HCA North Florida Division - February 08, 2021
by Daniel G. Snediker, MD; Site Medical Director, Poinciana ER

The immune system is a critical network of biological processes that helps protect your body from diseases. In addition to detecting viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungus and other pathogens, the immune system can also identify cancer cells and foreign objects.

While our immune systems are naturally equipped to do their job, we can take certain steps to help give them a “boost.” The first, and perhaps the most important step, is to avoid smoking. Tobacco suppresses antibodies and immune cells, lowers levels of antioxidants in the blood, and paralyzes hair cells in the respiratory tract – all of which are important to a quick immune system response.

Another step we can take is to reduce our alcohol consumption. Ingesting a lot of alcohol frequently impairs the function of neutrophils (the frontline fighters against infection) and macrophage (scavengers who eat up infecting germs and cells), and it also reduces the ability for epithelial cells to make a proper barrier between the inside and outside of your body, leaving it vulnerable to viruses. Long-term, chronic alcohol abuse can lead to significant alterations in the immune system, predisposing people to viral and bacterial infections and even cancer development. For this reason, severe chronic alcoholics are often considered to be immunocompromised.

Regular exercise is an immune-boosting practice that improves your overall health and wellness. Physical activity gets our blood pumping, thus increasing circulation of immune cells and decreasing inflammation in the body. Remember that everything (even exercise) should be done in moderation to avoid over-taxing your body. Routine exercise also helps address obesity – which negatively impacts immunity by inhibiting the production of white blood cells. An abundance of fat cells can also infiltrate places where immune cells are made and stored, like the spleen and bone marrow.

Improved immunity also results from getting adequate sleep. Cytokines, a category of signaling molecules that mediate and regulate immunity, inflammation and hematopoiesis, are released during sleep. If we don’t catch enough Z’s, then our bodies can’t produce enough immune cells. Just like you may feel groggy without sleep, sleep is also required to strengthen the immune system’s memory.

Chronic stress can take a negative toll across the body due to the production of stress hormones, which lower the effectiveness of our immune system and increase inflammation. Additionally, stress can lead to a reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms – like smoking and drinking. When you’re feeling stressed, take one minute to let out some deep belly laughs. It may feel silly, but laughter reduces our stress hormones and increases our immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies. One minute of anger weakens the immune system for five hours. One minute of laughter, on the other hand, strengthens our immune system for a full 24 hours.

What you eat also has an impact on the immune system. Include immune-boosting foods like citrus fruits, kiwi, red peppers, broccoli and spinach into your diet. Garlic, ginger, yogurt with live cultures, almonds, turmeric and chicken soup are some other foods that pack a punch when it comes to immunity.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, the health of our hardworking immune system is more important than ever. Taking care of your immune system by avoiding unhealthy habits, getting plenty of rest, managing stress levels, being current on available vaccinations (including the COVID-19 vaccine whenever it is available to you), and eating a healthy diet  helps ensure your immune system can effectively do its job in taking care of you too.