Best Ways to Boost Your Immune System During 2023 Flu Season
With flu and allergy season upon us, you may feel there’s no good way to keep illness at bay. But with a few extra steps, you can boost your immune system and get back to enjoying life.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is like your body’s defensive line, protecting it from harmful bacteria and viruses that cause illness and infection. Humans have complex immune systems that are influenced by many factors – some not under our control, like our age, environment or genetics. As we get older, for example, our organs become less efficient at fighting illness. And environmental factors, like air pollution, can suppress the normal activity of our immune cells.
Looking for help improving your wellness? Ochsner’s Concierge Health program has you covered with personalized nutrition and exercise plans – plus 24/7 access to your doctor.
What can I do stay healthy?
While there is no foolproof way to avoid getting sick, we can do several things to boost our immunity and fight off infection. Here are our top tips to stay healthy and build up your body’s natural defense mechanisms:
- Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands! Washing your hands regularly is an essential aspect of maintaining good hygiene and protecting yourself and others. Up to 80% of communicable diseases are transferred by touch, so make sure to wash up – particularly after being in public places. Covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, regularly cleaning high-traffic surfaces and minimizing contact with others who are sick can also help reduce the spread of germs and viruses.
- Get enough sleep: Getting enough sleep is vital to overall health and immune function. During sleep, your body repairs itself, and your immune system produces cytokines, a type of immune cell protein that specifically targets infections and inflammation. Lack of sleep may affect how well your immune system functions and make you susceptible to illnesses. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends getting least seven hours of sleep every night.
- Eat a well-balanced diet: Each stage of the body’s immune response requires fuel. We get this fuel through nutrients found in varied diet centered on fresh, whole foods. Our typical Western diets tend to be high in refined sugar, salt and fat from processed foods, which do not promote healthy immune function. A Mediterranean-style diet of plant-based foods, like whole grains, vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, will better support your gut microbiome and your immune system.
- Consider supplements: While it's best to obtain nutrients from food, certain supplements can help support our immune system. It is unlikely that specific foods offer us special protection from illness, but certain nutrients have been identified as critical for the growth and function of immune cells: zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid and vitamins A, B6, C, D and E. Probiotics and prebiotics can also support immune function by promoting healthy gut bacteria. Though supplements are great at times, it is important to remember that more does not always mean better. Supplements for these nutrients are most helpful when there is a deficiency and excess “megadoses” can be harmful and can even suppress immunity. Always consult with your doctor before adding a supplement to your regimen.
- Stay hydrated: Water is essential for the proper functioning of your body. Staying hydrated helps to flush out toxins and supports blood flow. Drinking plenty of water ensures that your organs work efficiently, allowing your immune system to protect your body from foreign invaders. A general rule of thumb is to drink at least 8 cups of water daily, and more if you're physically active or live in a hot climate.
- Limit environmental toxins: Both smoking and excess alcohol can suppress the activity of immune cells. While alcohol in moderation may not harm our immune system, excessive consumption can impact our body's ability to fight off infections. Heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption can weaken our immune response and lead to poor health. Quitting can be hard; let us help.
- Manage your stress: Stress hormones like cortisol suppress the inflammation that is initially needed to activate immune cells. Too much stress can also make you more vulnerable to chronic diseases. Self-care can go a long way in lowering your daily stress levels. Each day, try to give yourself the gift of time: Take care of yourself, spend time with friends, do an activity or hobby that you enjoy or try a relaxing meditation or deep breathing to recharge your batteries.
- Stay active: Each time you exercise, your body recirculates key immune cells through the blood. Exercise
also plays an important role in diversifying gut microbiota, increasing blood flow and reducing stress hormones, all of which impact immune health. Incorporating 30 minutes of moderate-intensity movement, such as a brisk walk or yoga session, every day can help support the immune system.
- Get enough sun: Sunlight is an excellent source of vitamin D, which is essential for our immune system to function optimally. Vitamin D deficiency can reduce immune function and increase the risk of infections and autoimmune disorders. Make it a goal to get outside for 15-20 minutes every day – just don’t forget your SPF!
- Get vaccinated: Perhaps the most important step for staying healthy during flu season is to get your flu shot. Because the flu virus changes each year, scientists develop new versions of the vaccine each flu season – so it’s important to get vaccinated every year. While you may experience some side effects from the flu shot, like mild body aches or soreness at the injection site, you cannot get the flu from your vaccination. Getting your annual flu shot not only provides you with protection, it also helps protect those who are at higher risk through herd immunity.
Once you get started, you’ll find that adopting healthy lifestyle habits also helps increase your immunity. Remember to prioritize sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise and stress management, and to practice good hygiene to support your immune system. Your body works as an interconnected system, so improving in even just one area can have a positive rippling effect on your overall health.