In 2020, we focused more on protecting our immune systems than ever before. We learned the importance of washing our hands regularly, not touching our faces and wearing masks in order to protect ourselves and especially others from COVID-19.
Luckily, all of these habits also help shield us from wintertime threats like the flu and the common cold. But in addition to practicing all of the above, it’s important to take big-picture actions to strengthen your immune system. Let’s discuss.
What is the immune system?
Your immune system is a highly organized and mobile unit designed to fight for you. The immune system can be difficult to visualize. You know what the heart looks like and how it beats. But your immune system is just that—a system. It involves a variety of cells (and messages between them) that patrol your entire body on a microscopic level.
How does the immune system work?
When your body faces an outside threat, like a bacteria or virus, this defense system acts. When you have a cold, for example, your immune system sends in cells to fight. The result of that fight is what you see or feel—coughing, a runny nose, inflammation, fever.
Oftentimes, your immune cells have a memory of their encounter with an invader that can stay in the body for years. The cells’ memories call forth a response that can vanquish the virus whenever it appears. This is why you can only get some infections (like mononucleosis or the measles) once.
How do vaccines work?
Vaccines are designed to stimulate your body’s built-in defenses without exposing you to the full-blown disease.
They do this by introducing an altered version of the virus—one that makes your immune system think you are being attacked by a fully active virus when you are not. This revs up your immune system to produce neutralizing antibodies that stop the virus from attaching to your cells.
How can I improve my immune system?
Your immune system loses some of its juice after you turn 50. But regardless of your age, it’s important to keep your immune system in tip-top shape with these strategies:
- Get quality sleep. Poor sleep is associated with decreased immune function and decreased rates of vaccine efficacy.
- Manage your stress. Chronic stress can cause a cascade of hormonal responses that weaken your immune function over time.
- Eat well. It’s no secret that fruits and vegetables are nature’s best protective medicine.
- Exercise. Movement has the unique power to boost your immune function.
- Kick bad habits to the curb. Avoid smoking and only drink alcohol in moderation.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
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