There’s no scientifically proven link between lifestyle choices and a subsequently improved immune system. In spite of this knowledge, medical professionals believe maintaining general healthy habits to be the best way to make sure our immune systems continue to do what they do best.
These habits include getting adequate sleep, eating well, exercising and eliminating stress in our daily lives. We live in an especially uncertain period in time, and after Fordham sent its students home for the rest of the semester, many of us see our adjustment to online classes and a life without regular social interaction as major stressors. However, the change of pace in our lives may offer us an opportunity to capitalize on healthy habits that will ensure the capabilities of our immune systems.
As simple as it sounds, sleep is an integral part of maintaining a healthy immune system. A lack of sleep causes a rise in the chemical cortisol to keep one alert, which may negatively affect the immune system. In contrast, the body releases cytokines while one sleeps, and these molecules are important in the immune response against infections.
Getting adequate sleep is an important part of general health as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, getting less than seven hours of sleep can negatively impact your health through an increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, depression and high blood pressure. Sleep is restorative for the body in that it fosters long-term memory storage and regulates hormone levels in addition to other processes that enable you to recover from a long day.
Sleep is also an excellent way to destress. Setting a regular bedtime can add structure to your day, especially when our lives lack much of the structure we used to rely on. The Mayo Clinic recommends that adults get around seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Making sleep a priority may preserve your general health as well as maintain optimal immune function.
Beyond benefitting the immune system, exercise aids cardiovascular health and lowers blood pressure. For this reason, exercise may improve the circulation of immune cells throughout the body. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, one theory behind the link between exercise and the immune system involves the increased respiration that occurs during exercise. It’s possible that the heavy breathing during exercise may flush out bacteria and viruses in the airways.
Exercise also increases body temperature for a short period of time, which may produce a similar effect to a fever — that is, it may hinder the growth of bacteria. The release of stress hormones — which may interfere with optimal immune function— decreases with exercise.
Consistent moderate exercise is more likely to have a positive effect on the immune system than bouts of strenuous exercise. Moreover, the U.S. National Library of Medicine advises against exercising more to increase immunity if you already work out regularly. In the same vein as sleep, setting a workout schedule can help combat stress and provide us the comfort of a set schedule in a time of uncertainty.
Melanie Simeone, Fordham’s registered dietician of five years, offered some general nutritional guidance that may help maintain immunity. With a B.S. in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta, as well as 1,200 supervised practice hours from the University of Delaware, she is experienced in clinical nutrition, food service and nutrition education.
According to Simeone, eating particular foods won’t prevent disease, but maintaining a well-balanced diet can support optimal immune function. Protein, fruits, vegetables and water are all components of a well-balanced diet.
Protein provides the raw materials our cells rely on to work well. According to Simeone, “Good protein sources include lean meats, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products, eggs, beans and lentils.”
Phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables may help support the immune system in addition to reducing inflammation and preventing chronic disease. These nutrients are also responsible for the color and flavor of fruits and vegetables. “By eating a diet rich in color (carrots, dark leafy greens, berries or mushrooms etc.), you will get a wider spectrum of nutrients,” Simeone said.
The last component of an immune-sustaining diet is water. Hydration has numerous benefits, one of which includes aiding our bodies’ ability to flush out pathogens and toxins. Simeone advises that if you’re wondering how much water is enough, calculate half your body weight and consume that number of ounces of water per day. That is, if you weigh 130 pounds, you should be drinking 65 ounces of water a day, which is equivalent to about four tall glasses of water.
Eating healthy is super important for the immune system because there are many food options that can be a detriment to our immune systems. Simeone emphasized that processed and sugar-rich foods, as well as alcohol, don’t provide much nutritional benefit and are pro-inflammatory. Specifically, these foods may negatively impact our sleep, increase our cortisol levels and prevent immune cells from carrying out essential defense functions.
Stress can have a major impact on the immune system, which is not great news to receive during highly stress-inducing times like the current moment. It’s important to deal with stress in a productive manner because not only can stress hormones affect the immune system but more importantly the coping mechanisms we may use to alleviate stress can impact our bodies’ lines of defenses.
It’s difficult to research stress and the immune system because stress and stressors are hard to define. It’s even harder to model them in research. For this reason, the direct link between stressors and the immune system is unclear.
Assistant Director of University Health Services Mary Ann O’Shea advises students to avoid behaviors like alcohol, tobacco and other drug use in spite of stress, since these sources of relief may come at a detriment to our ability to fight infections. Rather, O’Shea recommends that we indulge in habits like getting better sleep, exercising regularly, eating well and meditating.
For more individualized advice, Melanie Simeone is available to work with students virtually. Her contact information is available at www.fordham.campusdish.com.