Benefits of Immunity Support
There might be no bigger topic in health and fitness right now than immunity, or, rather, ensuring that one’s immune system is operating effectively and efficiently.
The immune system is a complex, intricate, and multi-faceted defense network tasked with preventing infection and/or identifying foreign micro-baddies, isolating them, and eliminating them post haste.
While we tend to think of the immune system as one vast system, it can be divided into two major division:
- Innate immune system
- Adaptive (or acquired) immune system
The innate immune system, alternatively called the “nonspecific” immune system, is the body's first line of defense against pathogens entering the body. It is a more generalized response that reacts the same way to all germs and foreign substances.
The adaptive immune system is more specific and takes charge of the battle against microscopic baddies if/when the innate immune system is not able to destroy the germs.
The adaptive immune system is comprised of:
- T lymphocytes
- B lymphocytes
The adaptive immune system is a bit slower to respond than the innate immune system the first time it encounters a new foreign invader. However, after a few days the adaptive immune system “learns” to recognize this pathogen and will be able to react more immediately the next time it encounters said ne’er-do-well.
Now that you’ve got a primer on what the immune system is and how it works, let’s get to the real focus of this article -- what are the best ways to support immune function so that it operates optimally.
How to Improve Immune Function:
Exercise is a powerful stressor to the body that imparts a number of beneficial changes to our biology, both mentally and physically. Regular physical activity supports cardiovascular health, improves mood, heightens cognitive function, and builds muscle.
Furthermore, it also supports immune function, and research shows an inverse relationship between between moderate exercise training and illness.
Basically, individuals who exercise regularly get sick less often compared to those who do not maintain consistent exercise habits.
This is due, in part, to the fact that exercise has a long-term anti-inflammatory effect on the body via multiple pathways (even though it causes short term inflammation locally in the muscles trained during a given workout).
Research also indicates that regular exercise may improve immune defense activity and metabolic health, and it may also delay the onset of age-related immune dysfunction.
Limit Alcohol Consumption
This likely doesn’t come as a surprise to many of you reading this.
If you want a healthy, properly functioning immune system, you will want to moderate your intake of alcohol.
The reason for this is that alcohol affects the structure and integrity of the GI tract, by altering the quantity and composition of your gut bacteria.
These organisms play a key role in the function of the immune system.
Excessive alcohol consumption also damages T cells and neutrophils in the GI system, both of which are important components of the immune response.
It is worth noting that research indicates that moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with either no risk or a decreased risk for upper respiratory infections.[4,5]
According to the 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “moderate drinking” is one drink per day for women and one to two standard drinks for men.
The takeaway here is that a drink here or there won’t seriously impair immune function, but excessive alcohol intake will. So, be smart if you choose to imbibe!
Get Enough Sleep
The importance of sleep cannot be emphasized heavily enough when it comes to supporting health, wellness, performance, and longevity.
Sleep affects so many facets of daily life, it’s simply astounding.
Not getting enough sleep is also one of the hardest stressors on the body and mind.
A systematic review of the scientific literature on the interactions between sleep and immune function concluded:
“In summary, chronic sleep deprivation can be seen as an unspecific state of chronic stress, which per se impacts immune functions and general health.”
Essentially, getting enough sleep every night of the week is vital to a healthy immune system.
Eat a Healthy Diet
No surprise here -- eating healthy supports immune function.
A healthy diet supplies the body with ample amounts of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols the body needs to support immune function.
Some of the top “superfoods” we like to include in our diet due to their high micronutrient content are:
- Spinach -- rich in vitamins A, C, and K1 as well as other key micronutrients including folic acid, iron, and calcium
- Broccoli -- rich in many micronutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, and potassium as well as powerful antioxidants like kaempferol and quercetin, which are known for their anti-allergic and antiviral activities
- Eggplant -- rich in anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid with antioxidant properties that also possesses immunomodulatory activities
- Berries -- high phytochemical and vitamin content which supports GI and immune health
This is just a sampling of some food choices that support health and wellness. Basically, try to focus on consuming whole foods (fruits, veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, etc.) and minimizing the amount of processed junk in your diet and you’re on the right track.
Supplement When Necessary
Supplements are there to help fill in the gaps in our diet that may develop as a result of our nutritional choices and/or intense training regimens (as the more intensely you train, the greater demands there are on your micronutrient reserves).
Now, it’s important to realize that you can’t supplement your way to optimal health or immune function, just the same that you can’t supplement your way to muscle growth or fat loss.
Supplements exist to enhance what you’re already doing within the constructs of your daily exercise, nutrition, and sleep habits.
Consuming adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols is essential for proper immune function. Plus, most people don’t consume enough fruit and veg each day anyway.
Key vitamins and minerals that are known to impact immune function and support host defense include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
These micronutrients can be obtained through the diet (as we alluded to throughout this article), but intense training can increase an athlete’s need for these key nutrients.
You’re only able to perform your best if your body has all of the essential nutrients it requires. This includes not only protein, carbs, and fats, but micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) too!
Enhancing immune function really boils down to following a set of daily habits/rituals that lay the foundation for optimal immune support.
The foundation of a healthy immune system is much like that for building muscle or losing fat -- getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet.
If you’ve got that in order, then you can look to further enhance things with the targeted use of supplements which fortify the body’s nutrient reserves and help it deal with the increased demand during times of high training stress and/or illness.
- InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. The innate and adaptive immune systems. [Updated 2020 Jul 30]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279396/
- Nieman, D. C., & Wentz, L. M. (2019). The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 8(3), 201–217. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009
- Sarkar D, Jung MK, Wang HJ. Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):153-155.
- Engs RC & Aldo-Benson M (1995) The association of alcohol consumption with self-reported illness in university students. Psychol Rep 76, 727–736
- Cohen S, Tyrrell DA, Russell MA, Jarvis MJ & Smith AP (1993) Smoking, alcohol consumption, and susceptibility to the common cold. Am J Public Health 83, 1277–1283.
- Americans, F. O. R. (2020). DIETARY GUIDELINES.
- Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012;463(1):121–137. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0