Immune system support is important now more than ever before. According to the CDC, an estimated 39-56 million people had the flu between October 2019 and April 2020.1 Supporting the immune system is especially important for people at high-risk for flu complications or those who are immunocompromised- pregnant women, adults over 65 years old, and those with health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or HIV.1 The immune system is made up of two parts that work together to keep us healthy: the innate and the adaptive immune system. The innate immune system involves physical barriers (i.e., skin and mucus), chemical barriers (i.e., stomach acid), and secretory barriers (i.e., enzymes and immunoglobulins).2,3 The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, provides the body with long-lasting protection and specialized defense against pathogens.2,3 There are many factors from childhood and even before birth that influence the immune system such as the mother’s diet during pregnancy, history of antibiotic use, and amount of exposure to allergens throughout childhood.2 Although you cannot control what may have influenced your immune system in the past, incorporating the three daily habits discussed below into your routine can help boost your immune system.
Managing stress is one way to support immune health. Many things happen in life that are out of our control, but we do have control over how we respond to stressors. Emotional stressors include strained relationships with family, friends, or coworkers, taking care of a sick loved one, recent loss of a loved one or a hectic work/school environment. Emotional stress increases inflammation in the body and lowers the white blood cell’s ability to kill pathogens.4 Laughter is one way to help manage anxiety and stress. It actually boosts the immune system by increasing the number of immune cells.5 Another option for managing stress is yoga. Yoga and deep breathing increase well-being through relaxation, improved concentration, increased attention span, and lower irritability.6 Tortoise pose supports the thymus gland in the body where immune cells are made, and downward dog and camel pose improve sinus flow, helping flush mucus from the lungs.6
Practicing good sleep hygiene is of the utmost importance in keeping the body healthy, not just from acute illnesses like the flu, but for long-term health as well. The body repairs itself during deep sleep. Lack of sleep has been shown to increase inflammation and the risk of catching the flu.7 Getting 8-9 hours of sleep per night has been shown to improve white blood cell count.8 White blood cells travel through the blood looking for invaders. Therefore, improvement in white blood cell count helps the immune system from being overwhelmed. To improve sleep hygiene, it is important to stick to a regular sleep schedule and sleep in a room that is as dark as possible. In addition, cutting down on caffeine consumption, especially in the afternoon, and avoiding blue light from cell phones and other screens 1-2 hours before bedtime can be beneficial for increasing sleep quality. If you practice these steps to improve your sleep hygiene and are still struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, it maybe a good idea to make an appointment with a functional medicine provider to identify any possible underlying causes contributing to sleep issues.
Physical activity is another lifestyle habit that aids in supporting the immune system. Daily movement is key in optimizing the movement of immune cells through the body. Muscle contractions during physical activity increase the circulation of blood and lymphatic fluid through the lymph nodes. In the lymph nodes, the immune cells communicate by showing each other parts of bacteria or viruses they find in the body to be better prepared for the same invaders in the future, building immunity. The most beneficial activities for immune health include forms of moderate exercise such as gardening, water aerobics, brisk walking, and yoga as they help lower cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body. In fact, prolonged intense exercise can increase cortisol, suppressing the immune system.9,10 Some examples of intense exercise include running marathons, fast swimming, or strength training. Intense exercise has also been shown to increase rates of respiratory infections in athletes due to lowered mucosal IgA levels.9,10 Overall, vigorous exercise is not harmful to immune health, but should be balanced with moderate exercise.
The Bottom Line
The way we eat, sleep, manage stress and exercise affects the immune system. Prioritizing good habits in these areas helps keep the body strong and prepared to fight any illness it may be exposed to. Managing stress through proper sleep habits, relaxation techniques, and physical activity keeps inflammation down and helps our body to properly repair itself. Physical activity also helps the body circulate white blood cells and remove toxins efficiently.2,9,10 It can be helpful to evaluate these areas of your life, either personally or with a health coach or functional medicine practitioner, to determine where improvements can be made. It’s normally advised to start by incorporating small steps gradually over time. It can also be helpful to find family or friends to join in with you along the way! You can learn more about functional medicine by joining our next discovery class or book an appointment to work with our team!
Written by Lizzy Johnston, PharmD Candidate 2021, Cedarville University School of Pharmacy.
- CDC. Preliminary in Season 2019-2020 Burden Estimates.2020. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm. Accessed 19 August 2020.
- Guilliams T. Strategies for Immune Enhancement. The Standard. 2008. Retrieved from https://www.pointinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/standard_v_8.2+immunity.pdf. Accessed 13 August 2020.
- Kaiko, G.E.; Horvat, J.C. et al. Immunological decision-making: how does the immune system decide to mount a helper T-cell response? Immunology. 2008; 123(3):326-338.
- Brod S, Rattazzi L, Piras G, D’Acquisto F. ‘As above, so below’ examining the interplay between emotion and the immune system. Immunol. 2014;143(3):311-318.
- Dhabhar FS. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunol Res. 2014;58(2-3):193-210.
- Arora S, Bhattacharjee J. Modulation of immune responses in stress by yoga. Int J Yoga. 2008;1(2):45-55.
- Lasselin J, Rehman J, Akerstedt T, Lekander M, Axelsson J. Effect of long-term sleep restriction and subsequent recovery sleep on the diurnal rhythms of white blood cell subpopulations. Brain Behav Immun. 2015;47:93-99.
- Heredia FP, Garaulet M, Gomez-Martinez S, et.al. Self-reported sleep duration, white blood cell counts and cytokine profiles in European adolescents: The HELENA study. Sleep Med. 2014;15(10):1251-1258.
- Hoffman-Goetz, L. Influence of physical activity and exercise on innate immunity. Nutr Rev. 1998; 56(1 Pt 2):S126-S130
- Brolinson, P.G. and Elliott, D. Exercise and the immune system. Clin Sports Med. 2007; 26(3):311-319