No one likes to be sick. When you’re plagued with cold symptoms throughout the winter, your problem could be related to a weakened immune system. There are so many factors that impact your immune system, including career and family stress, general busy lifestyles, exposure to environmental hazards and chemical compounds, and poor eating habits (often associated with busy schedules). It’s no surprise that influenza outbreaks, common colds and even chronic disease are on the rise.
The good news is you do have control over immune health. Taking charge of your immune system with some simple lifestyle changes and good habits goes a long way towards improving your overall health—and reducing the stress associated with frequent colds and illnesses.
Rest, Relaxation and Meditation
Getting enough sleep is incredibly important to maintaining the health of your immune system. The CDC reports that somewhere between 50 million to 70 million American adults suffer from sleep disorders like insomnia. That’s a lot of people walking around sleep-deprived. Lack of sleep also makes everyday stressors more aggravating, sending your body into stress-resistance mode, which further saps your energy and prevents you from staying alert and focusing. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
According to WebMD, studies show that sleep deprivation lowers T-cell counts—the very cells responsible for the body’s immune response to ward off cold and flu viruses. If that’s not enough, lack of sleep also creates a surge in inflammatory cytokines. All of this, simply put, weakens the immune system and increases your likelihood of contracting a cold.
Your body uses sleep to recharge. Give your body the time it needs to regroup from the day’s events by taking time out for relaxation or meditation each day. Clear your mind of the day’s stresses. Turn down the volume on the TV or radio—better yet, turn off the noise entirely. Follow a consistent nighttime routine to help ease your body into rest mode.
Fuel Your Vital Organs with Plenty of Water
Water actually plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy immune system. Your body is mostly made up of water, and proper hydration improves blood flow—allowing your body to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to your vital organs and help flush out toxins.
In addition, water is necessary for proper kidney function. It’s your kidneys that hold the primary responsibility for removing waste and toxins from the foods and beverages you ingest. You can’t over-hydrate your kidneys—Nutrition Today points out that your kidneys handle an excess of fluid far more readily than a deficit.
Water keeps your skin looking healthy and your body temperature regulated. That means your skin can better protect against germs and airborne bacteria. A study published by Salmon, Armstrong and Amsel back in the February 1994 issue of The Western Journal of Medicine says that the skin is a “protective interface between internal organs and the environment,” but that it’s actually much more than a physical barrier, serving as an active immune organ itself.
Your goal should be to consumer 64 ounces of water daily. While other beverages do include water, pure water doesn’t introduce artificial sweeteners or added calories to your diet and provides more hydration than other liquids.
Eat a Balanced, Nutrient-Rich Diet
Vitamins and minerals are essential for bone health, great skin and hair, vital organ functioning and so much more—including immune health. In fact, experts estimate that poor dietary habits contribute to 310,000 to 580,000 deaths among U.S. adults each year—especially when combined with a lack of regular exercise. “Macronutrients,” or protein and carbohydrates, are the foundation for immunity. That’s a long-regarded fact that’s been proven time and time again by researchers. But specific vitamins and minerals can give your immune system an extra boost, while a deficiency can reduce the number of germ-fighting white blood cells in your system and lead to illness.
Fruits and vegetables are widely regarded as immune-boosting foods. Fruits and vegetables are typically low in calories, but packed with fiber and nutrients that your body needs to ward off disease. So eating a diet filled with fruits and vegetables not only strengthens your immune system—but it helps you maintain a healthy weight, too.
Antioxidants, such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E and Beta-Carotene, are the primary immune-boosting type of nutrient. The following foods are just a few fruits and vegetables containing at least one antioxidant:
There are dozens of other fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants. The key is to choose fruits and vegetables with rich colors, such as deep purples, reds, oranges, yellows and greens. To get the most nutrient benefits out of your foods, don’t overcook fruits and vegetables. The boiling process, for instance, leeches some valuable antioxidants from the foods. Eat vegetables raw or lightly steamed for the most bang for your buck.
Zinc and selenium are two minerals also classified as antioxidants. You’ll find them in foods like tuna, red meat, poultry, nuts and grain products. Harvard Health Publications names the following vitamins and minerals as immune-boosters:
Regular Moderate Exercise
When it comes to immune health, activity is just as important as adequate rest. That means to keep your immune system in top cold-fighting order, you should exercise regularly. Simple things like walking or yoga, or fun activities like Zumba or tennis, all qualify as exercise. Make it fun. Try different things. See what activities you enjoy most, and head outdoors to enjoy some mood-enhancing fresh air while you’re working out.
There are a few ways exercise works to boost immunity. First, the activity and the extra air you’re consuming helps to flush out bacteria from the lungs—and even cancer-causing toxins by increasing your urine and sweat output. It also decreases the production of stress hormones. Because stress contributes to illness, this factor alone helps keep colds and viruses at bay.
When you exercise, your body distributes antibodies and white blood cells more readily. These illness and disease-detecting components are then readily able to locate and eradicate potential bacteria and viruses before you ever have symptoms. And warm temperatures kill bacteria, so the increase in body temperature helps, too.
So what constitutes regular moderate exercise? According to the CDC, adults need about two and a half hours of “moderate-intensity aerobic activity,” like brisk walking or jogging, each week. In addition, muscle-strengthening exercises should be incorporated at least two times per week. That equals about 30 minutes per day. If your exercise routine is more vigorous, you can cut down the time accordingly. And it doesn’t have to be consecutive—for instance, you can break down your 30 minutes per day into three 10-minute increments.
These four simple lifestyle changes may seem basic, but they provide a strong immune foundation. When your body is fully prepared to ward off bacteria and viruses, you’re healthier more of the time. That means you can spend your time enjoying life instead of in a physician’s waiting room or on the couch with a box of tissues. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to boost your immune health—just a few small changes to your daily habits can lead to a healthier and longer life.