Ways to boost your immune system- fighting off diseases

Livema Lagakali sells vegetables at the Lautoka Municipal Market. Picture: REINAL CHAND/FT FILE

Helpful ways to strengthen your immune system and fight off disease How can you improve your immune
system?

On the whole, your immune system does a remarkable job of defending you against disease-causing microorganisms.

But sometimes it fails: A germ invades successfully and makes you sick.

Is it possible to intervene in this process and boost your immune system?

What if you improve your diet?

Take certain vitamins or herbal preparations?

Make other lifestyle changes in the hope of producing a near-perfect immune response?

What can you do to boost your immune system?

The idea of boosting your immunity is enticing, but the ability to do so has proved elusive for several reasons.

The immune system is precisely that — a system, not a single entity.

To function well, it requires balance and harmony.

There is still much that researchers don’t know about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response.

For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.

But that doesn’t mean the effects of lifestyle on the immune system aren’t intriguing and shouldn’t be studied.

Researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise, age, psychological stress, and other factors on the immune response, both in animals and in humans.

In the meantime, general healthy living strategies make sense since they likely help immune function and they come with other proven health benefits.

Healthy ways to strengthen your immune system

Your first line of defense is to choose a healthy lifestyle.

Following general good health guidelines is the single best step you can take toward naturally keeping your immune
system working properly.

Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental
assaults and bolstered by healthyliving strategies such as these;

  • Don’t smoke;
  • Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables;
  • Exercise regularly;
  • Maintain a healthy weight;
  • If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation; and
  • Get adequate sleep

Take steps steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.

Try to minimise stress

Keep current with all recommended vaccines.

Vaccines prime your immune system to fight off infections before they take hold in your body.

Increase immunity the healthy way

Many products on store shelves claim to boost or support immunity.

But the concept of boosting immunity actually makes little sense scientifically.

In fact, boosting the number of cells in your body — immune cells or others — is not necessarily a good thing.

For example, athletes who engage in ‘blood doping’ — pumping blood into their systems to boost their number of blood cells and enhance their performance — run the risk of strokes.

Attempting to boost the cells of your immune system is especially complicated because there are so many different kinds of cells in the immune system that respond to so many different microbes in so many ways.

Which cells should you boost, and to what number?

So far, scientists do not know the answer.

What is known is that the body is continually generating immune cells.

Certainly, it produces many more lymphocytes than it can possibly use.

The extra cells remove themselves through a natural process of cell death called apoptosis — some before they see any action, some after the battle is won.

No one knows how many cells or what the best mix of cells the immune system needs to function at its optimum level.

Immune system and age

As we age, our immune response capability becomes reduced, which in turn contributes to more infections and more cancer.

As life expectancy in developed countries has increased, so too has the incidence of age-related conditions.

While some people age healthily, the conclusion of many studies is that, compared with younger people, the elderly are more likely to contract infectious diseases and, even more importantly, more likely to die from them.

Respiratory infections, including, influenza, the COVID-19 virus and particularly pneumonia are a leading cause of death in people over 65 worldwide.

No one knows for sure why this happens, but some scientists observe that this increased risk correlates with
a decrease in T cells, possibly from the thymus atrophying with age and producing fewer T cells to fight off infection.

Whether this decrease in thymus function explains the drop in T cells or whether other changes play a role is not fully understood.

Others are interested in whether the bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing the stem cells that give
rise to the cells of the immune system.

A reduction in immune response to infections has been demonstrated by older people’s response to vaccines.

But despite the reduction in efficacy, vaccinations have significantly lowered the rates of sickness and death in
older people when compared with no vaccination.

There appears to be a connection between nutrition and immunity in the elderly.

A form of malnutrition that is surprisingly common even in affluent countries is known as ‘micronutrient malnutrition.’

Micronutrient malnutrition, in which a person is deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals
that are obtained from or supplemented by diet, can happen in the elderly.

One important question is whether dietary supplements may help older people maintain a healthier immune system.

Older people should discuss this question with their doctor.

Diet and your immune system

Healthy immune system need good, regular nourishment.

Scientists have long recognized that people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

There is some evidence that various micronutrient deficiencies — for example, deficiencies of zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E — alter immune responses in animals, as measured in the test
tube.

So, what can you do?

If you suspect your diet is not providing you with all your micronutrient needs, for instance, you don’t like vegetables — taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement may bring other health benefits, beyond any possibly beneficial effects on the immune system.

Taking megadoses of a single vitamin does not.

More is not necessarily better.

Improve immunity with herbs and supplements

Walk into a store, and you will find bottles of pills and herbal preparations that claim to ‘support immunity’ or otherwise boost the health of your immune system.

Although some preparations have been found to alter some components of immune function, thus far there is no evidence that they actually bolster immunity to the point where you are better protected against infection and disease.

Demonstrating whether an herb — or any substance, for that matter — can enhance immunity is, as yet, a highly complicated matter.

Scientists don’t know, for example, whether an herb that seems to raise the levels of antibodies in the blood is actually doing anything beneficial for overall immunity.

Stress and immune function

Modern medicine has come to appreciate the closely linked relationship of mind and body.

A wide variety of maladies, including stomach upset, hives, and even heart disease, are linked to the effects of emotional stress.

Despite the challenges, scientists are actively studying the relationship between stress and immune function.

For one thing, stress is difficult to define.

What may appear to be a stressful situation for one person is not for another.

When people are exposed to situations they regard as stressful, it is difficult for them to measure how much stress they feel, and difficult for the scientist to know if a person’s subjective impression of the amount of stress is accurate.

The scientist can only measure things that may reflect stress, such as the number of times the heart beats each minute, but such measures also may reflect other factors.

Most scientists studying the relationship of stress and immune function, however, do not study a sudden, short-lived stressor; rather, they try to study more constant and frequent stressors known as chronic stress, such as that caused by relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, or sustained challenges to perform well at one’s work.

Despite these inevitable difficulties in measuring the relationship of stress to immunity, scientists are making progress.

Exercise: Good or bad for immunity

Regular exercise is one of the pillars of healthy living.

It improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects against a variety
of diseases.

But does it help to boost your immune system naturally and keep it healthy?

Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. Reference: Harvard Health Publishing and Harvard Medical School.

  • DR ISIKELI LITIDAMU is a general practitioner and clinical co-ordinator at Oceania Hospital. The views expressed are not necessarily shared by this newspaper.

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