Everything from how long we sleep and what we eat to how we handle stress can all have drastic effects on our immunity. That’s why, if we want to understand more about how to support a healthy immune system, we have to step back and look at the big picture, from our nightly routines to our nutrition.
While the word “immunity” itself has a simple definition (the ability to resist something), the complicated processes involved are anything but simple. The immune system itself is a complex and interconnected web of cells, tissues, and organs. It’s constantly working hard in the background to support our health and is affected by almost every choice we make. Some aspects of immunity are well-known like supplementing your diet with vitamin C or zinc, while others are less known but equally important, such as the hours we sleep, or our vitamin D levels.
BUT FIRST, A QUICK LOOK AT HOW THE IMMUNE SYSTEM WORKS
The meaning of immunity
In the biological world “immunity” refers to the body’s ability to prevent itself from developing infection and disease. This can happen either by preventing the body from developing an infection or disease in the first place—or developing specific countermeasures to address germs once they do invade the body. The body does this by using a vast, interwoven system of organs, tissues, and cells known as the immune system. Each player in the immune system serves a specific role all in the service toward one common goal: to protect the body from infection and disease.1, 2
The immune system is always running
Like any good operating system, the immune system is constantly running in the background. It goes into overdrive if it encounters a potentially dangerous bug or germ, but it’s not just lying dormant until that happens.1 It’s constantly producing cells, chemicals, and proteins to maintain its basic everyday functions, and our basic everyday health.1
The immune system has two lines of defense: adaptive vs innate immunity
When thinking about how the immune system works, there is one major distinction to consider: the difference between adaptive vs innate immunity. These are often referred to as “active vs passive” but there’s nothing passive about it. Innate immunity involves all the barriers that are already in place to prevent infection.2 This includes things like our skin, stomach acid, and even a healthy gut microflora.2 Adaptive immunity is how the body responds after these barriers are broken and a new intruder shows itself in our body.2 There are even multiple steps and phases within these processes to address specific intruders.2 And all of those steps depend on good nutrition.1
How to Support a Healthy Immune System With Nutrients
What’s nutrition got to do with immunity? In short, everything. The body’s main defense mechanisms rely not only on micronutrients like vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc—but also on macronutrients (fats, carbs, and proteins) to keep them functioning and in check.1 We say “in check” because while these defense mechanisms are helpful in moderation—they can turn dangerous.
For example, one main mechanism of innate immunity is inflammation. Inflammation isolates the injured or infected area and helps get crucial cells, messengers, and antibodies to those areas.1 But if that inflammation sticks around for too long it can lead to tissue damage and even chronic disease.1 The same can be said for reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are borne in bursts with one mission: to kill invading organisms.1 While these dangerous critters can be incredibly effective, the longer they stick around the more damage and disease they can cause.1
Thankfully, nutrient roles in immunity are as varied and versatile as the foods we find them in. Some nutrients act as antioxidants to keep the ROS in check, others have anti-inflammatory effects, and some even help with the development of new immune cells.1
Here’s a chart of “Nutrients That Support Immune Function” and where to find them in food.
It may seem obvious that our diet can affect our immune health, but the data shows that Americans don’t even meet the basic requirements for four out of those five top immune health nutrients.3 For all the attention vitamin C gets when it comes to immune health support, the data shows 35% of Americans still aren’t meeting the daily requirement for this vital nutrient. Not only that, but 93% of Americans don’t meet the daily requirements for vitamin D, and 80% of Americans don’t meet the daily requirement for Vitamin E.3
These gaps between the nutrient quantities we need and the amounts we’re actually consuming are referred to as shortfalls—and we talk about them a lot here at nurish. Nutrient shortfalls can have a negative impact on our immune health, but on all other kinds of daily health needs as well.
Read more about “Why We’re Not Getting The Nutrients We Need.”
Good nutrition is an important way to support our body’s natural defense systems, but it isn’t the only way. There are lots of small everyday choices we can also make to help support our immunity.
More Tips on How to Support a Healthy Immunity
How to support your immune system spans across the minutes we spend snacking to the hours we spend asleep. Almost everything we do has some effect on it:
Tend to your hygiene from your hands to your forks
Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of germs. The most common example of this scrubbing your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds (about the same amount of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday to yourself twice). But it also applies to how you prep your produce (wash it all!) or whether or not you use hot water when cleaning your dishes.
Set yourself up for a good night’s rest
The importance of sleep is vastly overlooked in general, but especially when it comes to immunity. There’s a reason why so many doctors tell their sick patients to rest. Yet while many of us know it’s important to sleep a lot if you’re coming down with something, a good night’s rest often goes overlooked otherwise. But a lack of sleep contributes to a variety of health concerns, including a weakened immune system.4 If you’d prefer to keep your night owl ways intact, then think of your immunity as a good excuse for hitting that snooze button.
Go on a mission for better nutrition
Tending to your immune system can translate to trying new dishes in the kitchen too. Reference our list above to see which foods contain helpful amounts of immunity support nutrients and grab a few for a snack or toss them into your next meal. Quizzes like ours can help you identify if you’re getting enough of key nutrients your diet, and whether or not supplementation could help. Food is the first choice when it comes to getting these nutrients, but supplements can help when a nutrient-light meal is on the table.
Soothe your mind and body
The effects stress has on immunity can’t be overstated enough. Stress can weaken the immune system and make you more prone to illness.5 There are lots of options for managing stress, so you can hopefully find the ones that work best for you. Some common tips include practicing yoga or meditation (there are plenty of apps for this), exploring new or old hobbies, and spending more time in nature.
Stay on the move, even at home
Physical activity is not only a great way to cope with stress but may even help reduce the risk of some chronic diseases that could weaken the immune system.4 Staying active every day could be as simple as getting some squats in while brushing your teeth. Find the workout that works for you, whether that’s going on marathon-length runs or lifting weights while marathoning shows at home. If it’s something you enjoy, you’re more likely to do it.
Immune System Support is a Holistic Endeavor
A better understanding of how a healthy immune system works can help us make better choices when it comes to supporting it. This interconnected web of cells, tissues, and organs needs our help to do its job so that we can get back to doing the things we love with the people we care about. After all, isn’t that what staying healthy is all about?
This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.
- Oregon State University. “Nutrition and the Immune System” Infographic. 2015. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on March 16, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/sites/lpi.oregonstate.edu/files/lpi-immunity-infographic.pdf
- Oregon State University. “Immunity in Depth.” 2015. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on March 16, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/immunity
- Blumberg, JB et al. Impact of frequency of multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement intake on nutritional adequacy and nutrient deficiencies in U.S. adults. Nutrients. 2017; 9 (8): 1–8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28792457
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “How to Keep Your Immune System Healthy.” 2018. eatright.org. Accessed on March 16, 2020. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/how-to-keep-your-immune-system-healthy
- Morey, JN et al. Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Curr Opin Psychol. 2015; 5:13–17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/