Your immune system is a fantastically complex bit of biological machinery, and it's tied into a whole lot of different parts of your body. It's difficult to convey just how much goes into the immune system, and how you can affect it with your lifestyle, but we're going to try.
How The Immune System Works
Your immune system is constantly at work. The world around you is filled with possible pathogens, from bacteria and viruses to allergens to parasites. That's not all your immune system fights, though; internally, it also fights toxins and even cancer. If a cell in your body goes awry and starts to form cancer, it's not uncommon for your immune system to fight it off before it ever develops.
Sometimes, though, something affects your body in a way the immune system isn't prepared for. Maybe it's a bacteria or virus you haven't encountered before, and that overwhelms your immune system, making you sick. Maybe it's a virus no one has ever encountered before, and your immune system has no idea how to fight it off. That's what Coronavirus is, by the way; a novel (new) virus that sneaks under the radar until it's bad enough that the body has to address it. And yes, sometimes it's cancer that the body can't fight.
Your body is full of cells called immune system receptors. These are like traps, little landmines throughout your body. When an antigen – anything not natural to the body that the body wants to get rid of – stumbles onto one of these traps, it triggers the immune system response.
The immune system is divided into two parts; the innate and the adaptive. The innate immune system is like a system of security guards throughout your body. When an antigen triggers a traps on a cell, the innate system sends special cells that way and destroys whatever triggered the trap.
Sometimes, the innate system is overwhelmed, or it encounters something new that it has no idea how to fight. That's when the adaptive immune system comes into play. This system is like the command and control center for the security guards. It develops new policies and new training routines to handle new kinds of attackers.
The adaptive system is how vaccines work, incidentally. A vaccine is a deactivated or dead portion of a pathogen, like a virus. It exposes the immune system to this virus, so the adaptive system can develop a way to attack it. Once the immune system figures out how to kill the dead portion of the virus, bacteria, or whatever other antigens, it keeps that policy on the books, and can fight off live versions of the antigen if it's ever encountered in the wild.
There are a lot of different organs involved in the maintenance and effectiveness of the immune system. These include:
- The Thymus, a gland below the neck and between the lungs, which helps develop white blood cells.
- The Spleen, an organ that filters blood.
- Bone Marrow, which helps produce red and white blood cells.
- Lymph Nodes, which are glands positioned throughout the body and when play a role in many different systems.
- Skin, which serves as a barrier and a warning system for intruders.
- Other organs.
As we said, the immune system is fantastically complex. As such, there's no one way to boost it or kick it into overdrive. In fact, if the immune system gets too over-active, it can attack your own body. This is what many autoimmune diseases are, including rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, and eczema.
Improving Immune System Function
Your immune system is a reflection of your overall health. What this means is that you can't take a magic pill that boosts it. Instead, you need to ensure that the various systems in your body are working well, which means living a healthy lifestyle. As such, "boosting" your immune system means making changes to live a healthier life.
The exception is vaccines. Vaccines are a method of teaching your immune system how to fight off certain kinds of antigens. Think of them as training sessions. Pilots use flight simulators to learn how to fly before they take the controls of a real plane because if something goes wrong, it can go catastrophically wrong. Vaccines are the simulator training for your immune system, giving it a controlled and safe way to learn how to fight an antigen before it needs to do so in a live situation.
So, here are our tips for naturally boosting your immune system.
One of the best things you can do for your body is to eat a healthier diet. You don't have to go on a strict calorie-counting, low carb, restricted foods diet, you just need to make changes, even gradual changes, to improve what you're eating.
The specific changes you make depend on where you're starting and where you want to end up. Here are some suggestions.
- Start adding a serving of fresh vegetables to your meals daily. Something green that is high in vitamins and minerals is best, like spinach, broccoli, or kale.
- Start adding fresh fruit to your routine. Fruit, like berries, citrus, or grapes, can satiate a craving for something sweet while providing a lot of vitamins and antioxidants.
- Start cutting out any high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is a heavily processed and unnatural form of sugar that is very bad for you.
- Start cutting out processed ingredients. Sorry, those grocery store cookies are terrible for you. If you have a craving for something sweet, reach for the fruit instead.
We've found time and again that making small, incremental changes are much easier to do than trying to abruptly shift to a new diet all at once. Once every month or two, make a small change to your diet, and within a year or two you'll be eating much healthier, and you'll feel better for it.
There is increasing research that your gut biome – all of the bacteria that live in your intestines and colon – have a massive effect on every part of your body. Your gut biome has been shown to talk to the immune system, it might have an effect on Alzheimer's Disease, and much more.
