Your immune system works around the clock to ward off bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing microorganisms. But sometimes it fails: a germ slips through your defense systems and you get sick.
Or worse: in reaction to an unknown trigger, the body sometimes produces antibodies that mistakenly attack its own tissues. This type of overactive immune reaction is what happens in auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and lupus.
Although scientifically speaking “boosting your immunity” makes little sense, common habits like chronic stress, a fast food diet and sleep deprivation are known to decrease your body’s ability to fight off foreign invaders. So what can you do to keep your immune system strong – besides washing your hands and practicing good cooking hygiene?
Of course you can’t always prevent getting sick. But a healthy lifestyle does support the functioning of your immune system, keeping your defenses up and running as good as possible.
Have a look at these 8 natural ways to optimize your immunity and fight off the flu.
1. Stock Your Kitchen Pharmacy.
While a food pattern rich in sugar and saturated fats can put your immune system into overdrive, causing inflammation in your body, healthy eating on the other hand supports your immunity. The first step is a balanced diet, to ensure you get all the nutrients you need for a healthy body and mind. But some foods contain more immune-boosting compounds than others. Here’s what you should eat to stay strong all winter long:
- Studies show that the antioxidants in fruit and vegetables can significantly improve certain immune responses. Stock up on nutritional powerhouses like blueberries, bell peppers and broccoli, and experiment with tasty ways to eat veggies with most meals.
- Consuming flavonoid-rich foods fortifies your immune system. These compounds found in colorful produce, green tea, red wine and cacao help reduce the damage done by viruses.
- Although there’s still more to learn about the link between nutrition and immunity, some foods are known for their immunity-boosting powers. Chicken soup is a classic cold remedy – and for good reason. Throughout history, herbs and spices like garlic, ginger and oregano have been studied for their disease-fighting abilities, just like medicinal mushrooms.
- Sip on hot and healing drinks to warm up and boost your immunity at the same time.
- When you suffer from auto-immune disease, following an anti-inflammatory diet can help tame systemic inflammation and balance your immune system. Read more about an anti-inflammatory food pattern here.
2. Get Plenty of Real Rest
Getting a good night’s sleep is the foundation for good overall health – including your immunity. One study found that people who sleep fewer than 7 hours a night are three times more likely to catch a cold than those who sleep 8 hours. That’s because a lack of sleep compromises your ability to fight off bugs, by decreasing the production of both protective cytokines as well as disease-fighting antibodies.
What’s more, to keep your immune system strong, you need real rest. Mind-body practices like meditation seem to have powerful effects on your immune function because of their ability to reduce stress. So make time in your schedule for activities that activate your body’s relaxation response, like yoga and deep belly breathing.
3. Take a Breath of Fresh (Forest) Air
Did you know that forest air contains organic compounds that help your body defend itself against illness? Spending time in the woods also enhances the number and activity of ‘natural killer cells’ that fight off infections and attack tumor cells. Pretty cool right? And the best part: this increased immunity can last up to one month after a trip to the forest.
4. Move Your Body – Gently
We all know that exercising regularly is important for your overall health. But by promoting good blood circulation, physical activity allows white blood cells and other helpful compounds to move freely through the body and do their job efficiently. Research shows that people who engage in moderate exercise have 50% less chance of developing a cold compared to people who don’t work out routinely.
But while moderate activity offers multiple benefits for your wellbeing, excessive exercise can stress the body and thereby suppress the immune system. Instead of grueling yourself in the gym, you might prefer to move your body gently by walking, cycling, practicing yoga and doing activities you enjoy for 30 minutes each day.
5. Manage Stress Better
According to Harvard Health, the fight-or-flight response caused by everyday stress suppresses your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness. To optimize your immunity and stay healthy, it helps to avoid unnecessary stress. Cut back on your to-do list, learn to say no and find better ways to handle recurring stressors like your daily commute or that difficult coworker.
Of course, you can never get rid of stress completely. When you can’t prevent a stressful situation, find ways to deal with it in a healthy way. You can change the way you look at stress, cope with the problem in a constructive way and learn how to let go of stress more quickly.
6. Support Your Gut Health
Did you know that a huge part of your immune system actually lies inside your gastrointestinal tract? The cells in the lining of your gut regulate which (food) particles are allowed into the rest of the body. They excrete antibodies to keep harmful bacteria and toxins out. This makes your gut the first line of defense between you and anything you swallow.
So how can you optimize your gut-related immunity? One way to improve your gut health is by eating foods rich in probiotics, like unsweetened yoghurt, sauerkraut, tempeh and pickles. These beneficial bacteria help the immune cells in your gut to distinguish between healthy nutrients and pathogens.
7. Quit Unhealthy Habits
Unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking alcohol and eating too much junk food all keep the immune system from functioning optimally. Smoking a cigarette reduces your immunity by damaging helpful antibodies and antioxidants in your bloodstream. Excessive alcohol consumption also impairs your body’s ability to defend itself against infection and slows your recovery.
As difficult as it is, make an action plan to give up your bad habits and give your overall health a powerful boost.
8. Maintain Meaningful Relationships
I know, being social as a way to prevent illness might sound strange. After all, mingling with others is the prime source of transferring bugs and viruses. But having a strong social network has all kinds of benefits for your health, including your immunity.
Research found that people with many friends from a variety of social contexts are less likely to develop a cold than more socially isolated people. In contrast, loneliness can alter your immune cells in a way that makes lonely people more susceptible to infection and chronic illness.
So foster your family and friends. Spend quality time with supportive people who make you laugh or build new positive relationships.
And if you do happen to catch the flu, hopefully you have someone to look after you!
What do you do to keep your body’s natural defense system strong?
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