If you couldn’t already tell, we love cooler weather. We stan camel jackets and puffy coats, would much rather get cozy at home than go out, and hot coffee tastes better than iced (#hottake). However, around this time of year, we also start seeing “immune system” pop up in wellness headlines that promise ways to boost your health.
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I don’t know about you, but I have always been confused AF about what the immune system actually is. As far as I knew, the immune system was like a mystical unicorn that could wave a magic wand and protect us from outside threats. But the immune system is a key part of our bodies and a crucial piece of our wellbeing. We need to understand its function in order to understand how to keep it healthy, and besides, what’s more empowering than knowing our bodies?
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there about the immune system. Since it’s a buzzy topic and (more importantly) a key component to your wellbeing, we wanted to clear up confusion around the immune system, so we chatted with experts to get some answers. Here are eight facts about the immune system that everyone should know, and how you can keep yours as healthy as possible:
1. The immune system is intertwined with every other system in the body
We hear about it a lot, but what really is this mysterious immune system? Dr. Tieraona Low Dog M.D., an integrative medical doctor and Chief Medical Advisor at MegaFood, explains that it’s intricately intertwined with every other system in the body. “The immune system is an extremely elegant and complex network of cells that are designed to defend against pathogens that might cause us harm,” she said. “It is intimately intertwined with every other system in the body, constantly surveilling the body threats.”
In other words, the immune system is not a shield covering the body or a wave of a magic wand like I had pictured. Instead, it’s comprised of cells, organs, and chemicals that detect unhealthy cells that can be harmful to the body, according to Dr. Erin Stokes, a Naturopathic Doctor and Medical Director at MegaFood. So it’s less like a shield of defense and more like a metal detector at the beach–only instead of pennies and the occasional washed up treasure (a girl can dream, right?), the immune system is trying to detect unhealthy cells.
2. “Boosting” your immune system is often misinterpreted
The phrase and advice that I hear most often is about boosting the immune system. Here’s why that’s problematic: yes, it’s possible to have a weakened immune system, but it’s also possible to have an overactive immune system as well. For example, Dr. Low Dog explained that a healthy immune system doesn’t just know when to react, but it knows when not to. “A dysregulated immune system can sometimes attack the body’s healthy cells, causing auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus,” she said.
So we’re able to (and should!) prioritize practices that keep the immune system healthy, but the goal should be balancing, rather than boosting. Dr. Stokes clarifies what immune health really means. She said, “It’s more about maintaining healthy immune function and providing your immune system with the nutrients it needs to function optimally.” For example, nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc can help support the immune system.*
3. Your diet can support (or hurt) your immune system
And now for the good stuff: what we can be doing to actively keep our immune systems as healthy as possible. Both Dr. Stokes and Dr. Low Dog recommended eating whole foods that are rich in nutrients. Dr. Low Dog specifically suggested carotenoids, B-vitamins, vitamin C, and zinc, which she said can be obtained by eating 7-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, along with whole grains, legumes, and nuts. She also recommended allium vegetables (garlic, onions, leeks, etc.), fermented foods, berries, and culinary herbs and spices because they are powerhouses when it comes to antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory activity. Dr. Stokes said to “eat the colors of the rainbow” to make sure you’re getting in a variety of phytonutrients.
Unfortunately for our holiday diets and PSL addiction, just as important as what foods to eat are what foods to avoid. Dr. Low Dog said, “High-sugar, low-fiber foods, as well as overly processed foods, are not good for your immune system or overall health.” The good news is that eating to support your immune system is not rocket science. Focus on getting in a variety of fruits and vegetables with every meal, top your meals with herbs/spices like cilantro, basil, or cinnamon, and eat whole grains and legumes much more often than processed foods. For more info on adding plants to your diet, click here. And if eating clean just isn’t for you, start with small changes like eating berries with your breakfast, adding kale to your pasta, and ordering a side salad with your meal when you eat out.
4. Yes, supplementation can help maintain a healthy immune system
We’ve already covered how your diet can affect your immune system with an array of micronutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants. And yes, you should be eating fresh, whole foods to keep your body in optimal health. However, sometimes we can all afford a little supplementation to get the nutrients we may not be getting enough of in our diets. In today’s day and age, we have tools and resources to not only stay healthy, but to be as healthy as possible. MegaFood is truly a favorite brand because their products are made with real food and added nutrients.
Dr. Stokes and Dr. Low Dog both recommend trying the Immune Defense* supplement.
It’s made with herbs, added food, and nutrients to help the immune system, like vitamin C, zinc, black elderberry, and phytonutrient-rich herbs (like echinacea and Andrographis). For regular immune support try Daily Immune Support*, C Defense Gummies, D3 Wellness Gummies, or Zinc.
5. A “healthy immune system” doesn’t mean it’ll never be compromised
I always thought a minor snuffy nose meant I had a weakened immune system. After all, if you’re healthy, your body is 100% invincible, right? Wrong! “A healthy immune system does not mean you’ll never get sick,” Dr. Low Dog explained. “It means if you do get sick, you’ll be able to mount a great defense, recover, and form ‘immunologic memory’ through the creation of antibodies. This means that when you encounter that pathogen again, you can fight it fast.” In other words, a germ can “slip through the cracks,” and we can get a runny nose, even with peak immune health.
6. Exercise can affect the immune system
You know that physical activity is crucial for mental health, optimal energy, and increasing strength or endurance, but it’s also important for immune health. Dr. Stokes explained, “The increased movement of exercise helps immune system cells circulate more rapidly.” Dr. Low Dog agreed, saying that moderate amounts of exercise (less than 60 minutes per day) can help improve immune surveillance. Make sure you’re taking more walks, doing yoga flows, taking online kickboxing classes, or however you prefer to fit in regular movement.
On the other hand, both experts warned that there’s an extent to how much exercise can help the immune system. “Athletes who are training intensely for competition often experience a disruption in the immune system due to high levels of inflammation and oxidative stress. For the rest of us, moderation and regularity are key,” Dr. Low Dog said. Dr. Stokes also warned not to over-exercise when you’re feeling rundown. Even though regular movement is good for the immune system, when you do start feeling under the weather, the body needs to rest more than it needs to do a strenuous workout.
7. … and stress does too
Now for a reason to take a mental health day from work tomorrow: high levels of stress can negatively impact the immune system. Dr. Low Dog said, “Numerous studies have shown that prolonged stress can increase immune susceptibility.” PSA: feeling run down during finals week every year of college was not a coincidence.
Being stressed alone isn’t going to make us sick, but it can weaken the immune system so that when we are exposed to a harmful pathogen (like we often are, just from exposure to the outside world–AKA why I’m a paranoid germaphobe), our bodies don’t fight it like they normally would be able to. Dr. Stokes cited this study, explaining that the mind and body are closely connected (the mind-body connection is real, people!). She recommended regular meditation and yoga to find some inner zen and help reduce stress.
8. Prioritize self-love
While this might sound like the fluffy, cliché advice you got from The American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You when you were in 6th grade, improving self-love can be extremely effective for your overall wellness and, therefore, your immune system. Dr. Stokes said, “One of the best techniques for improving health and wellness is to shift our self-talk and try to develop a more positive voice when talking to ourselves.” Dr. Low Dog agreed, recommending that wellness routines should be simple and we should lead with self-forgiveness. “Life is complicated enough without setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves,” she said. When we’re happy, confident, and treat ourselves well, our bodies (and immune systems) will respond accordingly.
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Please consult a doctor before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
This post was sponsored by MegaFood, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everygirl editorial board.