It’s the time of year when a healthy immune system is more important than ever. The flu season is just around the corner and we are still in the middle of a pandemic. As you gather around more family and friends over the upcoming holidays, it is important to do whatever you can to keep your body’s natural germ control system in tip-top shape.
But first – how does your immune system work? When germs enter our body, they attack and multiply. This invasion is known as infection and it causes us to get sick. White blood cells (also known as “immune cells”) are carried by our blood and have specific functions in fighting diseases. Macrophages swallow and digest germs. They leave behind pieces of the germ that has entered, called antigens, which your body later uses to identify the germ if it tries to invade again – and stimulate antibodies to attack it. B lymphocytes are the white blood cells that produce these antibodies. And T lymphocytes are the ones that attack cells that are already infected in your body.
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This system is designed to work naturally and with autopilot – however, there are a few things you can do to keep it running more smoothly. Here are 6 healthy habits you can incorporate into your lifestyle that will help you build a strong immune system.
1. Stay hydrated
Staying hydrated is one of the best things you can do for your health in general, but it’s especially important when trying to fight disease. Water helps flush everything out, and your cells – including those working for your immune system – function better when they’re fully hydrated. Water isn’t the only thing helping you stay hydrated. Broth, tea, or anything without a lot of sugar counts. Remember, staying hydrated is especially important if you are over 65, as the aging population tends to drink less fluids during the day.
2. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control your body weight, and strengthens your immune system. Exercise keeps your blood flowing so that pathogens can be filtered out more efficiently. Did you also know that sweat can kill pathogens on the surface of the skin? Regular exercise and activity also make it less likely that you will be injured. A debilitating injury is a safe bet for inactivity, which will ultimately affect your overall health and immune system.
3. Get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the risk of illness. Sleep researchers at the University of California – San Francisco, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center tested this theory by exposing 164 volunteers to the common cold virus through nasal drops while they monitored their sleep and assessed their health habits. Participants who slept less than five hours were four and a half times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept seven hours a night. So make sure you turn these devices off at least an hour before bedtime and aim for seven hours of Z per night.
4. Eat well
Eating a healthy, plant-based, varied diet is one of the best ways to strengthen your immune system. Avoid processed foods and opt for lots of fruits and vegetables of different colors. Red cabbage, for example, has one of the highest levels of antioxidants. There is some evidence that deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid and vitamins A, B6, C and E change the way your immune system reacts. The best way to achieve all of this is through food – so choose a healthy diet to keep your immune system functioning at its best.
5. Cuddle with your pets
OK – I read this and thought – I need to include this in my article. A Washington State University study found that simply cuddling your dog or cat for 10 minutes had a significant impact on lowering cortisol levels. In other words, cuddling with your pet will help minimize stress. Scientists have long suspected a link between increased emotional stress and decreased immune function. However, quantifying this is challenging because stress is so subjective. Try to incorporate daily habits of gratitude, meditation, and deep breathing. Any of these habits will help reduce your stress levels and make your immune system easier to work with.
6. Go outside
A regular dose of fresh air not only reduces my stress, it also gives me vitamin D. The effectiveness of vitamin D in fighting colds and flu is still unclear and under investigation, but vitamin D is believed to help the immune system function normally. But regardless of the research, being outdoors definitely gets you away from all of the circulating air that must be beneficial. I think it’s no coincidence that we get more colds in winter so pack up and go outside if you can. Your immune system won’t mind.
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If you can incorporate any of these healthy habits into your life, you are doing your immune system a favor. Good health is probably our most important asset in life. Don’t take it for granted and do whatever you can to maintain and optimize it.
Dr. Carrie Jose, physical therapist and Pilates expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To contact her or to get one of her free counselors on back, knee, neck, or shoulder pain, email her at email@example.com or call 603-380-7902.