Your immune system is like armor, defending you from invaders and keeping you from getting sick. Too much stress, too little sleep and other lifestyle factors can decrease immune function, leaving you vulnerable to illness, especially during cold and flu season or when you're working overtime or traveling.
But there are ways to layer on protection; bolstering your defenses before you're exposed, increasing your intake of vitamins, getting high-quality sleep and using techniques that reduce stress are just some of the ways to help strengthen your armor and fight back. Here's how to boost your immune system when you know you're putting it to the test.
The National Institutes of Health describes the immune system as a complex network that identifies disease-causing germs like viruses and bacteria, as well as your own body's unhealthy cells that have been damaged by infection. Your immune cells usually know how to recognize and outsmart these bad actors and fight them off.
Most of the time, your immune system has all the energy it needs to do its job. However, age, chronic illness, certain medications and lifestyle habits can compromise it, leading you to be more likely to develop colds, the flu and other illnesses. And even if you're normally healthy, it can't hurt to boost your immune system when life gets out of control.
Sometimes, even your normal healthy lifestyle isn't enough to keep the sniffles away. For example, everyone is more susceptible to catching a bug during cold and flu season. Research compiled by Harvard University suggests that some viruses survive longer in the frigid, dry air of fall and winter. And being stuck indoors with other people means everyone is breathing, coughing and sneezing into the same stale air.
Chronic stress also affects the immune system. Carnegie Mellon University found that prolonged stress, such as the kind experienced during the final business quarter at a high-pressure financial job, increases inflammation. While under normal conditions, inflammation helps the body fight off germs and heal from infections, chronic stress results in constant inflammation. Over time, the body becomes accustomed to elevated inflammation levels and is less able to regulate them.
When stress keeps you up at night and you're getting fewer than seven hours of sleep, your chances of catching a cold increase. According to the Mayo Clinic, the body releases proteins called cytokines during sleep that help to fight infection. If you don't produce enough, your immune system can't function at its optimal level.
If you're traveling and changing time zones, you may not sleep as well as you would at home. Plus, you're probably keeping a busy schedule of either work meetings or sightseeing. These factors (and more) put stress on your body, weakening your immune system.
To ward off colds, the flu and other illnesses when you're busy and overwhelmed, follow this simple immune-boosting recipe: lower stress, improve sleep and get the nutrition your body needs.
Consider doing 10 to 15 minutes of mindful meditation every day. After a tense morning meeting, practice belly breathing. Writing down your thoughts in a journal, practicing yoga, sitting under a tree, talking a long walk in nature, petting your dog or cat or meeting with a licensed therapist can also help you get a handle on what's stressing you out.
Here are a couple of tried-and-true ways to get seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night: Stick to a regular sleep schedule, and turn off devices (and the news) at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
A diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein goes a long way toward keeping your immune system strong. When you know you'll need an extra boost, focus on getting more vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc.
It's important to supply your immune system with the fortification it needs to fight off unwanted intruders. Healthy habits and wise supplementation will help boost your immune system so it can shield you from infection when you need it most.