Boosting Your Body’s Natural Defences

Our immune system needs to operate in a very delicate balance. It needs to be strong and vibrant to be able to tackle diverse pathogens and infections, but it should also be tamed so that it does not overreact unnecessarily

For most of us, the idea of a weak immune system is a cause for alarm, and the pandemic has intensified our attempts to, if not overcome, then at least snooze this concern. However, so far these attempts have proven elusive for several reasons. The most basic reason is that the immune system is a system, not a single entity. In simple words, there isn’t any silver bullet to rejuvenate weak immunity.

Our immune system needs to operate in a very delicate balance. It needs to be strong and vibrant to tackle diverse pathogens and infections, but it should also be tamed to an extent to which it doesn’t overreact unnecessarily.

When it comes to the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response, there aren’t any scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and immune function. However, with the ever-evolving studies regarding effects of lifestyle on the immune system, researchers are exploring the impact of exercise, age, psychological stress, diet and other factors on the immune response, both in animals as well as in humans.

Products on store shelves that claim to boost immunity are sold like hotcakes. The Indian dietary supplement market was valued at $3924.44 million in FY2020 and is predicted to grow over a CAGR of 16 per cent till FY2027, according to research by Research and Markets. According to a Mintel report, Covid prompted 45 per cent of European consumers to add more nutrients to their diets, while 29 per cent were more interested in immune-boosting foods since the pandemic. This is also visible in India, where sales of Chawanprash, Honitus (kaadha), and honey increased by 694 per cent, 80 per cent and 60 per cent respectively in the first quarter of 2020.

On the contrary, boosting immunity makes little sense scientifically, as boosting immunity in turn boosts the number of cells in one’s body (immune cells or others), which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Consider athletes who are involved in “blood doping.” With blood pumped into their systems, such athletes boost a number of blood cells, making themselves susceptible to the risk of strokes.

Moreover, the complexity comes from different cells responding to different microbes in so many different ways. Thankfully, there is some evidence that deficiency of some micronutrients like zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E alter immune responses in animals. However, the impact of these immune system changes on health isn’t very conspicuous.

Our immune system is composed of various organs, cells and proteins that collectively function to safeguard our body from external invaders like germs, bacteria, toxins, viruses, and fungi.

There are two main parts of the immune system:

The innate immune system. This is something you are born with (genetics). It’s the first line of defence against invaders, using cells (called phagocytes) to surround and kill them.

 The adaptive immune system. It is developed over a period of time as the body is exposed to harmful microbes. Your body makes special proteins (called antibodies) to protect you from more specific invaders.

In both innate (general) and adaptive (specific) immune responses, vitamins and nutrients play a vital role, but supplements aren’t intended to replace food.

As health isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, the following are ways to help strengthen your immune system and help your body naturally defend itself against any illness:

Time to cast aside vices: Smoking cigarettes is not only injurious to health but it also leads to inefficient immunity. This is because of the harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke. Likewise, excessive alcohol also impairs the function of immune cells. As a result, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption strengthens the immune system. A reduction in sugar consumption also comes in handy. It not only tones down body inflammation but also ensures weight loss, which in turn reduces the peril of developing other health conditions.

Stay up-to-date on recommended vaccines: The adaptive immune system concocts antibodies to fight the diabolic pathogens. Vaccines imitate an infection and work with the adaptive response to develop immunity. It is much safer for the immune system to learn through vaccination than through infection with harmful pathogens. It is also time to bust the myth that vaccines weaken the immune system by imitating an infection. They rather complement the immune system to make it stronger.

Nurture Your Gut: Your gut is the base camp for your immunity army. Hence, a well-nourished gut is imperative for optimum function of the immunity soldiers. Vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, iron and protein are some of the vitamins and nutrients known to improve immune cell production. But doctors usually underline that consuming healthy foods with micronutrients is always better than taking supplements separately. 

Hence, consolidate your immune system with a balanced diet of whole fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. The antioxidants in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes also reinforce the body’s natural defences. Becoming a probiotic pro also enhances the health of our gut flora, which further reinforces our immunity against illness.

Use the snooze: The best way to identify a healthy sleep pattern is by asking oneself, “Do I feel energetic and well-rested with whatever sleep I had?” The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep between seven and nine hours per night. However, it also recognises that sleeping patterns differ for every individual.

The circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) can be moulded as per the schedule, but the chronotype (the tendency of your body to sleep at a certain time) is more biologically ingrained, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Hence, the quality of sleep and immunity go hand in hand, as inadequate sleep can suppress the immune system and yield susceptibility to illness. Hence, it is better to hit that snooze button and complete your sleep quota than recklessly dwell in a sleep-deprived day.

Say no to Hydration on a Vacation: The immune health is dependent on the flowing nutrients through the bloodstream. Like our body, our bloodstream too is made up of mostly water. Water is vital because our blood and lymph, which contain immune cells, require water for circulation throughout our bodies. The lymphatic system drains the pathogens. Being an older adult, it is even more imperative to drink adequate water, as the body’s ability to signal to your brain that you are thirsty may wane.

Break-up with the breaking point: Studies have revealed that prolonged chronic stress can significantly raise body inflammation and suppress our immune system. Overcoming stress is a cumbersome task. However, when the back is against the wall, holding one’s horses and referring to healthy coping methods like indulging in various hobbies, reaching out to loved ones, exercising, resting and reading, meditation, journaling, etc. can prove handy.

If one thing doesn’t work out, opt for new things and stay social, as appropriate socialising can leave you feeling happy and rejuvenated.

Lace up your sneakers: As per recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moderate-intensity exercise with two days of strength training acts as a tool for boosting immune health and reducing the peril of developing chronic disease.

With this, the myth that the immune system is suppressed by intense exercise needs to be busted. In fact, exercise acts as immune surveillance by monitoring the processes of your immune system, as regular exercise enables immune cells to be more efficient at detecting and reacting to infection.

Moderate exercises also help reduce inflammation and aid in the effective regeneration of immune cells. Regular exercise can, in turn, help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. This decreases one’s chances of catching a cold, the flu, or other illnesses.

Moreover, physical activities like dancing, can condition an individual to moderate, eliminate, or avoid tension and chronic fatigue; this benefit can also be reaped for stress mitigation. 

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