Our immune system is essential for our survival. It is a network of cells, tissues and organs, namely our skin, mucus, gut and lymph system, which work to defend against any foreign bodies and infectious diseases, both internal and external. Internal diseases include cancer cells, and external includes any bacteria, fungus, viruses or parasites. The most important cells in the immune system is the white blood cells, also called leukocytes. They are found in various parts of the body and circulate between your organs, nodes and blood vessels. When antigens (the foreign substances) enters the system, your body will start what is called an autoimmune reaction. Your body will produce antibodies, which are specialised proteins and will attach itself to the antigen to help protect you from the illness.
When it functions properly, your body will recognise what is your own healthy cells from foreign cells and fight against these diseases. A healthy immune system is vital in order for us to go about our daily life, and you probably don’t notice that it is working around the clock as you come into contact with germs, people, pets and the environment.
However, when the immune system is compromised, it is harder for our bodies to be protected at the same standard, so the likelihood of catching infectious diseases and illnesses is much higher.
How to spot a weakened immune system:
- You feel more tired
- You’re overweight
- You’re not getting enough sunlight
- You feel stressed constantly
- Your wounds take longer to heal
There are several ways to maximise your chances of avoiding harmful infections and staying healthy.
- Manage stress
When you are stressed, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol which helps to boost immunity. Too much cortisol will however weaken your immune system by decreasing the number of lymphocytes. Evidence has shown that chronic stress will cause your body to become resistant so it will cause more damage than good. Stress will also have an indirect effect to your immune system, as you may be more likely to adopt unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking excessively and smoking.
- Don’t smoke
We already know that smoking causes a number of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, but it directly impacts your immune system as well. High levels of tar and other harmful chemicals are present in cigarette smoke which makes our immune system less effective causing you to feel ill more often. The nicotine causes our blood vessels to tighten which means nutrients, minerals and oxygen which are supplied to our bloodstream are reduced making it harder for wounds to heal.
- Make the right food choices
Feeding your body with a variety of vitamins and minerals will play a vital role in keeping well. Eating foods rich in antioxidants is important for healthy immune function and will help to ward off any infectious diseases and illness.
Fruit and vegetables – Especially brightly coloured ones, leafy green vegetables and drinking plenty of water will help to improve immunity.
Eating more lean protein – Protect you from catching any infections because foods rich in protein contain many immune boosting nutrients.
Eat probiotics – These are microorganism’s present in the digestive tract which helps to reduce inflammation and aids digestion. Yogurt and fermented foods are good sources of probiotics which will aid immune function by inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut.
- Manage stress
- Sleep well
Although sleep isn’t going to prevent you from getting ill, a lack of sleep will have adverse effects on your immune system. Without good sleep, your body will make less cytokines, a vital protein which targets inflammation and infections, making you more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. Research has shown that a lack of sleep causes a similar effect on the immune system as stress. It is important to get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night for good health.
Regular moderate exercise reduces the risk of catching a cold, flu or any infections and helps to alleviate stress. Moderate exercise may include: 30 minutes of walking a day, going to the gym 3 times a week or cycling. However, research has shown that vigorous exercise regularly can actually reduce immunity because the body is releasing hormones that supress immunity. Marathon runners or athletes should take extra care after their workouts to allow the body to recover.
- Consider zinc supplements
Zinc is a mineral, which is important for an improving in the immune system by fighting off infections and healing wounds. Zinc supplements will help to ensure you are getting the recommended 9.5mg a day for men and 7mg for women.