Immunosuppressive drugs are medications and therapies that block the function of part of the immune system. These medications are lifesaving when treating autoimmune disorders or after organ transplants. However, suppressing the immune system puts people at greater risk for infections. Many people have sought ways to boost their immune systems, but so far, research has not supported this possibility.
The immune system is a complex system of organs, cells, and chemicals. It has so many intricacies that researchers have not yet been able to show a direct connection between lifestyle factors and the immune system. Researchers continue to investigate the effects of diet, exercise, reduced stress, better sleep, age, and other factors on the immune system. In the meantime, it is important to know whether you are taking immunosuppressant medication and what steps you can take to maintain overall health to give your immune system the nutrients it needs to function.
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Your immune system works hard to fight off pathogens and invaders that may make you sick. A healthy immune system differentiates cells that belong to you, so-called “self” cells, from pathogens by protein markers found on their surface.
Sometimes the immune system becomes overactive and mistakes “self” cells as foreign invaders. This causes inflammation and cell damage. These conditions are called autoimmune disorders and are classified based on the organ system that the immune system targets.
Examples of autoimmune disorders include:
Immunosuppressants are used to treat a wide range of autoimmune diseases by reducing inflammation and focusing on very specific parts of the immune system.
Immunosuppressive medications are also used after organ transplantation. In this case, the organ is foreign, and the immune system recognizes that the transplanted cells are not “self” cells. The immune system will damage the transplant cells if it is not suppressed, leading to organ rejection.
Whether you take immunosuppressive medications or just want to support your immune system, your best strategy is to make healthy lifestyle choices. Doing so provides your immune cells with the nutrients they need. If you have frequent infections, excessive fatigue, chronic infections, or unexplained weight loss, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. An untreated or chronic infection can become serious if not diagnosed and treated.
There are currently no medications that boost the immune system. But many people find that adding antioxidants like glutathione, coenzyme Q10, vitamin C, NAD+, and vitamin D to their diet helps keep their immune system healthy.
Besides supporting healthy immune function, it is important to support your immune system by:
Age is one of the biggest risk factors for decreased immune function, a phenomenon called immunosenescence. Strengthening the immune system is beneficial for people of all ages. Learn more in the ultimate guide to immune health.
Set your goal to have a better body composition, not just a lower or healthier weight. A body weight that is unhealthy because of more body fat is different from a body weight that is unhealthy because of more muscle mass. Instead of focusing on body weight alone, focus on how you feel and how your clothes feel. With that said, being overweight or having obesity increases your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other medical conditions.
The relationship between body weight and the immune system is bidirectional. Chronic low-grade inflammation is linked to insulin resistance and obesity.1
Chronic stress increases cortisol (a glucocorticoid) release, which increases blood pressure and blood glucose. Inflammation is a necessary part of the immune response because it speeds up the flow of blood and the movement of immune cells toward an infection. However, too much inflammation can be harmful. Excess glucocorticoids interfere with the inflammatory process, which increases your risk of infection and autoimmune disorders. Chronic stress also increases your risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, upper respiratory infections, and wound infections.2
It is difficult for researchers to study the relationship between stress and the immune system because stress is an elusive concept that is difficult to define and measure.
Choose a healthy diet full of antioxidants, whole foods, complex carbohydrates, and healthy sources of protein and fat. Whole foods are minimally processed and are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and nutrients that support the immune system. A healthy diet is important for people in any age group, but it becomes even more important as your immune system ages. Choose the best foods to support your immune system, especially for your 40s and beyond.
To support your immune system, choose a diet high in the following micronutrients:
Exercise includes playing, working, and recreational activities. Physical activity improves body composition, reduces stress, raises body temperature, improves sleep quality, and decreases your risk of chronic disease. Exercise also improves blood flow, minimizes blood sugar spikes, reduces inflammation, and helps your body mobilize immune cells. Regular exercise can reduce your risk of infection, boost your immune system, and decrease upper respiratory infections.3 Any movement at all is better than sitting.
However, moderation is key because vigorous physical activity can actually weaken your immune system. Your body needs exercise and rest.4
Exercise guidelines recommend that you (choose one):
In addition to aerobic exercise, you should set aside time for two strength-building sessions per week in which you work all of your major muscle groups. Building muscle helps regulate blood glucose spikes and increases resting metabolic rate, which can help with weight management.
Avoid unnecessary infections. Your immune system fights a constant onslaught of bacterial, fungal, protozoan, helminth, and viral infections. These pathogens live on the surface of your body, in your sinuses, nose, mouth, and respiratory tract, and throughout the gastrointestinal tract.
Vaccines (immunizations) are non-harmful pieces of pathogens or genetic material from pathogens. They contain proteins that stimulate the immune system, so the next time your immune system is exposed to the pathogen, it will be primed and ready to fight.
Other ways to support your immune system as it fights pathogens include:
An overwhelmed immune system may let you down, so protect it from unnecessary infections. Watch for signs of infection, including:
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
1. Kumamoto Y, Camporez Joao Paulo G, Jurczak Michael J, et al. CD301b<sup>+</sup> Mononuclear Phagocytes Maintain Positive Energy Balance through Secretion of Resistin-like Molecule Alpha. Immunity. 2016;45(3):583-596. doi:10.1016/j.immuni.2016.08.002
2. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, et al. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012;109(16):5995-5999. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118355109
3. Zheng Q, Cui G, Chen J, et al. Regular Exercise Enhances the Immune Response Against Microbial Antigens Through Up-Regulation of Toll-like Receptor Signaling Pathways. Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry. 2015;37(2):735-746. doi:10.1159/000430391
4. Simpson RJ, Kunz H, Agha N, Graff R. Chapter Fifteen – Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions. In: Bouchard C, ed. Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science. Academic Press; 2015:355-380.