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by Patricia Chaney October 07, 2020 3 min read

Your immune system is your primary line of defense when viruses and illness strike. Like any strong defense system, it needs a leader to command the forces. In this case, that leader is you. Many of us think about strengthening our immune system during cold and flu season. But you can adopt habits year-round to build a healthy immune system that's prepared to fight the good fight.

Understanding the Immune System

Your immune system is a complex system of cells and organs that defend the body against harmful invaders like bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Your skin and mucus are among your first lines of defense; they try to keep illness-causing germs out. When germs get past those outer defenses and enter your body, B-cells, a type of white blood cell, release antibodies to attack the germs. Another type of white blood cell — T-cells — attacks germs directly and produces cytokines that regulate the whole immune system's response.

While your immune system is launching an attack, you may experience inflammation, fever, fatigue, cough, sore throat or other signs that you're sick. These symptoms are important immune mechanisms that help your body fight off disease. Inflammation, for instance, releases chemical messengers that cause white blood cells to flock to where there's swelling and eat germs and damaged cells.

Once your immune system has have killed off the invading germs, they develop antibodies that are specific to those attackers that stay in your body long after the immediate threat is gone. These antibodies can recognize when the same germ comes back and fight it off from the start with a more targeted attack.

How to Build a Healthy Immune Base

Chronic illness, age and your daily habits are all factors that can affect the strength of your immunity. But there are many proactive steps you can take to promote a healthy immune system:

  • Eat your fruits and veggies. Get at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Fresh produce contains a wealth of vitamins and minerals your body needs to keep those white blood cells ready for action. One method is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables of diverse colors to cover all your bases — Harvard Medical School reports that different colors signal the presence of different nutrients.
  • Include omega-3 fatty acids.Foods such as salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts are rich in omega-3s. These healthy fatty acids act on white blood cells to reduce inflammation and strengthen your body's immune response. Try to consume about 8 ounces of oily fish every week to ensure adequate omega-3 consumption, or consider nutritional supplementation.
  • Get probioticsin your diet. Gut microbiome play an important role in white blood cell production, triggering your body's response to harmful substances and fighting off invaders. The more diverse your gut bacteria are, the more likely it is they can support the gut's immune system to mount a successful defense. Consuming probiotics helps to introduce live strains of bacteria into your gut, which helps to keep your gut bacteria diverse and healthy. You can get them through supplementation or by eating fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut a few times a week.
  • Exercise regularly. You don't have to be an Olympic athlete to reap the benefits of exercise. Consistent, moderate physical activity — about 30 minutes per day — helps your immune system track down and kill germs and slow the immunity-suppressing effects of aging.
  • Get enough sleep. Getting regular sleep, at least seven hours a night, strengthens your white blood cells. Disease-fighting T cells were reported more effective in people who got enough sleep.
  • Relax and unwind. When you're chronically stressed out, your immune system suffers. Persistent stress can lead to higher levels of inflammation, increasing the risk of immune-related illnesses. Take time daily for at least 10–20 minutes of deep breathing, meditation, yoga or any activities that help you relax. Guided meditation apps such as Ten Percent and Calm can help you get started.

Everyone's immune system is different. Lifestyle habits, genetics and unique physiology are all factors that influence your body's immune response. Taking proactive diet and lifestyle steps is a great place to start to support a healthy immune system.

We all know our immune system plays an important role in keeping us healthy. We need to look at the body as a whole to understand how each part works together. Take a listen to this podcast to learn about the 7 immune-boosting organs in the body and how they all work synergistically to keep us healthy.

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