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Understand your immune system to stay away from recurring illness

Posted on 26-12-16

Although it may seem like your health needs more attention during the rains and in winter when cold and flu are in the air, your immune system has to work hard all through the year to protect you from minor allergies and big diseases.

The basics of the immune system

The immune system is the body’s network of cells and organs that is specially developed to fight invaders. The invaders, also called antigens, are everything that is foreign to the body, from bacteria and fungus to dust and pollution. A healthy immune system helps us fight these antigens by creating a barrier. The first barrier is physical, such us our skin, our epithelial lining and mucosa, etc.
However, if the antigen is strong and manages to slip past the first barrier then the immune system introduces the second line of defence by releasing white blood cells that attack and destroy the antigens to stop them from reproducing within the body.
Another important function that the immune system performs is of generating memory cells in response to the antigen. These memory cells remember the antigen, and if the same invader tries to ‘infect’ the body again, the memory cells ensure that an attack is launched before the antigen can make you ill.
When the immune system is in good condition, it can carry out all these functions to perfection and thereby fight all ailments from common cold to cancer.

How does the immune system breakdown?

Despite its marvels, the immune system does break down from time to time. Although there are diseases that we have no control over, maintaining a good and healthy lifestyle goes a long way in staying away from ailments.
Not eating healthy, being sedentary, not sleeping enough, and being under constant stress can all contribute to a weakened immune system. The immune system is therefore weakened by either outside factors like viral infections, malnourishment, diseases, and stress or by the normal internal aging process. Avoiding junk food (with saturated fats and sugars), tobacco, recreational drugs, unnecessary consumption of antibiotics and steroids can help bolster immunity. Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs can contribute to a decline in immunity and should be taken with caution. Essentially, when your immune system is depleted, bacteria, viruses, or toxins can overwhelm the body. Result? You get sick.

Seven steps towards building immunity

Good health is a combination of healthy habits and good genes. Adopting these healthy living habits can help improve immunity for a lifetime. According to Harvard University’s Medical School, healthy living strategies may promote a healthy immune system.

Exercise

Not exercising or sitting around too much can make the immune system sluggish. There are researches to prove that exercising, getting your heart rate up for twenty minutes 3 times a week is associated with increased immunity. Studies show that people who exercise have better-functioning white blood cells (the ones that help fight off infection) than people who don’t exercise.
Physical exercise also releases endorphins in the body which are the ‘happy hormones’, as they uplift the mood and send happy signals to the body. They ease pain and promote a sense of relaxation and well-being – all of which can help you de-stress and sleep well, which in turn improves immunity.
According to the Harvard Medical School, another way in which exercise is beneficial is that it improves the circulation of fluids through the body. This allows the immune substances to move through the body more efficiently. Besides, there is scientific evidence to prove that obesity is associated with immune dysfunction.

Take vitamins and supplements

Taking vitamin B6 may help strengthen the immune system, as B6 deficiency suppresses the immune response. Vitamin A also helps protect against infection by maintaining mucosal surfaces and influencing other protective cells in the body. Taking a daily multi-vitamin or natural botanicals known for their immunity-enhancing properties can be beneficial, especially when diet does not provide for the body’s micronutrient requirements.

Eat a healthy diet

Good nutritious food is important for all the body systems to work well including the immune system. Diets that are high in calories but have no nutritive value, only lead to weight gain.
Stephen Sinatra, MD, a certified nutrition specialist and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine said, “when the immune system is down, you want to avoid things like alcohol and sugar, especially because microbes love sugar”.

1. Eat protein

The ‘World’s Healthiest Foods’ website suggests that protein deficiencies can deplete the immune cells in your body, and results in poor production of protective antibodies. Protein malnutrition may also contribute to HIV infection after exposure to the virus.

2. Consume antioxidants

A diet rich in antioxidant can boost resistance to infection. Colourful fruits and vegetables like strawberries, blueberries and turmeric contain phytonutrients with antioxidant potential. Mushrooms, such as, reichi, maitake and shiitake may have a strong influence on immune function.

3. Eat fibrous foods and essential fatty acids

Ingesting dietary fibre from whole foods and vegetables to promote a healthy gastrointestinal system is beneficial. Fibre may build the immune system by helping the body remove toxins that can damage the digestive system. Foods like cold-water fish, flax and walnuts contain essential fatty acids that promote healthy gastrointestinal cells and cellular protective tissues. Essential fatty acids may help build the immune system.

4. Maintain zinc balance

Zinc is a dietary immuno-stimulant mineral. Zinc deficiencies suppress the immune-response cells in the body, and excessive zinc levels can negatively affect immune functioning.

Limit alcohol

The amount of alcohol that causes intoxication may also damage the immune system. Excessive alcohol deprives the body of immune-boosting nutrients and suppresses the white blood cells’ ability to multiply and kill germs. Using recreational drugs, including marijuana, has the same effect on white blood cells, weakening the immune system.

No smoking

People who smoke are more susceptible to infections like pneumonia and influenza. Smoking may also increase the severity of an illness and the time that it takes to get over it.

Get enough sleep

Irregular sleeping patterns not only leave you feeling fatigued and incompetent during the day, but also make you vulnerable to illnesses, including colds, flu, and other infections. People who do not sleep properly over long periods of time increase their risk of obesity and diabetes as well.
Scott Berliner, president and supervising pharmacist at Life Science Pharmacy in New York says, “When we don’t get enough sleep – or reach the deeper stages of sleep – healing is impaired”. Sleeping seven hours a night helps the immune system to resist infectious diseases.

Manage your stress

When your body experiences constant stress, it becomes more vulnerable to everything, from the common cold to major diseases. This is because a steady flow of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, weaken the immune system. Chronic stress is linked to heart disease and hypertension, and can also have an effect on white blood cell function. Therefore, in order to have a healthy immune system, it is essential to manage stress with some relaxing activities such as playing sports or practicing yoga. Also, having a positive attitude helps to snap out of negative thoughts that trigger stress.

Maintain good healthy relationships

Some researches imply that people who are well connected to their friends and families tend to be healthier than those who lack a strong support system. Talk to your friends and family and share your problems and feelings and ask for support. After all, good relationships, healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep go hand in hand as a holistic approach towards boosting immunity.

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