There is still a lot we do not know about the immune system, as its functions are so multifaceted and intertwined. The role of a healthy lifestyle, exercise and diet, stress, age and many other factors are being studied by researchers around the world.
While it's not always clear how the individual parts are connected: Every single organ or structure of the body benefits from a consciously healthy lifestyle.
What can I do for my immune system at home and at work?
- Wash your hands regularly and with soap and water. While this doesn't directly boost your immune system, it does reduce the risk that you get infected with pathogens picked up from surfaces.
Mobile phones, keyboards and door handles are sources of these smear infections. Bacteria and viruses that can survive for a long time in the environment (e.g. influenza viruses, hepatitis viruses, salmonella) are easily transmitted to the human host.
Think about your fingernails, too. Whether it is scratching throughout the day or simply typing on our computer, pathogens and debris become trapped under our nails. When you wash your hands, be sure to get soap underneath.
- If you have a cold, sneeze or cough into the crook of your arm, not into your hand or a tissue. Use disposable tissues to blow your nose and dispose of them in the trash immediately afterwards as reusable tissues become a breeding ground for bacteria. Do not leave used tissues lying around. Finally, wash your hands after blowing your nose.
- Ensure the right indoor climate. Air that is too dry dehydrates mucous membranes in the nose and throat. This makes it easier for pathogens to enter the body as there is less of a mucous barrier to trap them. Flu viruses also survive longer in the air when it is dry, so a humidity level of 40 to 60 percent is ideal. Make sure to maintain this level by using humidifiers, for example. But a word of caution as without regular cleanings, these devices can become havens for growing bacteria and mold.
- Ventilate your home regularly, for example, by opening windows to create a cross-breeze. There is a reason that winter is synonymous with cold & flu season. You spend more time in rooms and buildings with closed windows. Without proper circulation, levels of pathogens rise and this is how germs are transmitted amongst family or colleagues.
What activities strengthen the immune system?
Regular exercise is the ideal way to keep the heart pumping, our circulation moving, increase our resistance to stress and strengthen the immune functions.
- Moderate exercise in the fresh air daily, if possible, is sufficient to boost our immunity. The Canadian Society for Exercise physiology recommends 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise for adults per week. Going for a walk, whether you call it walking or strolling, is good for you and is generally easy on the joints. Walking at a pace that elevates the heart rate but doesn't make you feel out of breath supports your cardiovascular health.
- Endurance sports such as cycling, hiking, jogging or swimming help diversify your exercise regime.
- Outdoor exercise serves a dual role of helping to combat the risk of vitamin D deficiency. When the sun strikes our skin, we begin to synthesize the critical nutrient. Even when the sun is not shining, UV rays penetrate the skin (not covered by clothing). Therefore, apply SPF prior to sun exposure to reduce the risk of malignancies like melanoma.
- We love the sun, but also get moving in wind and rain. If it is dull, cold and wet, walking/running, jogging or hiking in the fresh air will stimulate circulation. The damp will also moisten the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract helping to protect against pesky germs. As the saying goes: "There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes."
- If you can't get outdoors, exercise at home also has positive effects on your immunity, weight, muscle strength and endurance. Search your favourite 'equipment-less' workout on video sharing sites and away you go! On your marks, get set, HEALTH!
- Kneipp therapy, also know as hydrotherapy, supports the immune system in the long term when used regularly. Immersion in cold water like a shower causes the body to release adrenaline. You also begin to produce more anti-inflammatory agents, supporting your resilience against infections.
- Regular sauna sessions, about twice a week, can also support your immune system. The most important benefits are stress-reducing relaxation and moistening of the mucous membranes. However, before you decide to schedule regular sauna visits in addition to your exercise programme, get the okay from your doctor. Caution is advised, for example, in those suffering from asthma, COPD (because of the increased risk of infection), circulatory problems, tendency to dizziness and in any case with acute infections, colds and fever.
- Don't overdo it: Too much exercise can lead to negative stress and temporarily weaken the immune system. Those who overexert themselves therefore tend to achieve the opposite effect and may become more susceptible to infections.
What lifestyle is good for my immune system?
In addition to diet and exercise, there are other lifestyle factors that have a significant impact on the strength of your immune cells.
- Get enough sleep: While we sleep, the immune cells that our body needs to fight bacteria and viruses renew themselves. This explains why sufficient sleep boosts the immune system and not enough leaves us vulnerable.
However, while 8 hours is recommended, know that this can change between each person. We also sleep less as we age, so implement a routine before bed to signal to your body that it is time to rest.
- Stress has a similar effect as too little sleep. With chronic stress or fatigue, exhaustion and permanent tension, the immune system becomes compromised. Each of us recharges in different ways. Invest in the things you love to combat the stressful times as well as possible, especially when the workload is high. If there is stress in the family, look for the root cause, talk to your partner and seek advice from reliable friends.
- Eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Drink enough water. You will find more information in our article on food to support your immune functions.
- Don't smoke! Did you know that there are almost 4,800 chemicals contained in the tobacco smoke of a cigarette? Addictive nicotine is just one of them. About 90 of these substances have been proven to be carcinogenic, including some that people have deliberately chosen not to consume including arsenic, lead, benzene, formaldehyde or nitrosamines. No surprise, smoking is one of the most harmful habits for your health. Possible consequences include COPD, lung cancer and other malignant tumours, emphysema, leukaemia and genetic damage.
- Overindulging in too much alcohol can cause a variety of detrimental health concerns, both physical and psychological. Alcohol depresses the immune system as the white blood cells, especially the phagocytes whose role is to immediately fight harmful intruders, are strongly hindered by alcohol in the blood.
- We'd be remiss to end on a negative note, which is why you need to know that love strengthens the immune system! When people hug, kiss and cuddle, the hormone oxytocin is released. This in turn inhibits the stress hormone cortisol which can inhibit the immune system. In this way, our defences are strengthened indirectly through affection and tender contact with each other.