Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Yes, regularly washing your hands is a good idea, but you already knew that...
No matter how careful you are, people can still cough or sneeze in your face and get you sick.
We need something that can protect us no matter what...
And thankfully there is such a thing:
Your own immune system.
You can make your immune system an effective virus killing machine, that is able to defend, detect and eliminate cold and flu viruses...
Faster and more efficiently.
This article is going to cover :
5 Scientifically Proven Things that are vital to a healthy immune system,
but don't get the attention they deserve.
If you would like to get straight into the 5 Science Based Ways to Protect Yourself Against virus infections...
Please scroll down and proceed straight to #1: Sleep
The immune system
The immune system's ability to adapt to strange environmental changes is critical in fighting (off) infections.
The cells in your body work hard...
Whenever a tissue or organ is growing or whenever damaged tissue has to be repaired or replaced, cells divide or reproduce. (3)
Infections can arise at any time and they can reproduce as well.
They can, however, reproduce much more rapidly.
In the same way a virus can arise at anytime and reproduce, making your life miserable... possibly.
If the infection is caused by a virus, the virus hijacks a cell and starts to produce copies of itself...
They can change their appearance and evade recognition by the small little guardians of your immune system.
A good working immune system will also offer you more protection against cancer over the long term, because there is always a small chance that cells undergo a mutation upon dividing. (4) And tumor growth is initiated by mutations like these. (6)
An immune system is like a bouncer, who stops troublemakers from trying to enter the establishment (your body) he's working for.
He prevents them from entering, so they won't have the opportunity to break the sacred laws of personal hygiene and projectile vomit in multiple directions.
If the bouncer happens to let a troublemaker enter by accident — he's only human after all — he has the ability to remember his face with astounding detail due to his impressive photographic memory.
The troublemaker in question will not be able to enter a second time, unless he disguises himself...
by putting on a wig and a fake mustache.
But if the bouncer is any good, he will have a knack for spotting troublemakers and their bad disguises, thus stopping any mischievous behavior they have in mind.
In the same way, you won't be able to get infected by the same virus, unless it changes somewhat, or mutates.
But the better your immune system is, the less chance you have of getting infected, because the virus will be detected early on.
For that to happen, however, you need to provide good working conditions for your bouncer, otherwise:
He'll just let the bad guys in, because he's too busy flirting with the ladies.
5 ways to protect yourself against the common cold and the flu
Both diet and lifestyle can influence how your immune system responds.
In this article we are going to look at lifestyle factors that can 'make or break' your immune system:
Sleep plays a critical role in promoting health.
You have probably experienced that at first hand, after a few sleepless nights.
Not getting enough sleep can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to infectious diseases, like the flu or a cold. (7)
What is too little sleep?
Although sleep deprivation is more clearly linked to a higher risk of infection, there is also some evidence where too much sleep also negatively affects your immune system. (9)
What is too much sleep?
>9 hours of sleep. (9)
The time of day you sleep also makes a difference. Sleeping at night, in line with our natural circadian rhythm, improves immune function. (7)
Sleeping late at night and sleeping in whenever you feel like, may be fun at times, but it's not the best thing for your immune system.
A steady day and night rhythm will benefit your immune system the most.
That means going to bed at 3 a.m. and waking up only for dinner doesn't fall into this category.
You were probably aware of stress playing a big role in the functioning of your immune system, but not all stress has the same impact. We need to make a distinction between short-term stress and long-term stress.
Short-term stress, lasting for minutes to hours like in fight-or-flight situations, can actually enhance immune responses, whereas chronic stress suppresses or dysregulates these.
If you're running for your life, that's what scientists call 'good stress'
If you're running from your life, that's what scientists call 'bad stress'.
Neither one seems very appealing though.
Stressful life events, leading to chronic stress, are associated with low secretion rates of immunoglobulin A (IgA)
What does that mean?
Approximately 95 percent of all infections are initiated at the mucosal surfaces:
These are the moist surfaces like our eyes, nose and mouth, but they also cover the lining of our entire digestive tract. We are basically covered in mucus.
These mucosal areas are protected by antibodies like IgA.
Despite being covered in mucus, these antibodies are actually good and protective:
And that's exactly what we want.
The IgA in our saliva, for example, is “the first line of defense against respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia and influenza." (14)
Reducing stress is something we know we should do, but:
That's easier said than done.
There are things that can help though.
Mindfulness practices and/or meditation can prove helpful in reducing stress and improving overall well-being.
That's because they have the ability to deal with the cause of stress.
Now, you might think your cause is external...
Perhaps you think it's a person, like your mother-in-law, your pesky colleague or your boss who keeps nagging at you...
Perhaps you think it's your job that sucks you dry like an overpowered vacuum cleaner.
All these events are not the actual cause, but:
They can TRIGGER (emotional) patterns, which in turn will prevent you from seeing things objectively.
Meditation and mindfulness practices can increase your 'consciousness' by making you aware of old damaging habit patterns, which you can then start to break down slowly.
How about an example?
Somebody near you says something to you, which triggers an underlying anger. It could be any other emotion, but let's take anger as an example.
Your old habit pattern is to immediately react with anger.
It all starts with a mental reaction:
It could be that the image of what happened keeps flashing by on the screen of your mind like a flickering light...
If the anger is strong enough, you find yourself verbally expressing your agitation...
If the anger is stronger than that, you may even raise your voice or shout...
