Your immune system is extremely complex and made up of specialized cells produced in your bone marrow that reside throughout your body in your skin, bloodstream, lymphatic tissue, spleen and other vital organs.
Its job is to respond to outside threats that touch or enter your body, and for most of us, it functions properly most of the time through a process called inflammation.
Yet sometimes it fails to detect a threat or is overwhelmed by one. Other times it overreacts to a substance that is not a threat or keeps up the fight long after the invader is no longer a threat, creating excess inflammation that leads to autoimmune disorders, allergies and can contribute to heart disease and other chronic issues.
Your immune system can be your savior or a destructive force — but you can take some control over it.
Research indicates that humans’ immune response may decline over time, in part, because of the presence of older, damaged immune cells that are not functioning as well as they used to and are not being replaced by new ones to defend against threats more efficiently.
How you can encourage the regeneration of immune cells sounds a lot like the other things you’re doing to stay healthy, so don’t sweat about this — coaching your immune system should only require a few tweaks to your lifestyle.
Diet — Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that have high nutrient value and are minimally processed helps your immune system, while eating sugar, red meat and refined carbs has a negative effect, according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Probiotic food contains healthy bacteria that maintain your gut and immune system, including fermented food such as kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso. Prebiotics are fibers that feed the healthy bacteria and are found in such vegetables as onions, artichokes, garlic, chicory, jicama and leeks.
Certain nutrients such as vitamins A, C, D and E are particularly helpful, and your health care provider could recommend you take a supplement to boost your dietary intake.
- Sleep — Getting seven to eight hours of sleep nightly encourages production of “natural killer” immune cells that fight infection, while sleeping for just four hours can trigger inflammation, according to the National Institutes for Health.
- Exercise — Regular, moderate to vigorous exercise helps to disperse immune cells throughout your bloodstream, reaching every nook and cranny of your body and stopping infections early enough to prevent or reduce the damage, a scientific review by the Journal of Sport and Health Science found. Intense exercise, however, could have a negative impact on immunity.
- Relax — Meditate or find other ways to counter the effects of stress; hormones released during times of stress disrupt the immune system’s processes, weakening it and making you more susceptible to infection, as well as depression and anxiety, according to researchers at the University of Illinois.
Stacy Lind, Katie Flood, Adelena Thompson, George Skirm and Andrea Boehland | Photo: Blushing Cactus Photography