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How to help your immune system

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Your immune system is like a personal assistant working 24/7 to keep you free from infections and tumours. To keep it healthy, follow these simple guidelines.

Photo by Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash

The immune system strives to protect us from infections and to stop tumours in their tracks. Its job, simply put, is to keep us alive.

You can look at the immune system as a gift from nature. It works hard to fend off all types of insults to our system. But it’s a two-way deal. If we want all the benefits of a high-functioning immune system, we need to look after it so it can look after us. 

To help our immune system, we need to eat right and exercise smart. We also need to identify and ignore some myths. 

Our bodies need fuel and our immune system is no different. 

Iron deficiency is the most common deficiency in the world. More than 20% of the world’s population has an iron deficiency—and women are more likely to be affected than men, according to Statistics Canada. Iron deficiency leads to less cell-mediated immunity, which means that white blood cells are not destroying infected or cancerous cells as well as they should be.

Zinc is another mineral needed for proper immune system function. A zinc deficiency can cause lymphoid organs, such as the lymph nodes and the thymus, to break down. Lymphoid organ deterioration can be lethal if it occurs at the fetal stage of development. However, excess zinc can also reduce immune function, so check with your doctor to make sure your zinc levels are within a healthy range.

Vitamins A, B and E are also important for immune response. People with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) require a higher intake of vitamins A, B and E, as well as zinc, to maintain normal nutrient levels, according to a study in Nutrition Reviews/ITC.

Age affects us all differently, but our immune systems all follow a similar trend. As we age our immune systems weaken. For example, the thymus gland begins changing after puberty and around the age of 50 it shrinks to less than 10% of its original size. Killer T cells, the body’s key fighter cells, develop in the thymus, and with fewer T cells comes less protection. 

As the immune system weakens, it also doesn’t recover as well as it used to. This leads us to a common myth: getting sick strengthens the immune system. 

The unpleasant symptoms you have when you are sick are not caused by viruses or bacteria—they are caused by your own immune system. When you get sick, it is your immune system that gives you fevers, chills, aches, and pains. That is your body’s attempt to kill off the infection. Sometimes we think that getting sick trains your immune system. Like a fighter in the gym—every illness makes you stronger. 

In truth, the immune system is more like a student at the library. Every infection is like a new book and as your body goes from healthy to ill, then back to healthy, that book is memorized and antibodies are formed. The next time that book lands on the student’s desk, they read the summary and move on, meaning little-to-no symptoms! 

So, getting sick lets you memorize more books, but you only need to memorize the books that are on the test. Those books being the common illnesses that you will encounter. 

When the immune system is fighting off infection, the body also gets damaged as it tries to attack the invader. When you are young, the body heals fast after being sick, but as you age the damage caused by fighting off an infection becomes more difficult to heal. That is why those who are older should see their doctor regularly and maintain a balanced diet.

It’s not just what you eat that affects the immune system, it’s what you do. Intense exercise can leave your immune system weak and open to infections for a short period of time. After exercising, the immune system needs to rest. While it’s resting, viruses and other microbial agents may strike, according to a 2016 study by the American Physiological Society

This window can last around six to 24 hours after exercising, and the severity and length of this window increases if you do not let your body rest before you exercise again. 

When exercising, avoid germs by wiping down equipment before use. Wash your hands and don’t share food or drink. If you are outside, watch out for dangers like slippery or uneven surfaces – and even wild animals. Always shower after a workout. 

Rest is key. Sleep is essential for recovery, even if you are not exercising. Chronic sleep problems can cause inflammation and slow recovery after illness and even daily activity.

For large lifestyle changes, check with your doctor first to make sure it is the right decision for you.

One danger of high-fat diets

Some nutritionists recommend high fat diets, but these are definitely not good for the immune system. A new study by Cell Reports suggests that white blood cells that live in the intestines react to high-fat diets by packing on the pounds. So, it might not be as simple as “calories in versus calories out.” Instead, high-quality food leads to high-quality health. When the white blood cells in the gut are in the presence of a high-fat environment, there is more inflammation, which leads to weight gain. So let the eater beware!

Your might also enjoy this article about building good gut health.

Author: David Whittaker is an OptiMYz and Silver magazines contributor with a journalism degree from the University of Kings College. David often writes about new research in personal health


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