And if the anger is EVEN stronger than that, you may very well find yourself physically abusing the other person, or...
If you lack the necessary skills, you will find yourself being physically abused.
However you react, it starts with a mental reaction caused by the anger that already resides within you.
Once you develop more awareness through mindfulness and/or meditation, you then learn to break down this old habit pattern of reacting whenever this anger arises.
You can see it for what it truly is. You are exposing the roots little by little every time you can see it objectively. Once the roots are completely exposed, you can remove them altogether.
In other words:
You can let go.
We are normally only obsessed with the object of the anger, like the person or situation that triggered it. They are, in a way, only the messengers that bring you bad news.
Shooting the messenger will not help you resolve the underlying cause or emotion. The type of emotion you're dealing with is irrelevant. The basis is the same for all of them.
Mindfulness meditation can decrease stress, so it makes sense it can also improve immune function, at least indirectly.
That's not all though:
The strongest evidence for an improved immune response comes through:
The increase of secretory IgA, our first line of defense against respiratory tract infections. (20)
Meditation and mindfulness, not only reduce your stress and anxiety...
They also offer better protection against the common cold virus and the flu virus.
Smoking directly exposes the epithelial tissue to:
At least 60 powerful chemical carcinogens!
If that's not all, they all have potential to cause DNA damage to larynx, bronchi, and lung epithelial cells. (21)
What are epithelial cells exactly?
Epithelial cells cover the lining of most of the respiratory tract as respiratory mucosa.
This mucosa contains, as the name implies, mucus among others.
The good part?
It moistens and protects the airways.
It also functions as a barrier to potential pathogens and foreign particles, preventing infection and tissue injury by the secretion of mucus and the removal of small particles and pathogens.
The mucosa and mucus can protect you against unwanted invaders.
Tobacco itself has a lot of different compounds:
The most common compounds in tobacco smoke are nicotine, formaldehyde, ammonia, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, benzopyrenes, tar, acetone, hydroxyquinone, cadmium, and nitrogen oxides.
That's a handful.
We know that a lot of them aren't exactly health promoting, but:
Is there a direct connection with our immune system?
We know that tar and nicotine have immunosuppressive effects.
In plain English that means:
They can suppress your immune response to invading threats, like viruses.
The worst part:
Tobacco products contain high concentrations of exactly these two compounds:
Tar and nicotine
Smoking makes you more susceptible to viral infections.
If you want to protect yourself against viruses, that means you should at least consider cutting down:
The less you smoke, the better your immune system will be.
Are E-cigarettes your last hope then?
No, e-cigarettes can still harm the defensive lining of your airways. (22)
We all know exercising is good for you.
How does exercising affect your immune system?
From looking at the scientific literature, it becomes clear that exercise induces favorable effects on immune function...
You probably have experienced this first hand, after your training session, feeling all recharged. Unless, you overdid it of course.
In case you're wondering:
"How much exercise is good?"
Well, moderate intensity exercise that lasts up to 60 minutes is something your immune system is clearly fond of. (23)
Even a SINGLE workout can stimulate your immune system! Needless to say, exercising on a frequent basis is even more beneficial. (24)
As a matter of fact:
Regular physical activity is associated with lower rates of influenza and pneumonia. (23)
There is some confusion though...
About the effects of prolonged (>60 minutes) and intensive exercise, especially among competitive athletes.
It is still believed that this kind of exercise can actually temporarily hurt your immune function in the hours following the physical exertion.
More so when duration and intensity increase. (23)
But there's a catch:
We are talking mostly about the intensity level you see among marathon runners or (professional) athletes participating in competition events. (23)
As you can see in the graph above URTI (upper respiratory tract infection) risk initially drops after exercise, but increases as the exercise workload increases.
We call this a J-curve, because...
It looks like a 'J'.
Some scientists believe this is not an accurate interpretation of the literature and state that heavy intense and prolonged exercise can still contribute to improved immune function. (24)
This may not be very relevant, unless:
You are running marathons.
In that case it would pay off to at least get the other lifestyle factors in check and look closely at the dietary factors that affect the immune system (check here).
Otherwise, you could always isolate yourself after your run and watch some Netflix.
Or even better:
Isolate yourself and meditate to compensate for the drop in immune function.
There is one more thing that exercise can do...
Exercising a little is better than not exercising at all.
And the best thing is:
You can do any kind of exercise or physical activity you like in order to benefit. You don't have to go running or go to the gym, just because that's the popular thing to do.
Diet and your immune system
These lifestyle factors play a big role in the functioning of your immune system, but lifestyle is only one part. The other big player is diet.
Besides a healthy diet, there are specific foods that possess immune strengthening qualities. They are foods you and I both know.
You can read how diet can boost your immune system here.
How you live clearly influences the guardian of your body, your immune system.
Sleep, stress, mindfulness/meditation, smoking and exercise are key lifestyle elements, that can significantly affect how your immune system operates.
The following things can weaken your immune response to viruses like that of the common cold or flu:
And the following things prepare your immune system for threats, cold and flu viruses:
If you want to boost your immune system, you can benefit from any positive change you make.
If you never exercise, but start to include some exercise here or there, it would already be helpful.
If you want to create good habits, but you don't know how, start small and persist with that small change over time...
Until you feel ready for another (small) change...
You will surely be successful!
Don't let your genetics or your age stop you from feeling the best you can!