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How to strengthen your immune system for better health, fewer sick days this winter

Ways to recharge your immune system as during colder months.
Ways to recharge your immune system as during colder months.

As respiratory illnesses – such as influenza, COVID-19 and RSV – have continued to increase in recent months, it seems as if our immune systems have received more attention than ever. However, many unhealthy behaviors brought on by the pandemic make it harder for our bodies to fight off infections.

Here are some tips on maintaining a balanced immune system that can protect you this season:

Immune health is all about balance

The first line of defense is a healthy lifestyle. These factors can put you at risk:

Risks of poor nutrition

Eating too much, or too little, can be harmful. Ensure you include enough healthy foods in your diet, and avoid consuming too many items that are low in fiber or high in fat, salt and/or sugar. Unhealthy eating can contribute to the risk of developing health problems and even some illnesses:

Eating well supports your immune system

No supplement will cure or prevent disease. However, a proper diet can help prepare the body to better fight disease.

"The thing about foods is that they combine a bunch of nutrients and vitamins into a complete package," said Sandra Darling, a preventive medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic. "You can't extract one compound like antioxidant green tea and just take that one compound and expect to have benefits. It doesn't work like that."

Make sure to include fresh fruits and vegetables in your daily diet. Don't forget about whole grains and nuts.

Vitamin C can stimulate the production of white blood cells, which are key to fighting infections. Citrus fruits, strawberries, red bell peppers and kiwis are rich in vitamin C. With such a variety, it’s easy to add foods high in this nutrient to any meal. However, high doses of some vitamins can be toxic, especially when taken regularly.

Don't forget to drink plenty of water. Try to avoid snacking irregularly. If you snack, choose fresh fruits and raw vegetables rather than foods high in sugar, salt, or fat.

"Pack carrot sticks, pack almonds," said Erin Michos, a preventive cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. "I'm a snacker, so I'm not going to tell you not to snack. I am just going to say snack on things that are good for your body, that boost your immunity."

It's important to maintain your weight within healthy ranges. One of the measures that can help in measuring and interpreting your weight is body mass index. A BMI from 18.5 to 24.9 is considered to be within a healthy range. Fat cells are not just passive reservoirs of energy but can secrete hormones that increase inflammation making overweight people more vulnerable to diseases. Making meal plans and scheduling food intake in advance can help to keep weight under control. Especially for those who work remotely, where the temptation to snack is higher.

Dealing with sleep deprivation

Studies indicate that sleep plays a crucial role in the functioning of the immune system. Breathing and muscle activity slow down, freeing up energy for the body to fight off illness.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults ages 18 to 60 sleep at least seven hours each night. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep.

Insufficient sleep makes it more likely one will catch the common cold or the flu. A study showed that people who sleep less than six or seven hours per night have a higher risk of infection in the short term.

Research shows creating a good sleep routine is essential for a good night's sleep and helping your immune system. Limit the amount of caffeine and alcohol you consume before bed. Alcohol can make you sleepy but can affect your sleep cycle. Caffeine can cause you to feel wired, making it hard to fall asleep. Darling recommends avoiding electronic screens for at least 60 minutes before sleep.

Create a sleep schedule. Having consistent cues before bed can play a large role in your nighttime routine. Brushing your teeth, reading a book and other activities can give your body signs it's time for you to wind down for the day.

Exercise as a tool to help immune system

Moderate exercise improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure and helps control body weight. It also promotes the circulation of the cells and substances of the immune system, which allows them to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently.

Unfortunately, only about 1 in 5 adults and teens get enough exercise to maintain good health, according to the American Heart Association. Here is how a lack of activity can affect the body and lower your immune response:

Ways to boost your immunity

Moderate physical activity is recommended to combat obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Health experts recommend a moderate-intensity exercise routine, two to three times a week, for up to 45 minutes for good immune health. Try to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or 30 minutes, five days a week. Maintaining an exercise routine might be particularly essential for the elderly.

However, avoid pushing yourself too hard for too long. Prolonged (more than 1.5 hours) intense exercise performed without food intake can temporarily suppress your immune system, providing the opportunity for infections to take hold. To determine whether the exercise is moderate or vigorous, you can use the "talk test."

"When you're doing a moderate activity like brisk walking, you can talk but you can't sing," Darling said. "And then if you are doing vigorous physical activity, like swimming laps, or jogging or playing tennis, you would not be able to talk or sing."

How stress can affect your immune system?

Chronic stress can have a ripple effect on a person's health.

Stress causes your body to release cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone. Increased cortisol levels in the bloodstream can cause inflammation, which alters how your body's immune system responds to infections. Moreover, long-term inflammation promotes imbalances in immune cell function and can even suppress immune response. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to stress on the immune system.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, controlling stress is key to improving your immune system. Here's how stress can affect the body:

Stress relief activities to keep you calm and relaxed

Once you know your triggers – workloads, kids, or relationships – you can make small changes can help manage your stress levels. Here are a few modifications to help reduce your stress:

If you can't minimize stress, make sure to have a coping mechanism that works for you, says Michos, the preventive cardiologist from Johns Hopkins. Some activities that may help you manage stress include meditation, exercise, journaling, yoga, and other mindfulness practices. Stay away from adverse coping mechanisms like smoking or drinking too much alcoholSmoking can weaken your body's defenses.

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis or having thoughts of suicide, go to an emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site, nami.org, for additional resources.

Overall, maintaining a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, engaging in regular physical activity, and keeping stress down are some of the most important ways to help keep your immune system healthy and reduce your chances of infection and disease.

SOURCE Healthline.com; John Hopkins Medicine; Mayo Clinic; Stress.org and USA TODAY research

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Immune system down in the winter? Try these tips to get it stronger