Probiotics help support the gut biome, keeping it regulated and full of healthy bacteria, rather than unhealthy bacteria. Cut back on sugars and consume more probiotics for the best effect.
What probiotics might you consider? You can take a probiotics supplement if you want, but you can also get it through certain kinds of fermented foods. These include dairy in the form of yogurt and kefir, and vegetables, like sauerkraut and tempeh. Kimchi, miso and kombucha are good options as well. Work a couple of servings of probiotics into your diet each week and you'll benefit greatly overall.
Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Do you drink a lot? If so, you should try to slow down for your health. Remember; alcohol is a poison, and that poison does damage to many systems throughout your body, including your immune system.
Now, there's some evidence to suggest that a small amount of alcohol can be good for you. Red wine, in particular, is often cited as beneficial in small doses, no more than a single glass a day.
Any more consumption than that can be dangerous, though. Alcohol can damage the liver and hurt your body's ability to remove toxins, it can impair cognitive function, and it can suppress the immune system.
Smoking, meanwhile, is bad for you in pretty much every way. Even second-hand smoke can be dangerous and lead to the formation of cancers. Other forms of tobacco use, including chewing it, also lead to cancers.
There is extensive evidence that tobacco use suppresses the immune system and makes you much more susceptible to diseases of all kinds. Your body is less able to fight off everything from the flu to cancer.
Yes, we understand that smoking is an addiction. Vaping may be able to replace it as a way to fill a habit while reducing the harm done by cigarettes, but there are potentially a lot of health effects that could still be caused by vaping that haven't been fully studied yet. Don't use vaping as a replacement; use it as a tool to help you reduce and remove the habit entirely.
Obesity is also a chronic disease that affects millions of people across the country. There's an ongoing movement of "healthy at any size" that is gaining popularity, and that movement may be killing people.
Now, we're not going to tell you that you need to lose 100 lbs as quickly as possible. The standard perception of ideal BMI is a flawed model. Some people can be perfectly healthy at a higher weight than others. A lot depends on genetics, on other factors like your height, and more.
However, what we do know is that excess fat hurts many systems in your body. It can lead to a variety of diseases, including diabetes, that suppresses the immune system and leave you susceptible to other diseases.
The good news is that even losing as little as 10 lbs can improve immune function. You don't need to go on a crash diet and shed a ton of weight to see improvements. That said, eating healthier and taking other steps on this list will naturally help you lose weight as well, so it's a win/win situation.
Get Better Sleep
Sleep is critical to life. The time you spend asleep is time that your body can spend focusing on non-cognitive functions, like healing, restoration of bodily functions, and immune system regulation.
There are a lot of different ways you can improve your sleep. You want to make sure you're getting enough sleep, you're getting sleep at a regular, predictable time, and you're getting quality sleep.
- Get more sunlight during the day. This helps set your body's circadian rhythm to give you a natural waking/sleeping cycle.
- Reduce blue light in the evenings. Staring at screens in bed is bad; reduce electronics in the evening and stop using them entirely for at least an hour before you go to bed.
- Avoid caffeine after around 3 pm. It takes hours for caffeine to work through your system, and it can keep you awake much later than you'd like.
- Reduce daytime napping. A short, regular nap can be healthy, but irregular naps or long naps can throw off your circadian rhythm.
- Set consistent sleep and waking times. A regular schedule helps with that same circadian cycle.
- Consider supplements. Some ingredients, like Gingko Biloba, glycine, valerian root, magnesium, and lavender have ingredients that can improve sleep quality.
- Make sure you're comfortable. A good mattress, a good pillow, and fresh sheets can all contribute to bedtime comfort, which improves sleep quality.
Sleeping better means a better, healthier body. It's one of the best things you can do for mood, overall health, and energy levels as well.
Exercise is important for health, more than you might imagine. Even a small to moderate amount of exercise every day can dramatically improve your health, your mood, your energy levels, the chemical balances throughout your body, and much more.
Whether this means a walk in the morning to help you wake up, a walk in the evening to help you fall asleep, or a regular session at the gym, it's entirely up to you.
Vaccines, as mentioned above, teach your body how to fight off certain diseases. Some vaccines considered use-as-necessary vaccines, such as cancer vaccines. Some of them are childhood vaccines that linger in the system but can use boosters if you're exposed to an antigen, such as the tetanus vaccine. Some provide temporary immunity to certain strains of a disease that change routinely, like the flu vaccines. Others provide lifelong immunity from a particular disease, like the polio vaccine.
Think about it this way. The more energy your immune system has to spend fighting off something like the flu, the less energy it has to fight off other antigens. If you get a flu vaccine, it lessens the load and makes you that much more immune to other antigens. Vaccines are good, and you should get them whenever possible.