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How to Strengthen Your Immune System

Part-1 by: Dr. Lundquist

With the spotlight on COVID-19, many more people are paying attention to keeping their immune system healthy. The reality is, whether or not we are in the midst of a pandemic, we should all be taking steps to maintain immune system health. Although there is no magic pill to take to stay healthy, there are many things you can do to keep your immune system working well.

Strengthen Your Immune System

The most vital component of a healthy immune system is maintaining the 5 pillars of health. As Dr. Lundquist pointed out in a recent interview with Metagenics (see video below), you can take all the supplements in the world and they will only be a drop in the bucket (and the bucket has holes in it) if you are not maintaining the 5 pillars of health. What are these 5 pillars and what do you need to maintain them?

5 Pillars of Health

1. Sleep.

Sleep helps your body heal and recover from illnesses and daily wear and tear. It also helps your body protect itself from getting sick. In fact, nothing impairs your immune system more than being sleep deprived.

Many studies have been conducted on the importance of sleep for a healthy immune system. The results are clear that if you do not get enough good-quality sleep, you are more likely to become ill after being exposed to a virus and it may take you longer to recover (1, 2, 3). One review determined that “Prolonged sleep curtailment and the accompanying stress response invoke a persistent unspecific production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, best described as chronic low-grade inflammation, and also produce immunodeficiency, which both have detrimental effects on health (1).”

Since getting enough sleep can help your body fight off cold and influenza viruses, it seems obvious that you would want to do something as simple as developing good sleep habits. However, that is not as easy as it seems.

If you have a difficult time getting enough good-quality sleep, try putting yourself on a schedule. It is amazing how much it helps to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Most adults need seven or eight hours of good-quality sleep each night while teenagers should get nine to ten hours and children should get ten or more.

Melatonin may be helpful for adults. We recommend trying 3-5 milligrams for a few weeks until you get into a good sleep pattern, then stop taking it. Although you are not likely to become dependent on melatonin, long term use can begin to suppress your body’s ability to produce it naturally.

There are a couple of things you need to do for melatonin to actually work. Take it about 30 minutes before you want to sleep, then go lie down in a dark room. This is important because if you expose yourself to light once you’ve taken melatonin, your body will convert it to serotonin, which is a stimulatory molecule. This means, if you take melatonin then look at your phone or computer, or even read under a light, it won’t be an effective tool in helping you fall asleep.

2. Exercise/activity.

Regular, moderate exercise provides wonderful benefits for overall health and the immune system. Dr. James Turner stated that “exercise is a powerful stimulus of immune function (4).” However, he also explains that the occasional bout of activity is not enough to maintain a healthy immune system. He found that individuals who maintain a well-functioning immune system as they age averaged between 150 and 600 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or 75 to 300 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

Other studies have found that moderately active, elderly adults were less susceptible to infectious diseases. They had fewer upper respiratory tract infections (5), were less susceptible to community-acquired pneumonia (6), and gained stronger and longstanding antibody responses to the influenza vaccine components (7). Moderate exercise also improves the immune response to respiratory viral infections (8).

Don’t go out and overdo it, though. If you are normally sedentary or enjoy light exercise, don’t immediately try to run for an entire hour, or start spending an hour every day on intense exercise. In addition to increasing your risk for injury, this can actually compromise your immune system. It is best to slowly build up the intensity and frequency of your exercise.

3. Nutrition.

The most common cause of immunodeficiency is malnutrition (9). While it doesn’t seem like malnutrition should be a problem in the U.S., a diet high in processed foods and added sugars can easily result in a deficiency of key nutrients.

Do not underestimate the power of a healthy diet loaded with fruits and vegetables to help you remain healthy. You simply cannot eat a diet full of junk food and sugar and expect supplements to fill in the gaps.

Eat an anti-inflammatory diet, which includes fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains and plenty of omega-3 fatty acids. Fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene (10) and vitamin C (11, 12) provide an extra boost to immune function.

It is equally important to minimize your exposure to processed carbohydrates and environmental toxins, such as pesticides and herbicides.

Limit your drinks. While moderate amounts of alcohol (one drink a day for women or two for men) can provide a bit of a boost to your immune system, regular heavy drinking (more than one or two drinks a day) impairs your immune system and can lower your resistance to viral and bacterial infections (13). One episode of binge drinking also disrupts your immune system (14).

Finally, drink plenty of water. Water allows your body to produce lymph fluid which brings nutrients to your cells, carries cells of your immune system throughout your body, and removes toxins and waste.

4. Stress Management

It is well documented that chronic stress has a myriad of ill effects on the human body. An impaired immune system is just one of the many health consequences of chronically high stress levels.

There are many tools for coping with stress. In the current environment, it is more important than ever to be mindful of your state of mind and do what you can to minimize stressors. We recently posted a series of articles detailing various techniques to manage stress. Some of the strategies that we discussed in detail are time in nature, deep breathing, journaling, and meditation or prayer. We also explained some specific grounding techniques, which help you pull back from negative emotions, memories, thoughts, or flashbacks and focus on the present so you can calm down

5. Strong Relationships, Social Support, and Emotional Health.

Harvard Health explains the importance of strong relationships and social support, not only on your emotional wellbeing but also on your physical heal