What is the Immune System and why is it important to maintain a healthy one? Most people know that the immune system defends the body against infections, viruses, cancer cells, fungi and other parasites. What most don’t realize is that an unhealthy immune system speeds up the aging process and is a major factor in fatigue. A well-functioning immune system is vitally important for overall health.
As we emerge through different seasons, it can often bring an increased vulnerability to infections and illnesses. There is a lot you can do to improve the “terrain” and strengthen resistance. Two key areas to focus on are stimulating the flow of lymph and reducing the effects of stress.
The lymphatic system transports the army of immune cells and acts as a drainage channel for wastes and toxins. Lymph nodes are concentrated in the neck, chest and groin thus, when there is a lot of immune activity going on, these areas will swell.
What Weakens It? Various physiological changes take place including increased heart rate and blood pressure. This is known as the “fight or flight” response and if it is constantly stimulated, it has a “wear and tear” effect on the immune system. With more prolonged stress, levels of cortisol start to rise which not only weakens the immune system but affects sleep, weight and contributes to bone loss and hormonal imbalance.
Worry, anxiety and negative thoughts will trigger a stress response in the same way as an actual threat. Anxiety has been shown to increase susceptibility to viral infection. Anxious people exposed to stress showed increases in infection rates from 74% to 90%, and clinical colds rose from 27% to 47%.
Not getting enough sleep causes stress on the immune system as well. Be sure to aim for 6-8hrs of sleep each night to help keep your system strong.
How to Strengthen It? Massage therapist Clare Williams says “Massage increases the activity of white blood cells that target and destroy infectious agents and in immune deficiency it increases antibody production. With regular massage, the immune system is strengthened and it becomes more robust.”
Massage and reflexology also help calm the nervous system. During a treatment the Reflexologist stimulates more than 7,000 nerves when touching the feet. A recent study concluded that after receiving reflexology, healthy people experienced a significant decrease in anxiety, tension and worry and an increase in wellbeing.
Experienced acupuncturist Julia Davis has a keen interest in the immune system and the way stress affects our health. “Acupuncture works to restore and maintain balance in body and mind. Acupuncture can stimulate the body by treating the spleen, kidney, liver and lung channels. When balance is achieved, a person has a greater opportunity to resist illness and maintain good health”. (Familiesonline.com)
Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low in saturated fat
Maintain a healthy weight
Control your blood pressure
If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation
Get adequate sleep
Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly
Foods to Eat Finally, don’t forget the importance of good nutrition. Many people don’t realize that 70% of the immune system is in the gut which means that what you eat will have a powerful impact. Healthy bowel movements are essential to avoid a breeding ground of unhealthy bacteria caused by waste backing up in the intestine. Probiotics and fiber intake are important in this respect. Probiotics, or the “live active cultures” found in yogurt, are healthy bacteria that keep the gut and intestinal tract free of disease-causing germs. Fiber should be the gentle soluble kind such as oats, brown rice, spelt rather than irritant wheat fiber. Both help with the gastrointestinal tract. Too much sugar will help yeast organisms to flourish in the gut and it blocks the uptake of vitamin C, a key immune enhancing vitamin.
Nutritional therapist Penny Crowther advises “Make sure you are getting enough of the key immune nutrients that may be lacking in the average diet. Research has proved that deficiency of vitamin D, an important immune related vitamin is relatively common so make sure you eat oily fish, or take a supplement. Zinc is also vital, particularly for children and teenagers. The production and function of immune cells are dependent on adequate zinc levels and very recent research found that this mineral helped reduce the duration of a cold. Meat such as lamb and seafood are the richest sources. Lastly, make sure that you are eating foods containing Omega 3 and 6 fats (oily fish, nuts and seeds). These fats are converted into substances which regulate immune function.”
Eat more fruits and vegetables, which are rich in nutrients like vitamins C and E, plus beta-carotene and zinc & garlic. Go for a wide variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, including berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, apples, red grapes, kale, onions, spinach, sweet potatoes, and carrots.
Other foods particularly good for your immune system include fresh garlic, which may help fight viruses and bacteria, and old-fashioned chicken soup. Contemporary researchers now know why. “Studies show that mushrooms increase the production and activity of white blood cells, making them more aggressive. This is a good thing when you have an infection
The three major antioxidant vitamins are beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. You’ll find them in colorful fruits and vegetables, especially those with purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow hues.
Beta-carotene and other carotenoids: apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, corn, green peppers, kale, mangoes, turnip and collard greens, nectarines, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, squash, spinach, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon
Vitamin C: berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, honeydew, kale, kiwi, mango, nectarine, orange, papaya, snow peas, sweet potato, strawberries, tomatoes, and red, green, or yellow peppers
Vitamin E: broccoli, carrots, chard, mustard and turnip greens, mangoes, nuts, papaya, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, and sunflower seeds. These foods are also rich in antioxidants:
Other antioxidants that can help keep you healthy include:
Zinc: oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seafood, whole grains, fortified cereals, and dairy products
Selenium: Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry, fortified breads, and other grain products
*Cooking tip: To get the biggest benefits of antioxidants, eat these foods raw or lightly steamed. Don’t overcook or boil them
Hopefully these tips will help keep you happy and healthy during the seasonal changes!
Don’t forget to like and follow me on Social Media @Jens_a_10/@Jens_a_Ten!
Jennifer Jones, CPT, Health & Wellness Coach