Prioritizing your immune system has never been more important, especially with Omicron’s highly contagious sub-variant, BA.2, which is helping to drive a new wave of Covid cases around the world.
As an immunologist and functional medicine physician, patients often ask me how they can measure the health of their immune system. I tell them that our immune system is a moving target and has no real specified organs where it can be completely isolated. You cannot scan it with an X-ray, biopsy it, or determine that it is exact strength or weakness with a single test.
However, four major warning signs can indicate if your immune system is weakened and you need to work extra hard to strengthen it:
Signs that your immune system is weakened
1. You often fall ill and take longer than usual to recover.
Don’t worry if you sneeze and sniffle for two or three colds a year. Most people return to normal within about a week.
But if you constantly catch a cold with symptoms that persist for weeks, or even get food poisoning frequently, it may be due to a sluggish response from your innate immune system.
Your innate immune system involves barriers that prevent harmful materials from entering your body. Consider it the first line of defense against all invaders and injuries. Its components include:
- cough reflex, which helps us to expel things that can irritate or infect us.
- production of mucus, which traps bacteria and small particles and helps expel them from the body.
- stomach acid, which helps kill germs that get into our food and water.
2. You are in a constant state of stress.
Certain types of stress can benefit our immune health and overall well-being.
For example, an acute, short-term stressor – like a traffic jam – is designed to help your body overload its protective mechanisms in an instant. For this reason, acute stress actually helps boost your immune system in the short term.
On the other end of the stress spectrum, chronic stress can be bad news, causing immune dysregulation and immune suppression, leading to increased infections and poor recovery from disease.
Studies also show that frequent bouts of stress seem to exacerbate autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis and can cause flare-ups of allergic reactions like eczema and asthma.
3. You often get cold sores or had shingles at a young age.
The viruses that cause cold sores and shingles both belong to the herpes virus family. Once you contract a herpes virus, it goes into a dormant state in the body.
However, when you are stressed or your cellular immunity weakens, the virus can replicate and reactivate again.
Seeing frequent reactivations can be a sign that your immune system needs to be boosted.
4. You are taking medications that weaken your immune response.
Unfortunately, many important drugs used in cancer chemotherapy – to prevent organ transplant rejection and to treat autoimmune diseases – can be immunosuppressive.
Corticosteroids, a common class of drugs used for allergies, asthma, and other inflammatory conditions, can also be immunosuppressive.
Even a history of frequent antibiotic use has been shown to damage the diversity of the microbiome in the gut, which can directly impair immune responses.
How to boost your immune system
The good news is that whatever the state of your immune resilience, you can intervene daily to strengthen it.
Here are some effective ways to do this:
1. Feed your immune system.
Our immune system cells need a multitude of antioxidant-rich foods – mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those high in vitamin C and beta-carotene.
Focus on getting daily servings of dark leafy greens like kale, deeply pigmented berries like blackberries, and fiber-rich cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and arugula.
The minerals zinc and selenium are also powerful immune-supporting nutrients and are found in nuts, seeds, shellfish, and some meats.
Finally, add superfoods like shitake and maitake mushrooms, green tea, and spices like turmeric, rosemary, and cloves.
2. Get some sunshine.
In addition to boosting your mood, just 10 to 15 minutes a day of full-spectrum light can provide an adequate amount of vitamin D, an important immune-supporting vitamin.
There is some evidence that low vitamin D is a risk factor for poor immune status, including autoimmune disease and Covid. So if you have low immunity, it’s a good idea to get your levels checked and supplement your time in the sun with vitamin D pills.
3. Focus on sleep.
The quality and quantity of sleep have a major impact on immune resilience.
Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with higher inflammation and more frequent infections. Indeed, while our body is resting, the cells of the immune system can also focus all their efforts and energy on a powerful attack against viruses and bacteria.
Additionally, sleep enhances the formation of memory antibodies against bacteria and viruses, to help build a stronger immune system for the future.
4. Quit smoking.
It should be obvious, but even the chemicals in secondhand and even thirdhand smoke are carcinogenic. The damage these products create in our tissues keeps us inflamed and in a constant state of repair.
Cigarettes, marijuana, and vapes are all harmful to the respiratory tract, which is the first barrier of entry for airborne viruses and bacteria.
5. Limit alcohol consumption.
Alcohol has negative effects on most of our innate and adaptive immune cells.
Chronic and excessive alcohol consumption also damages the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, as well as the protective T cells and neutrophils of the gastrointestinal system. This disrupts gut barrier function and allows microbes to leak into the bloodstream, leading to inflammation.
6. Double down on stress management.
Chronic, unmanaged emotional and physical stress increases the release of inflammatory cytokines, and people who have high physical and emotional stressors have higher levels of inflammation.
In fact, C-reactive protein, which is a marker of inflammation, increases in patients under acute stress.
One of the most effective ways to boost your immune response is to manage your stress through meditation, breathing exercises, and other mindfulness activities.
Dr. Heather Moday is a board-certified allergist, immunologist and functional medicine physician. She is also the author of “The Immunotype Breakthrough: Your Personalized Plan to Balance Your Immune System, Optimize Your Health, and Build Your Lifelong Resilience.” Follow her on Instagram @theimmunityMD and Facebook.