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One of the most important systems we have in our bodies is the immune system. By fighting off infection and working to keep us healthy, it’s a vital part of battling illness. People with chronic conditions such as Lyme disease have to take even better care of their immune systems to ensure that their immunity doesn’t become compromised. Even benign colds or a standard flu can wreak havoc on the health of a person living with a chronic illness. So, what things influence the immune system? There’s actually a whole range of factors that affect immunity – and some might be a little surprising. Read on to learn more about the surprising factors that can influence the immune system.
What things affect the immune system?
If you find yourself wondering what things influence immunity, here’s a rundown of some factors that could be affecting your health.
1. Feeling negative emotions
Negative emotions can play a huge part in our overall wellbeing. They can also significantly impact our immune system. Feelings of loneliness, depression and grief are often linked to a compromised immune system. One of the most damaging negative emotions is stress, which plays a huge role in many people’s lives. Everything from work struggles to busy family life can increase stress, which then creates heightened levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the body. Increased cortisol can appear as weight gain, acne, fatigue, muscle weakness, slowed healing, and other symptoms. It can impact our diet, mood, sleep patterns, and activity levels. All of these aspects also mean your immune system could be weakened.
2. Experiencing positive emotions
On the flip side, positive emotions can also affect your immunity – but in a good way. Research has shown that laughing can actually help to activate natural killer defence entities such as Secretory IgA (Immunoglobulin A) levels in saliva, as well as gamma interferons, which measure immune function. Making sure you’re getting plenty of hugs and sunshine can boost your mood along with your immune system. Likewise, positive, relaxing experiences such as massages and meditation can also improve your immunity.
3. Paying attention to cleanliness
When thinking about what things affect immunity, you probably think of the things you do to keep yourself safe from germs. One of the best ways to remain germ-free is to wash your hands often. The Centers for Disease Control in the US recommends 15 seconds of scrubbing your hands with soap in order to get rid of germs after using the bathroom. However, maybe people don’t realise that it’s important to wash your hands at other times too, particularly when you’re at an increased risk of exposure to microbes, such as when you pet a dog or cat, handle money, cough or sneeze.
By washing your hands more frequently, you could be helping your immune system to avoid germs. However, it’s also important to not overdo it completely. Our immune systems develop and flourish properly when we come across germs and then let our immune system fight them off – so don’t get too paranoid about using hand sanitiser constantly or washing your hands excessively.
4. Getting enough sleep
There are so many reasons why sleep is essential for a healthy body (and mind!). The immune system is heavily influenced by the sleep-wake cycles of our circadian rhythms. Studies have shown that when we sleep, we have decreased levels of cortisol. We need some cortisol in our systems to keep up immune function. While we sleep, we have signals that activate the immune system. Without proper sleep, those signals can become lessened. Most adults need about seven to eight hours of sleep at night in order to function at an optimal level.
5. Getting too much or not enough exercise
Being physically active is essential to a healthy lifestyle. It helps our cardiac system, lowers blood pressure, keeps our weight down, and protects against lots of different diseases. Getting enough exercise helps your immune system by promoting good circulation (which allows the immune system to do its job well). On the other hand, if you’re getting too much exercise, you could actually be harming your immune system. Intense exercise seems to produce certain hormones that temporarily lower immunity. Plus, with additional cortisol and adrenaline in your body, your blood pressure and cholesterol levels could rise. This, in turn, can actually work to suppress your immune system. This means that physical activity should be done in moderation. Make sure to still be active, but not to push yourself or overdo it.
6. Eating immune-friendly foods
Having a balanced diet is also key to living as healthily as you can. There are many foods that boost the immune system (which is why that old wives’ tale about eating citrus or chicken soup when you have a cold does have some truth to it!).
- Shiitake mushrooms or vitamin D mushrooms: Vitamin D is excellent for boosting the immune system.
- Parsnips, onions, carrots, and black salsify: These root vegetables are all high in vitamin C.
- Citrus: Fruits like oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, lemons, limes and clementines have lots of vitamin C to help fight off infections.
- Bell peppers: These have twice as much vitamin C as citrus does!
- Broccoli and spinach: These are both packed with lots of nutritious vitamins.
- Yoghurt: The live active cultures in yoghurt stimulate the immune system and fight off disease, as well as provide the body with vitamin D.
- Almonds: Nuts offer vitamin E, which helps the immune system thrive.
- Turmeric: Works as an anti-inflammatory.
- Green tea: Has lots of antioxidants and high levels of EGCG, an antioxidant that enhances immune function.
- Poultry: Chicken soup really can help you feel better! Poultry can improve symptoms of a cold because it’s high in vitamin B-6 (which can also help form new, healthy red blood cells).
- Shellfish: Foods like crab, clams, lobster and mussels are all full of zinc, which can boost immune function.
As long as you’re paying attention to the above factors, you can always take care of your immune system and work to become the healthiest version of yourself!