How is your immune system coping this winter?
By January, winter weather, limited daylight, travel, and holiday gatherings take a toll on the body’s ability to fight off illness. Viruses like the common cold and flu spread more easily as colder, dryer air affects our breathing and Vitamin D production drops without strong enough sunlight to support it.
For this Happy New Year edition of Fix the Food, we wanted to go beyond the conventional wisdom of taking Vitamin C supplements for immune support. We decided to look at the four pillars of health - food, movement, sleep, and mood - to identify steps we can take to optimize immune function, so the system can do the critical work of keeping us healthy for the rest of this winter season.
What does the immune system do?
Our immune system is equipped to recognize threats and mount a multi-faceted response to protect the body from harmful invaders. The response can include blocking or breaking down pathogens, producing antibodies that create adaptive immunity to the threat, and triggering inflammation that brings blood flow, fluids, and immune cells to the infected area. For a more complete overview of the immune system, see “Immune System 101,” part of the Body Basics series on the Take 5 Daily blog by Thorne Research.
A healthy body acts quickly to find, contain, and eliminate threats. What steps can we take to maximize this capability and avoid getting sick?
Health Pillar #1: Food
Fun fact: The majority of the body’s immune cells reside in the gut! Researchers who study links between nutrition and immune response suggest that an intricate dance takes place. Metabolism influences the immune system and vice versa. People with well functioning digestive systems tend to have a more diverse microbiome, lower levels of chronic inflammation, and more energy to fight infection. However, the precise nature of these links has been challenging to pin down and further study is needed to gain a full understanding, as explained in this 2020 paper, Nutrition and the Immune System: A Complicated Tango:
The complexity of the interaction between nutrition and immunology is vast. An individual’s overall nutrition status, state of nourishment, and pattern of food intake impact the functioning of the immune system; this impact can occur at the level of physical barriers, the microbiome, the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. Conversely, the immune system impacts nutrition metabolism and needs, and influences the physiological response to food.
The keto way of eating can boost immune function by emphasizing nutrient-dense whole foods, reducing sugar intake, and lowering chronic inflammation that contributes to insulin resistance. Foods like liver, bone broth, sardines, oysters, and ginger contain micronutrients that are especially supportive to your immune system.
Health Pillar #2: Movement
Exercise immunology is an emerging field of research all to itself. In recent years, scientists have found that even “acute exercise” - a one-time effort - improves defense activity, while a regular exercise routine lowers illness risk. This is in part because exercise builds muscle and muscle stores important amino acids that are essential to creating immune cells.
When we make exercise part of a daily routine, we are more likely to be able to react appropriately to an infection, rather than over- or under-responding. Both cardio and strength workouts can reduce chronic inflammation and improve immune regulation as we age, but it’s important to avoid overdoing it at the wrong time. High-intensity workouts performed when other stressors are present (lack of sleep, poor nutrition) can do more harm than good.
Health Pillar #3: Sleep
The latest sleep science reveals that how well we sleep - or not - affects our ability to detect and fight illness and to regulate immune response appropriately. Getting enough quality rest allows the immune system to do its best work, while sleep deprivation and disorders can interfere with immune function.
To support your immune system with better sleep, focus on keeping a regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine, expose your eyes to sunlight early in the morning, limit screen time and blue light exposure in the evening, and use blackout curtains or an eye mask to prevent artificial light from disrupting sleep. For more on this topic, our June 2022 article, Links between Food and Sleep, explored the causes and consequences of poor sleep.
Health Pillar #4: Mood
Emotional balance may influence the immune system as much as any other health factor. Studies now show a direct link between the brain and the immune system through the lymphatic system. Chemicals released during an immune response can disrupt how the brain controls your motivation, anxiety, and motor activity. The emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology continues to discover how aspects of our mental health affect immune response.
It seems clear that lowering levels of chronic stress, maintaining social connection, and embracing a positive mindset can make a big difference in how the body copes with infection. Meditation, yoga, daily walks, gratitude journaling, self-compassion and other mindfulness practices can complement the steps we take with nutrition, exercise, and sleep.
Whether it’s to prevent illness, promote longevity, or resolve chronic health conditions, the right lifestyle interventions may be different for each individual. One person might need to start with food, while another should prioritize sleep or mental health. The important thing to recognize is that all four pillars are closely connected, and progress in one area usually has a positive impact on the others.
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