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Arguably the most important thing that you can do to support your immune system is to get enough quality sleep. Our immune cells have a day/night cycle just like the rest of our physiology, which results in the immune system being highly active (from a circadian biology perspective) during the rest and recovery time provided by nightly sleep. Because of that fact, the activity of certain immune cells varies immensely between day and night. Basically, if you aren’t sleeping enough, you can bet your immune system isn’t firing on all cylinders. In a fascinating study investigating the effect of sleep deprivation on immune function it was found that not getting enough sleep will negatively impact your immunity on many levels and to varying degrees. Other research has found that sleep restriction causes chronic low-grade inflammation, decreased natural killer (NK) cell activity, hormonal dysregulation, and eventually results in immunodeficiency, none of which are favorable for optimal immune function. Slow-wave sleep is especially important to the health of our immune system, and mechanisms that allow your body to identify pathogens or other invading cells is especially enhanced during this part of the sleep cycle.
We highly encourage that you follow some of the tips below to try and get some quality sleep in order to support immune system function. If you are already getting between 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night, and you wake up feeling rested each day, the next most important factor to focus on to support immune health is ensuring you are getting adequate nutrition from your daily diet.
By now we likely don’t need to remind you just how complex your immune system is. There are countless variables that can impact the system, and nutrition is definitely one of the major ones. Many of the cells, enzymes, chemical messengers, and hormones that work away for your immune system require certain micronutrients for them to function properly. What this means is that ensuring you get enough vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fats, and amino acids – in particular those that are essential to immune function, is one of the best strategies for supporting your overall health and resilience to disease. Some of the more important nutrients for immune system function include vitamins A, C, D, B2, B6, B9, and B12, as well as iron, selenium, and zinc. Poor nutrition can clearly compromise immune function and increase infection risk. Luckily, you can absolutely improve immune function by patching up any holes in your diet, or with added supplementation if needed. Here are just a few of the major micronutrients that can deeply impact the capabilities of your immune system:
Vitamin D: Vitamin D levels are notoriously low in America and it is no surprise that D can largely impact your immune health. Low levels of Vitamin D are especially detrimental to immune function due to the fact that it binds to or otherwise interacts with many immune cells such as B cells, T cells, and antigen presenting cells (APCs). This powerful vitamin/hormone has the ability to modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses, and should likely be taken by everyone on a daily basis depending upon a variety of factors.
Zinc: Zinc is a heavy-hitting mineral that is crucial for immune function and depletion of this key nutrient has been associated with many adverse events. For example, zinc deficiency can enhance atrophy (shrinking) of the thymus, decrease immune cell number and activity, and increase oxidative stress and inflammation by altering production of cytokines. As a result, your ability to fight off infections is dramatically reduced.
Vitamin C: Although it might sound obvious, Vitamin C is actually rather important for immune function. During infection, disease, or even chronic, the rate at which you produce reactive oxygen species is increased. This boost in ROS production further depletes vitamin C stores, requiring you to get even more than usual from diet or supplementation. Vitamin C is also crucial for modulating the inflammatory process, and has other roles within the immune system.
We typically recommend getting as much of your nutrition from whole food sources as possible. However, supplementation has absolutely been proven effective at boosting immune function if you are deficient in any of these key micronutrients. It is important that you keep in mind though, that adding in supplements likely won’t make much of a difference at all if you are not managing the other major sources of friction that can reduce immune function. Chronically elevated stress levels for example, are notoriously good at throwing a major wrench in things.
Reducing your level of overall stress is one of the most impactful things you can do to positively influence the ability of your immune system to protect you from invaders and dysfunction. Normal, acute increases in the sympathetic (fight or flight) stress response undoubtedly has the ability to cause potentially beneficial changes in immune function (like activation of detoxification pathways from exercise, heat stress, or caloric restriction). Once any stressful experience becomes overwhelming or too frequent however, all kinds of dysfunction can emerge. The infamous stress hormone cortisol is actually a potent antioxidant that is required to make sure the immune system or inflammatory response is appropriate and under control. If cortisol is chronically elevated, as it is with unmanaged stress levels, your body (more importantly some kinds of immune cells) become desensitized and down-regulate their receptors for it. This is just one example of the physiological adaptations that can occur due to chronic stress and how they may limit your immune system capacity. Other psychological factors such as social isolation and depression have also been shown to negatively impact immune function.
To begin controlling your stress levels, a meditation practice has been proven effective time and time again. Interestingly, not only has meditation been proven to reduce stress in peer-reviewed research, it has been directly associated with increased immune function. In a meta-analysis looking at many randomized controlled trials (totaling 160 subjects) it was found that many markers of immune health were vastly improved by simply engaging in a mindfulness meditation practice. Researchers observed a decrease in Nf-kB activity (pro-inflammatory molecule), an increase in telomerase activity (DNA protective enzyme), and a decrease in levels of C-reactive protein (marker of inflammation), and an overall increase in many parameters of cell-mediated immunity. These findings were not the first to suggest that reducing overall stress can aid in immune function. It is hardly controversial to suggest that having a positive mindset is an incredibly important factor to sway the outcome of various disease-states in a more favorable direction. One of the final pillars in developing a robust immune system is consistent movement and (hopefully) exercise.
Exercise, and in particular resistance training, has the ability to positively impact your immune system on many levels. At minimum, some form of movement is required for the circulation of lymph fluid (your lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump, instead it relies on your physical movement). In contrast, too much exercise can result in overtraining which can be just as bad as not exercising at all – if you are wanting to stay healthy. This is why resistance training that is appropriate (for you), and the resulting increase in lean body mass, is likely your best route for improving immune function. Unsurprisingly, increases in lean body mass has been shown to result in more favorable outcomes from all kinds of health problems – in fact, the importance of utilizing muscle mass as a new vital sign is becoming increasingly obvious. Scarily, the expected and preventable decrease in lean body mass (sarcopenia) that comes hand-in-hand with the aging process results in an increased risk of infection, slower wound healing, increased risk of pneumonia, enhanced risk of osteoporosis, fractures, and many more undesirable effects. But that doesn’t mean that you absolutely have to start lifting weights in order to boost your immune system – simply moving more throughout the day can increase the circulation of your lymphatic fluid and result in more robust defense capabilities. Combining relatively frequent resistance training with a good amount of daily low-level movement (get off the couch!) will ensure that you are getting the best of both worlds.
Our immune system is always working, day and night. And the things that we do, or don’t do, can have profound implications on its ability to protect us from potential invaders. It is up to each of us to make sure that the habits and practices we implement in our daily lives are going to support this defense system in the fight against unwanted bacteria, viruses, cancerous cells, parasites, funguses, and more. No single factor will completely make or break your immune system, but consistently getting enough sleep, exercising, eating the right food, and managing stress are all crucial aspects to ensure your immune system isn’t going into a fight that it is rigged to lose.
While we recommend that clients adopt healthy habits to help bolster their immune system, one of the more powerful Immune Boosting agents that Ikon offers is called Thymosin Alpha. Thymosin Alpha is a peptide that is produced by the thymus gland, and it has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Thymosin Alpha can also help fight chronic viral diseases, support those who have autoimmune disorders, suppress infection and tumor growth, and help control inflammation with chronic diseases. Thymosin Alpha injections can be prescribed to help clients further strengthen their immune defense.