The human immune system is a complex network of specialized cells, organs, and metabolic processes that protect our bodies from disease and help us heal when we get sick. Researchers are still working to fully understand how immunity works and what lifestyle and genetic factors are responsible for keeping this crucial system working or allowing it to break down.
Nonetheless, clinical trials and research reveal some of the most critical considerations for boosting the immune response and achieving optimum health. Here are five of the most vital steps you can take to keep your immune system in optimum health.
1. Eat Foods Containing Nutrients Essential for the Immune System
Like all parts of our bodies, a healthy immune system requires an adequate intake of specific nutrients through diet or supplementation. These essential immune system nutrients include:
- Vitamins A, B6, folic acid, C, D, and E
- Minerals including zinc, copper, selenium, and iron
Vitamins C is abundant in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits and red bell peppers. Unfortunately, vitamin C degrades under high heat, so eating foods rich in this nutrient raw or lightly cooked is the best way of getting the maximum amount to benefit your immune system.
Yellow-colored vegetables such as sweet potato, apricots, and carrots contain high amounts of vitamin A. Leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli and cooked dry beans and fortified grains and cereals are high in folic acid.
Foods high in vitamin B6 include:
- Fortified grains and cereals
Vitamin E is another crucial nutrient for optimum immune system health. This vitamin is most abundant in nuts, seeds, and cold-pressed olive oil.
Vitamin D is one of the most crucial vitamins for optimum immune system health. Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines are high in this vitamin and so are some types of mushrooms. By exposing your skin to sunlight at midday in the summer months, your body can produce vitamin D.
However, the amount of vitamin D your body can make from sunlight depends on the latitude where you live and your skin tone. People with darker skin tones and those above the 40th parallel of latitude need significantly more sunlight to produce this vitamin. In this case, a UVB sunlamp can substitute sunlight exposure to activate vitamin D production.
Iron plays a prominent role in delivering oxygen to cells and keeping the immune system healthy. Iron comes in two forms: one is from animal sources, called heme-iron, and the other, called non-heme iron, is found in plant-based foods. Heme iron from animal sources is found in high amounts in red meat, poultry, and shellfish. Non-heme iron is plentiful in beans, cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, spinach, and iron-fortified grain products.
Selenium is a trace mineral vital to a healthy immune response. The food with the highest selenium is Brazil nuts, with a complete daily requirement in a single nut. This mineral is also available in seafood, poultry, meat, and dairy products, especially cottage cheese.
Zinc is essential for the body’s ability to produce immune system cells like t-cells. One of the highest dietary sources is oysters, with one serving providing as much as 300 percent of the daily recommended intake. Other animal sources of zinc include dairy products, crab, red meat, and poultry. Plant-based sources of zinc include legumes, oats, nuts, seeds, and tofu.
2. Regularly Eat Probiotic and Prebiotic Foods
Probiotic foods contain active cultures of gut-healthy bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Streptococcus thermophiles. These beneficial microbes assist the digestive system in releasing vitamins and minerals from other foods and improving their absorption into the body.
Probiotic foods include:
- Live culture yogurt and Kiefer
- Naturally fermented sauerkraut and pickles
- Kombucha tea
Prebiotic foods are ones containing starches that feed probiotic bacteria. Prebiotic foods include:
- Garlic, onions, and leaks
- Leafy greens
- Sea vegetables
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Burdock root
By regularly including prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet, you can increase your body’s essential vitamins and minerals for optimum immune system health.
3. Get Enough Deep Sleep
The body undergoes many processes during deep sleep that boost and rejuvenate the immune system. Deep sleep cycles start about one hour after a person falls asleep, and this sleep stage is when the body is most relaxed, and breathing and heart rate are at their slowest.
Curiously, while most bodily processes are at their slowest during deep sleep, the immune system functions speed up. Sleep researchers find that the deepest levels of sleep correspond with an increase in the production of important immune system cells that fight infection. During other stages of sleep, the brain consolidates and stores memories from the previous day. During the deep sleep stages, the immune system’s memory goes through similar processes.
One suspected reason for this observation is that the relaxation of muscles and slowing of breathing frees the body’s energy for immune function and response. In addition, during sleep, the body produces more of the hormone melatonin, which counteracts inflammation. Other studies show that deep sleep can even strengthen the effectiveness of vaccines and reduce allergic reactions.
4. Engage in Regular Physical Activity
Exercise aids the body in producing anti-inflammatory immune cells and circulating them through the bloodstream. Exercise also activates the lymphatic system, which is responsible for removing toxins and dead cells from tissues. Research studies show that exercise lowers the incidence of viral infections and reduces the severity of symptoms. Regular, moderate exercise is strongly linked to a healthier immune response.
5. Reduce Stress
Stress can be physical or psychological, and both types of stress harm the immune system and its response to infection if the stress is prolonged. The brain and nervous system have a complex interactive relationship with immune function.
Multiple studies in psychoneuroimmunology confirm that ongoing physical or psychological stress leads to a breakdown of the immune response, making stress reduction and relaxation a vital component of a robust immune response.
Eating a balanced diet high in immune-healthy nutrients that include probiotic and prebiotic foods, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly, and reducing stress levels are among the best ways to boost your immune system and prevent or overcome disease.