By Stefan Ianev
By now you have probably been bombarded with tips on how you can boost or supercharge your immune system from every direction.
While there is no magic pill or quick fix that can boost or supercharge your immune system overnight, there are proven lifestyle practices and nutritional habits that can boost your immune system over time, if practiced on regular basis.
You probably already know all these things because they are general, healthy lifestyle practices that we should all be engaging in on a regular basis.
However, one blessing that that may come out of this pandemic, is that people might now start to take their health more seriously and start doing everything they can to support their immune system.
While each of these five steps will have a benefit if applied on its own, the benefit will be amplified if you apply them all. Most people are only doing only two to three of these things maximum so the purpose of this article is to sell you why you should be doing all of them!
So, with having said that lets get into it. In no particular order, here are the 5 steps for improving your immune system.
The link between stress and immune system is well established. Chronic stress has been implicated in the pathogenesis of various forms of immune-related diseases. In fact, some studies have shown a direct relationship between basal salivary cortisol secretion and susceptibility to upper respiratory infection (1).
Figure 1. There is a direct linear relationship between basal cortisol secretion and susceptibility to upper respiratory infectious disease (1).
Mindfulness interventions like mediation and yoga are known to reduce stress and have been shown to enhance immune function through several different mechanisms such as an increase in natural killer cells and B-lymphocytes (2). A decrease in these cells may result in the development or progression of different forms of cancer, acute and chronic viral infections, and various autoimmune diseases.
In addition, meditation has been shown to have numerous other health benefits such as reduced blood pressure, reduced inflammation, reduced anxiety and depression, improved memory, and increased DNA telomere length, leading to increased lifespan and reduced national health care costs (3).
While there are many forms of meditation and covering each one in depth is beyond the scope of this blog, the most important thing is that you get into the habit of doing it regularly. I recommend at least 20 minutes per day, ideally first thing in the morning or before bed. But irrespective of the time and the type of meditation that you choose to do, the most important thing is that you do it.
Like meditation, exercise has been associated with numerous health benefits and disease prevention, irrespective of weight loss. This includes prevention of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis, as well as an improvement in musculoskeletal fitness (4).
Figure 2. The relationship between changes in physical fitness and changes in mortality over time (2).
Apart from all these health benefits there is also a compelling link between physical activity and the bodies defence system. Evidence has shown that both aerobic and resistance exercise have an acute and chronic impact on immune function (5,6). However, while three is a positive relationship between moderate intensity exercise and immune response, high intensity exercise has been associated with impaired immune function and increased susceptibility to upper respiratory infection (7).
Figure 3. There is a “J-Curve” relationship between exercise intensity and risk of upper respiratory infection
Therefore, while it very important to continue exercises regularly, it’s also important not to overdo it (7).
- Eat a balanced diet
It is well-established that even a mild nutritional deficiency or inadequacy can impair immune function and growing evidence suggests that certain nutrients may help optimize immune functions including improving defence function and thus resistance to infection.
Of particular importance is protein. Protein malnutrition is associated with a significant impairment of cell-mediated immunity, phagocyte function, complement system, secretory immunoglobulin A antibody concentrations, and cytokine production (8).
Of the micronutrients, zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamins A, vitamin B6, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E have important influences on immune responses (8,9). Additionally, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and functional foods including probiotics, and green tea may improve immune function (9).
On the other hand, overeating and obesity may actually reduce immunity (8). Therefore, you should aim to consume a moderate protein, wholefood, micronutrient rich diet, while avoiding very restrictive diets or overeating.
Sleep plays a vital role in brain function and systemic physiology across many body systems and sleep disruptions have been shown to have substantial adverse short- and long-term health consequences (10).
Long-term consequences of sleep disruption in otherwise healthy individuals include hypertension, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease, weight-related issues, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and colorectal cancer (10).
Research has also reported that exercise performance is negatively affected by sleep loss (11). Reduction in sleep quality and quantity can result in an autonomic nervous system imbalance, causing symptoms of overtraining syndrome. Additionally, increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines following sleep loss could promote immune system dysfunction (11-13).
In fact, some studies have shown that sleeping less than 7 hours a night was associated with almost 3-times greater risk of developing a cold compared with sleeping more than 7 hours (12,13). Therefore, as part of your overall strategy in improving your immunity, make sure you are getting adequate sleep every night.
