10 Ways to strengthen your immune system
OK, from the jump, let’s bust a popular natural health myth: You cannot “boost” your immune system. Sorry, Charlie – there is no science to back up the claim that a lifestyle change or a supplement can supercharge the functions of the immune system.
Bottom line: Claims to boost your immune system are marketing ploys designed to sell more products to an unsuspecting consumer. No vitamin or herbal supplement will send your immune system into overdrive.
Still, you can strengthen the immune system to ensure it is hitting on all cylinders.
What is the immune system?
First, some groundwork: Your body has three types of immunity – adaptive, innate, and passive:
- Adaptive immunity develops throughout your lifetime. When we’re exposed to disease, our body learns and adapts. Same thing when vaccines are used for immunization.
- Innate immunity is general protection, like the skin is a barrier to block germs from the body. The immune system also picks up on foreign invaders that could be dangerous.
- Passive immunity comes from an outside source – a temporary protection, like a mother’s breast milk gives a baby a brief resistance to a disease the mother has been exposed to.
Now, the immune system also will distinguish between healthy cells and unhealthy cells by way of danger-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) and pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs).
Within the immune system, different cells work together to ward off disease and infections:
- B cells
- CD4+ helper T cells
- CD8+ killer T cells
- Dendritic cells
- Regulatory T
These cells work with two types of molecules:
- Antibodies – proteins that bind to antigens on germs, tumor cells, or viruses and mark harmful cells for an attack.
- Cytokines – molecules that help coordinate an immune response to the antibodies.
The major players in the immune system are the tissues and organs that work in unison to protect your body:
- Bone marrow
- Lymph nodes
- Thymus gland
How to strengthen your immune system
For starters, embrace a healthy lifestyle. Don’t smoke. Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Exercise regularly. Get adequate sleep. Try to minimize stress. Maintain a healthy weight. If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation. And, to help avoid infection, cook meats thoroughly and wash your hands frequently.
See, you read that paragraph and thought, “Yeah, makes sense.” Look again: That’s 10 ways to strengthen your immune system. Yes, you can do it!
The idea of “boosting” your immune system can have consequences. Increasing the number of cells in your body — immune cells or others — raises the risk of stroke. Also, which cells should you boost? What’s the magic number of cells? Scientists do not know the answer.
We know elderly people are more likely to contract infectious diseases – influenza, pneumonia, respiratory infections. It is believed that the thymus atrophies with age and produces fewer T cells. Researchers also are studying whether bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing stem cells.
Also, micronutrient malnutrition – a deficiency in essential vitamins and trace minerals – is common in the elderly. Deficiencies in copper, iron, selenium, vitamins A, B6, C, and E, and zinc, have been proven to alter immune responses in animals. Still, these effects have not been assessed in humans.
Five micronutrients – magnesium, vitamins B6, C, and E, and zinc – are vital to maintaining immune function. So, if you’re looking to strengthen your immune system with a healthy diet, consider:
- Vitamin B6 – chicken, cereals, bananas, pork loin, potatoes with skin
- Vitamin C – tomatoes, citrus fruit, sweet peppers, broccoli, kiwi fruit
- Vitamin E – sunflower seeds and oil, almonds, safflower oil, peanut butter
- Magnesium – whole wheat, legumes, nuts, seeds
- Zinc – oysters, beef shank, Alaskan king crab, turkey (dark meat)
You don’t have to have a full understanding of “how” the immune system works to protect the body to appreciate its effectiveness. Nonetheless, you should understand “why” a healthy lifestyle can strengthen the immune system to sustain peak performance.