Optimize your body’s immunity year-round — here’s how

It seems there is no shortage of commercials or ads talking about products that boost your body’s immune system, but it’s not easy to do for one main reason: It is a system and not a single entity. Our immune system requires balance amongst all of our moving parts, so to speak, so optimizing your immunity requires looking at your entire body. Researchers still have a lot to learn about how all of our body’s systems work together, and, according to Harvard Health, there are “no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.”

That being said, they also agree that “healthy-living strategies are a good way to start giving your immune system the upper hand.” How can we make decisions for our bodies that give them a fighting chance to optimize our health and fight off viruses and disease?

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Find a balanced eating plan that incorporates plenty of fruits, vegetables, and protein. Eat a variety of foods that provide nutrients like beta-carotene (sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, mango, broccoli, and tomatoes), vitamin C (citrus fruits, berries, melons, bell peppers), vitamin D (tuna, salmon, eggs, dairy), and zinc (beef, seafood, beans, nuts, and tofu). This will help you maintain a healthy weight. If you’re cooking meat, it’s important to cook it throughout and thoroughly wash your hands if you’re handling raw chicken to avoid food-borne illnesses.

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Get some shut-eye

Getting adequate sleep is a critical step in maintaining your overall health and avoiding illness. According to the Mayo Clinic, adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If your sleep is frequently interrupted, that doesn’t count as quality sleep. The quality of your sleep is just as important as the number of hours you’re sleeping. If you struggle to sleep through the night, there are a few things you can try.

Experts suggest minimizing light and sound in your room. “Darkness causes your brain to release melatonin for a calming, sleepy effect. As a result, it’s important to minimize your exposure to light before bedtime,” Mayo researchers say. This means shutting off your phone and laptop at least 30 minutes before you’re ready to sleep. If you find stress is the cause of your restlessness, try aromatherapy, deep breathing, or other relaxation techniques.

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Manage your stress

Stress occurs in everyone’s lives, but when it becomes more than you’re able to cope with, it can cause your body to produce greater levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In small doses, this isn’t a bad thing and can actually boost your immunity by lowering inflammation. But over time, your body gets used to it, and it can have an adverse effect, Dr. Calabrese told Cleveland Health Clinic. “Eliminating or modifying these [stress] factors in one’s life is vital to protect and augment the immune response,” he said. “It’s necessary to buffer the inevitability of the aging process.”

In order to combat this and other disorders that can be caused by stress, try taking 10 to 30 minutes each day to decompress. Meditate, practice yoga, talk to a therapist, go for a walk — anything that allows your mind and body to relax and be mindful.

Get rid of bad habits

Everyone has bad habits. If they are done in small doses, things like drinking alcohol or having an occasional cigarette won’t bust your body’s immunity. But if you are partaking in them regularly, they can do damage to your health and your ability to fight infections.

Alcohol can damage the barrier function of the gut, creating a “leaky” gut wall, which, over time, can allow bacteria to enter the blood circulation. These pass directly to the liver, which can cause inflammation. Excessive alcohol can also cause weight gain and interrupt sleep patterns, all of which have an impact on your health.

Signs of a weakened immune system vary among people, but there are some common things you can look out for (most of which you probably already know about your body), including regularly getting sick, wounds that take longer to heal, getting stomach aches or digestive problems, or feeling tired and run down more days than not. The good news is that by incorporating some of the recommendations above, you will start to feel better, have more energy, and find you may not be feeling sick and tired as much as you have in the past. While science still has a way to go in understanding how these factors directly impact immunity, they are all practical ways to get your body feeling good.

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