Ways to Keep Your Immune System Healthy

I think we can all agree that 2020 was quite a unique year. It brought about many changes to all of us individually, professionally and certainly with regard to our health. For some people it allowed us to focus on our health more, since we found ourselves with “nothing to do” quite literally for a while. For others it turned into “too much alone time and too much down time.” Food became more about comfort and Netflix became our entertainment of choice.

Fast forward to 2021 and we are opening up the doors and cautiously easing back into some semblance of a routine. Now is a great time to decide what we will keep about our habits and what we “spring clean” and move away from. COVID-19 has also brought about a lot of discussion about how balanced our immune system is and how we can improve it. There are several things to consider and with summer coming, now is a good time to incorporate some of them.

1. Eat more fruits and vegetables.

This is an excellent time of the year to be including more fresh produce. As my son says, “It’s FINALLY time to eat more than apples and oranges!” There is a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that will be available over the next few months and each one of them offers a myriad of vitamins, minerals and fiber — all of which can help boost your immunity.

2. Exercise.

Immunity is built by improving your overall health, and exercise is certainly one of the ways we do that. Exercise is very beneficial for improving blood flow (circulation), reducing stress and reducing inflammation. All of which leads to improved immunity.

3. Get adequate sleep.

There is a lot more research discussing the importance of quality sleep to keep us as healthy as possible. Sleep allows for us to rest, repair and rejuvenate. “Pushing through” just because we can, does not mean we are achieving our highest level of health. Our bodies need “down time” to be able to fight off infection and reduce inflammation.

While you sleep, your immune system releases cytokines, a protein that helps promote sleep. A lack of sleep may decrease the production of cytokines. Cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation to tell the immune system what to do to fight off the infection.

4. Manage stress.

When stress is high we are more susceptible to infection. Increased stress leads to increased inflammation which can negatively affect our immunity.

Increased stress also has a secondary effect on immunity by encouraging us to eat more “sometimes” foods such as chips, sweets and high fat snacks. These are the opposite of well balanced, healthier options such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.

5. Consider herbal supplements.

There are many herbal supplements available on the market and many of them may be helpful for building immunity. It is always recommended to tell your doctor what types of herbal supplements you are taking, so they can let you know if there are any concerns about an interaction with prescription medications you are taking. It is also important to note that without paying close attention to the other points in this list, the herbal supplements won’t be as effective.

Improving your immunity involves many steps including cleaning up eating habits, increasing physical activity, improving sleep habits and decreasing stress. The great news is that while improving your immune system you will also be improving your overall health!  It’s a win-win, even in the midst of a pandemic!

Jennifer Gilliland is an outpatient dietitian with ProMedica and a professional clinical counselor. She enjoys talking with people about the behavioral side of eating as well as educating people on the healthiest food choices.