- Get some sunlight each day
Sunlight is an essential source of light and warmth for life on earth and has important biological effects. Humans obtain most of their vitamin D through exposure of the skin to sunlight. The immunoregulatory properties of vitamin D have been well demonstrated in studies showing that vitamin D deficiency is associated with poor immune function and increased disease susceptibility (14).
Additionally, there is emerging evidence for the immune enhancing effects of low levels of UV exposure on the skin independent of vitamin D (14-16). UV exposure also increases blood levels of natural opiates called endorphins (17).
Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. An example is the feeling that follows a run or a workout which is often described as “euphoric” or also known as “runner’s high”.
However, much like exercise, high levels of UV expose have can have harmful effects and has been linked to immunosuppression and skin cancer (16). Therefore, while it is important to get out an get some sun each day, you don’t need to overdo it. Most experts recommend about 15 minutes a day when the sun is highest (17). If for some reason or other you are unable to get 15 minutes of sunlight each day, consider supplementing with 2000-4000IU of vitamin D.
There you have it, the five simple steps that can go a long way in boosting your immune system if you commit to all of them each day and make them a regular part of your lifestyle. Hopefully I have convinced you by now if you haven’t been doing any of these why you need to start now!
If you’re interested in learning more about the science and importance of micronutrients and how they not only influence our health at a cellular level, but how they can either positively or negatively impact client health and performance, enrol into the Performance Nutrition Coach Certification Bundle (includes the Level 1&2 online courses).
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- Janicki-Deverts D, Cohen S, Turner RB, Doyle WJ. Basal salivary cortisol secretion and susceptibility to upper respiratory infection. Brain Behav Immun. 2016;53:255–261. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2016.01.013
- Thibodeaux, Nicole & Rossano, Matt. (2018). Meditation and Immune Function: The Impact of Stress Management on the Immune System. OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine. 3. 1-1. 10.21926/obm.icm.1804032.
- Sharma H. Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu. 2015;36(3):233–237. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.182756
- Warburton DE, Nicol CW, Bredin SS. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ. 2006;174(6):801–809. doi:10.1503/cmaj.051351
- Nieman DC, Wentz LM. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sport Health Sci. 2019;8(3):201–217. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009
- Campbell JP, Turner JE. Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan. Front Immunol. 2018;9:648. Published 2018 Apr 16. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2018.00648
- Hackney AC. Clinical management of immuno-suppression in athletes associated with exercise training: sports medicine considerations. Acta Med Iran. 2013;51(11):751–756.
- Chandra RK. Nutrition and the immune system: an introduction. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66(2):460S–463S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/66.2.460S
- Wu D, Lewis ED, Pae M, Meydani SN. Nutritional Modulation of Immune Function: Analysis of Evidence, Mechanisms, and Clinical Relevance. Front Immunol. 2019;9:3160. Published 2019 Jan 15. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2018.03160
- Medic G, Wille M, Hemels ME. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nat Sci Sleep. 2017;9:151–161. Published 2017 May 19. doi:10.2147/NSS.S134864
- Fullagar HH, Skorski S, Duffield R, Hammes D, Coutts AJ, Meyer T. Sleep and athletic performance: the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance, and physiological and cognitive responses to exercise. Sports Med. 2015 Feb;45(2):161-86. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0260-0.
- Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(1):62–67. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2008.505
- Prather AA, Janicki-Deverts D, Hall MH, Cohen S. Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep. 2015;38(9):1353–1359. Published 2015 Sep 1. doi:10.5665/sleep.4968
- Hart PH, Gorman S, Finlay-Jones JJ. Modulation of the immune system by UV radiation: more than just the effects of vitamin D?. Nat Rev Immunol. 2011;11(9):584–596. Published 2011 Aug 19. doi:10.1038/nri3045
- Phan T, Jaruga B, Pingle S et al. Intrinsic Photosensitivity Enhances Motility of T Lymphocytes. Sci Rep 6, 39479 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep39479
- González Maglio DH, Paz ML, Leoni J. Sunlight Effects on Immune System: Is There Something Else in addition to UV-Induced Immunosuppression?. Biomed Res Int. 2016;2016:1934518. doi:10.1155/2016/1934518