The immune system is a network of tissues, organs, and cells that protect the body from harmful substances that could cause illness. This includes fighting disease causing germs or pathogens like bacteria, viruses, or parasites and removing them from the body. The immune system also works against anything harmful from the environment such as allergens. The immune system can also fight the development of cancer cells and other disease related changes in the body.
There are two subsystems within the immune system. They work together whenever an immune response is triggered. First, there is innate (non-specific) immunity. This includes the different immune cells found in the body: natural killer cells, phagocytes. Their job is to fight harmful substances and germs that enter the body through the skin of the digestive tract.
Adaptive (specific) immunity refers to the antibodies developed to fight certain germs the body has previously encountered. This system includes the T and B lymphocytes responsible for immuno memory and the regulation of the host immune homeostasis. This system is constantly learning and adapting so the body can fight bacteria or viruses that change over time. (1)
While genetics plays an important part in one’s immunity, there are numerous ways to support the immune system in daily life. The following list contains suggestions, areas of life and lifestyle to consider. These are not rules, though there is evidence of how each can contribute to improved immune health. It is always a good idea to talk with a medical provider to clarify questions and get guidance – especially when making significant changes to any health regimen such as diet and exercise.
1. Diet and Gut Health for Immune Support
Diets that are limited in variety and lower in nutrients, such as one that consists primarily of ultra-processed foods and high sugar content, can negatively affect a healthy immune system by disturbing the healthy balance of intestinal microorganisms, resulting in chronic inflammation of the gut and associated suppressed immunity. (2)
Changes in the gut bacteria composition can contribute to the development of immune-related disease. Adding probiotics to the diet is a good way to support the immune system. (3) Certainly, taking probiotics supplements is one way to support healthy gut bacteria. But there are also are a number of foods which contain probiotics, including:
Kefir, yogurt with live active cultures, fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha tea, kimchi, and miso.
2. Exercise for Immune Support
The immune system is influenced by exercise. Epidemiological and experimental data suggest that moderate exercise enhances the immune system and can protect from upper respiratory tract infection. At the same time, heavy exertion by endurance athletes may lead to transient immunosuppression and increased risk of infection. (4)
It is worth noting here that as we get older, our immune system is less efficient (immunosenescence), and that research indicates that exercise for the elderly can make a big difference in immunity. (5)
3. Sleep/Rest for Immune Support
Sleep can have a big impact on a person’s immune function. Research shows that the twenty-four sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) plays a strong role in the immunological process. Specifically, some immune cells peak during wakeful periods, which provides for a more efficient, quick response to a virus or bacterial invasion. Persistent interruptions in the sleep cycle can lead to systemic inflammation and immunodeficiency. (6)
4. Stay Hydrated for Immune Support
There are numerous studies about hydration and its impact on immuno-function and the results on both short and long term health are positive. As to how much is appropriate, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus because of the complicating factors around sex, age, activity level, and diet. (7)
5. Bodywork for Immune Support
There are a variety of different modalities to choose from when considering bodywork, each having its own, unique influence on the immune system. Before scheduling an appointment with a practitioner, do some research, verify credentials, talk with some of their clients, and above all, talk to a medical provider.
- Massage – depending on the person and frequency of treatment, the immune benefits of a massage can last for days or even longer. (8)
- Acupuncture – can enhance the body’s immune system by modulating the immune response, including the production and activities of macrophages, neutrophils, NK cells, and lymphocytes, specifically the level of immune cytokines and CD4+ T-cells. (9)
- Cupping – a centuries-old method of bodywork that has shown beneficial across a broad range of conditions. The inflammation-reducing action of cupping seems to have a strong effect on immune function. (10)
6. Breathwork for Immune Support
Usually associated with yoga, breathwork can actually be its own practice and has proven to be an incredibly effective way to not just improve immune function, but combat stress. Regular practice can increase the amount of epinephrine in the body, which can reduce inflammation. As with choosing bodywork, do some research before starting this kind of work. In addition to talking with the teacher, talk to other students, and again, speak with a medical provider. (11)
7. Handwashing for Immune Support
Handwashing is one of the key ways to prevent infection and should be a part of any hygiene education. Wash the hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds for best results. (12)
8. Socialize for Immune Support
There are countless studies illustrating the health benefits of social connection. The exact reason why this is so is not clear but data indicates that this social participation is important, and is especially important later in life. (13)
9. Minimize Stress for Immune Support
There is a strong connection between stress levels and immune functioning. Chronic stress has been shown to suppress immunity. Even short term stress (taking an exam) can affect cellular immunity. (14) With this in mind, having a stress management plan is an important part of immune support. The good news is there are lots of options, from listening to music to finding a hobby to baking bread. The key is to find time and activities that provide pleasure.
(1) Bonilla, F. A., Oettgen, H. C. Adaptive immunity. The Journal of Allegy annd Clinincal Immunology. Colume 125, Issue 2, Febuary1, 2010.
(2) Moleddijk, I., Van Der Marel, S., Maljaars, P.W. Towards a food pharmacy: immunologic modulation through diet. Nutrients. 2019, 11(6).
(3) Cunningham-Rundles, S., Ahrne, S., Bengmark, S., Johann-Liang, R., Marshall, F. Probiotics and immune response. The American Journal of Gasteroenterology. Vol. 95, No.1, Suppl, 2000.
(4) Nieman, D.C., Pedersen, B. K., Exercise and Immune Function, Recent Developments. Sports Medicine, Feb 27 (2) 73-80.
(8) Rapaport, M.H., Schettler, P., Bresee, C. A preliminary study of the effects of repeated massage on hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal and immune function in healthy individuals: a Study of mechanisms of action and dosage. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2012f Aug; 18(8) 789-797.
(10) Abdullah, M.N., et. al. The medical perspective of cupping therapy; Effects and mecnahisms of action. The Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, Volume 9, Issue 2, April 2019, Pages 90-97.
(11) Kox, M., et. al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 2014 May 20; 111(20): 7370-7384.
(12) Bloomfield, S.F., et. al. The effectiveness of hand hygiene procedures in reducing the risks of infections in home and community settings including handwashing and alcohol-based hand sanitizers. American Journal of Infection Control. 2007 Dec; 35(10): S27-S64.
(13) Deeg, D., Bath, P.A. Social engagement and health outcomes among older people. European Journal on Ageing. 2005 Mar; 2(1): 24-30. (14) Segerstrom, S.C., Miller, G.E. Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin Journal. 2004 Jul; 130(4): 601-630.