Unleash Your Inner Superhero
We all have an inner superhero inside our bodies - it’s called our immune system. It’s on duty 24/7, working hard to defend and protect the body against infection. Made up of a vast army of cells and organs, it works in concert to hunt down and rid the body of dangerous pathogens. When it’s strong and performing at its best, it protects you. When it’s weak or overworked, it opens the door for foreign invaders, leaving you vulnerable to illness. Fortunately, there is plenty we can do to keep our internal army strong and working in our favor.
Fuel Your Body Right
Eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet is essential for a healthy immune system. Our immune cells require adequate amounts of select vitamins and minerals for optimal performance. Examples of such nutrients include vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin A, folate, zinc, and selenium.1 These nutrients aid the immune system in several ways, helping to support the growth and function of immune cells to offering cell protection due to their antioxidant capacity.
Even marginal deficiencies in certain nutrients have been shown to impair the immune system. The key is to focus on a whole foods diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Here’s how you can do it:
Adopt a balanced plate:
- ½ of your plate: Colorful vegetables and fruits
- ¼ of your plate: Lean protein
- ¼ of your plate: Whole grains or starch
Diversify your diet with color: We're not talking about a colorful diet of sugar-packed candy, but a rainbow of plant foods. Did you know that the various colors in fruits and vegetables represent different nutrients, antioxidants, and phytochemicals? It’s like eating mother nature’s multivitamin.
Limit sugar: Excessive sugar consumption depletes the body’s nutrient balance, which triggers a cascade of inflammation and metabolic disruption, weakening our body’s defenses.
Limit alcohol: Excessive alcohol consumption suppresses the immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes.2 A 2015 study published in the journal Alcohol found that binge drinking can reduce the number of white blood cells that fight off infection for up to five hours after intoxication.3
Reduce Stress: Stress in acute situations can be helpful, motivating you to rise to the occasion when under pressure or triggering you to act when in danger. Long term, sustained stress, however, can lead to inflammation, dampening your immune system. Adopting strategies to reduce stress can support your mental wellbeing and your health.
Yoga: Studies have found that routine yoga practice helps lower stress hormones that compromise the immune system.4 It also aids in conditioning the lungs, stimulating the lymphatic system to work effectively, removing toxins from the body, and bringing oxygenated blood to various tissues.
Meditation: Research suggests that daily meditation can alter the brain’s neural pathways, making us more resilient to stress. It triggers a relaxation response, helping restore the body to a calm state and quieting stress-induced thoughts.5
Quality Sleep Matters: Recent research has shown that quality sleep helps support the T cells in our bodies that help fight infection.6 On the flip-side, sleep deprivation can produce high levels of cortisol, an immune-suppressing hormone. If you’re experiencing sleep deprivation, try the following strategies:
- Stick to a schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every night can help promote better sleep quality.
- Limit electronics before bed: Studies have found that exposure to bright light from electronics can suppress your bodies ability to produce melatonin, a hormone that influences your circadian rhythm.7 This can mislead your body into thinking it’s waking up when it should be winding down
Move your body: Continued physical activity reduces the risk of infection compared with a sedentary lifestyle.8 It does this by increasing blood flow and circulation, supporting the exchange of white bloods cells between peripheral tissues. While moderate exercise has been found to be beneficial, overtraining can have the opposite effect, so don’t over-do it. A 2011 study found that strenuous exercise can temporarily suppress immune function, lasting up to 24 hours after exercise.9
To support optimal immune function, aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity, five days a week, unless otherwise advised by your doctor or healthcare team. If you’re too busy to commit to 30 minutes of continuous exercise, try dividing up your activity. Consider a 15-minute brisk walk before and after work.
Routine exercise, along with a healthy diet, reduced stress, and restful sleep, collectively form the foundation for a flourishing immune system. If practiced consistently, these healthy-living strategies can have heroic results on your health, happiness and wellbeing.
Calder PC. Nutrition, immunity and COVID-19. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 2020;bmjnph-2020-000085. doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2020-000085
Sarkar D, Jung MK, Wang HJ. Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):153-155.
Afshar M, Richards S, Mann D, et al. Acute immunomodulatory effects of binge alcohol ingestion. Alcohol. 2015;49(1):57-64. doi:10.1016/j.alcohol.2014.10.002
Arora S, Bhattacharjee J. Modulation of immune responses in stress by Yoga. Int J Yoga. 2008;1(2):45-55. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.43541
Sharma H. Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu. 2015;36(3):233-237. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.182756
McAlpine, C.S., Kiss, M.G., Rattik, S. et al. Sleep modulates haematopoiesis and protects against atherosclerosis. Nature 566, 383–387 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-0948-2
Gooley JJ, Chamberlain K, Smith KA, et al. Exposure to room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin onset and shortens melatonin duration in humans. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011;96(3):E463-E472. doi:10.1210/jc.2010-2098
Nieman DC. Moderate Exercise Improves Immunity and Decreases Illness Rates. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2011;5(4):338-345. doi:10.1177/1559827610392876
Walsh NP, Gleeson M, Shephard RJ, et al. Position statement. Part one: Immune function and exercise. Exerc Immunol Rev. 2011;17:6-63.