The immune system is an amazing force, capable of intricate functions that science still cannot comprehend. We generally know it as the disease prevention- and fighting-system, so the natural instinct is to want to “boost” it in times of illness or when we want to avoid a communicable disease.
But our immune system can also become too strong and actually turn on the body, causing painful inflammation and autoimmune disorders. So while our culture is used to prescription solutions and quick fixes, it’s important to understand that the immune system is much more intricate than that. We can’t just take something to boost the immune system. It takes more than just increasing the amount of cells to really improve and protect health. (1)
Instead, we can recognize what drags the immune system down and take steps to help it function more efficiently. I like to call it bolstering the immune system.
What Inhibits the Immune System?
At its optimum levels, the immune system targets viruses and illness for deactivation or destruction and removal from the body. After identifying an intrusion, increased fluids bring white blood cells and immune cells (T-cells) to combat it, along with a fever locally or throughout the body. This is called inflammation and is actually a good thing in this context.
The immune system can be slowed in its responses or made overactive, both of which can inhibit its ability to target and attack real threats.
A few factors in particular can inhibit effective immune responses:
- Poor diet
- Mental and emotional stress
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Inadequate sleep
The body has to process, distribute, and respond to everything that we consume. One classic study in particular demonstrated the effect that sugar consumption has, especially on the immune system.
When sugary drinks were consumed, the immune system operated about half as well as it should have, and this deficiency extended for at least five hours after the sugar was consumed. (2) Similarly, an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids – found in processed carbs and meats – can create inflammation throughout the body, causing pain and inflammatory disease. (3)
Lifestyle factors, both physical and mental, can also affect the immune system. Closely linked with neurological and hormonal functions, immune response is altered when we are under heavy stress or are not recovering well with good sleep habits. (4, 5) A sedentary lifestyle can also lead to sluggish body systems, and the immune system is no exception. (6)
Bolstering the Immune System
Immune response is definitely an example of a case where you can have “too much of a good thing.” When the immune system overreacts, it attacks healthy tissue with inflammation.
We often say we want to boost the immune system, when what we really mean is that we want to support the immune system and its healthy responses. Just as diet and lifestyle can alter the immune system negatively, we can use those same principles to find simple ways to bolster the immune system.
Diet. Nutrition is the first tool to put in your toolbox for a balanced body and healthy life. When cold and flu season approaches or you gear up for vacation, attention to the food and drink you consume can make or break your immune responses as you are exposed to more illness.
Minimizing sodas, sugars, and other processed carbs can keep your immune system alert and focused on threats of disease.
Try incorporating these foods to maximize immune-boosting antioxidants and keep the system balanced and fed (7):
Getting a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables, with high quality meats only a few times per week, can also help to balance omega-3 and omega-6 to keep inflammation where it is needed. (8)
Another diet factor that can contribute to immune health is the state of bacteria in the gut. Having enough good bacteria to balance out offending bacteria can help the immune system to function well. (9) Gut health can be improved by consuming high-fiber foods, taking probiotics, and avoiding processed foods.
Lifestyle. The way we treat our body helps to determine how the body can work for us. We run ourselves ragged with too little sleep, too much stress, and unstable exercise patterns. By making simple changes to improve these habits, we can make great strides in immune efficiency.
Stress is a major culprit of immune inhibition. (10) Most stresses in the Western world are perceived – our body is reacting as though we are fighting for our lives, but it might actually be financial, interpersonal, or simply not giving ourselves a break. In order to lessen this perceived stress, we might:
- Practice mindfulness
- Incorporate meditative relaxation methods, such as yoga
- Create a more balanced schedule
- Prioritize adequate sleep
Without enough sleep, we don’t allow the brain and immune system enough time to interact. (11).
Simply creating a period of restfulness before bed and enjoying a full night of sleep can help to bolster the immune system, particularly during times when illness is more likely.
Finally, exercise is a factor in immune health, but it is another area where balance is important. Very strenuous exercise can be too hard on the immune system, while a sedentary life can slow it down. Moderate exercise, on the other hand, helps to keep the body running smoothly. (12)
Consistency is more important than harsh or heavy calorie burning, allowing your body to adapt to the habit and utilize the efforts most efficiently. Walking, jogging, swimming, and yoga are examples, but you will need to find what is most enjoyable and sustainable for your life.
Supplements. Of course, there is always a place for supplementation in our modern lives, and vitamins, minerals, and herbs have been used for generations and even centuries to help to bolster immune effectiveness. After balancing the diet, reducing stress, recovering with sleep, and energizing with exercise, consider these supplements for their stress-reducing and immunomodulatory effects: