight or obese, (70 percent of U.S. adults; 63 percent of adults in Australia), it has a negative impact on your immune system that causes inflammation linked to a long list of chronic conditions, including heart disease. If you weigh more than you should, do something about it. Research shows that losing just 6 kg (13 pounds) is enough to reboot the immune system to better protect your health.
Keep blood pressure under control.
If your blood pressure is high (about 1 in 3 adults in the U.S.) it can have a negative impact on your immune system. And if your immune system is weak, it can elevate your blood pressure. It’s a yin-and-yang, chicken-or-the-egg kind of situation. If your blood pressure is high, take steps to control it..
5. Avoid or limit alcohol.
If you drink alcohol, follow guidelines set by the National Institutes of Health:
- No more than two drinks per day for men.
- No more than one drink per day for women. Zero if pregnant.
Keep in mind that drinking too much alcohol can impact the kidneys, liver, brain, and other functions the immune system needs to keep you healthy. Alcohol can also interfere with sleep, another lifestyle habit that has a direct impact on immune system function. Research shows that people who drink too much alcohol also have a higher risk for diseases and infections.
Sleep 7 to 8 hours a night.
Here’s another simple thing you can do to boost your immune system. Get a good night’s sleep. That’s 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep. If you don’t, you’ll wake up with a weakened immune system and be more susceptible to catching a cold, the flu, or infection.
“What we show is that the immune system functions best when it gets enough sleep,” says University of Washington researcher Dr. Nathaniel Watson.
“Seven or more hours of sleep is recommended for optimal health.”
When to see a doctor
If you think you might have a weakened immune system and making lifestyle changes doesn’t seem to help, see a doctor. It’s possible other factors are taking a toll on your immune system. A simple blood test can often identify potential markers for an immune system deficiency.
Boost your immune system
These six strategies can help strengthen your immune system. Your personal hygiene habits and cooking practices can protect you from harmful bacteria and viruses. Managing stress in healthy ways can help, too. If you’re struggling to eat a healthy diet, consider taking a multivitamin or immune boosters supplement to stay healthy. When you take steps to boost your immune system, you’ll feel better, and be healthier.
- Billings, M., (1997). The influenza pandemic of 1918. Stanford University. From: https://virus.stanford.edu/uda.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2017). What is the immune system? From: https://www.vaccines.gov/basics/prevention/immune_system/index.html.
- Hutcherson, J., et al. (2015). Scratching the surface: tobacco-induced bacterial biofilms. Tobacco Induced Diseases. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4323140/.
- Tufts University. (2013). Healthy diet fights infection by boosting immune system. Health and Nutrition Letter. From: http://www.nutritionletter.tufts.edu/issues/9_5/current-articles/Healthy-Diet-Fights-Infection-by-Boosting-Immune-System_981-1.html.
- Viardot, A., et al. (2010). The effects of weight loss and gastric banding on the innate and adaptive immune system in type 2 diabetes and prediabetes. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. From: https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article-lookup/doi/10.1210/jc.2009-2371.
- Trott, D.W., et al. (2014). The immune system in hypertension. Advances in Physiology Education. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24585465.
- National Institutes of Health. (1998). Alcohol and the immune system. Chapter 4: Medical consequences. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. From: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/10report/chap04b.pdf
- Watson, N.F., et al. (2017). Transcriptional signatures of sleep duration discordance in monozygotic twins. Sleep. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27634804.