12 ways to keep your immune system happy and healthy

Family Health
Dec 10, 2020

St. Joseph’s/Candler Primary Care Physician Dr. Leslie Pittman explains the body’s immune system and why it’s important to protect it

When we’re in the sun, we use sun block. When we’re in the car, we put on our seat belt. But have you ever considered ways to protect your immune system?

With the COVID-19 pandemic and now flu season upon us, it’s never been more important to have a healthy immune system.

“It’s important any time of the year, but particularly right now with flu season and already dealing with the COVID pandemic, you need to aware of your immune system and live a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Leslie Pittman, primary care physician at St. Joseph’s/Candler Physician Network Primary Care in Statesboro.

Dr. Leslie Pittman

What is the immune system?

Our immune system is the body’s defense and repair system, Dr. Pittman explains. It fights against infection and also helps repair damage done from injuries.

The immune system is a network of cells, known as white blood cells, organs, such as the spleen, lymph nodes and other glands. They work together to identify and fight off infections from different kinds of germs, bacteria and viruses, Dr. Pittman says. They also help remove any injured cells and regulate the repair of injuries. The immune system additionally helps control allergic reactions.

“The immune system does a lot in the body,” Dr. Pittman adds.

And that’s why it’s so important to take steps to protect your immune system.

“You want to do everything you can to make sure you are protecting yourself from being exposed to infections to begin with, but also making sure your immune system is as healthy as you can make it because you don’t know how you’re going to respond to an illness until you have one,” Dr. Pittman says. “The other problem is that even if one person responds OK, they might pass it on to a friend or loved one who might not be able to handle it and become extremely ill or even die. It’s not just about protecting yourself but other people too.” 

Dr. Pittman recommends these 12 ways to keep your immune system happy and healthy:

  1. Wash your hands: When you wash your hands that limits the chances of introducing infection to places like the nose and mouth where it might get into the body and then the immune system has to fight it off, Dr. Pittman says. Be sure to use water and soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is OK.

    Related Article: Frequent and proper hand washing can help prevent illness

  2. Properly prepare foods: Be sure to wash fruits and vegetables before eating. When working with meat or eggs, cook them to the recommended temperature and always be aware of all surfaces your raw meat touches, especially chicken, so you don’t cross contaminate.

    Related Article:  Foodborne illnesses peak in the summer. Here’s what you can do about it.

  3. Wear your mask: Always wear your mask in public and around other people. The reason masks are so strongly recommended – and still required in most places – is because you are less likely to breathe in infections that might be airborne, says Dr. Pittman, while also protecting others.

  4. Get the appropriate vaccines: You can also help the immune system by getting any vaccines recommended for your age group and medical conditions. If you haven’t gotten your flu shot, now is the time to do so. Talk to your doctor about other vaccines, for conditions such as pneumonia or whooping cough, that you or your family members may need to protect your immune system.

  5. Eat a balanced, healthy diet: Your diet should include lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, which are high in vitamins. Especially look for ones high in vitamin C and antioxidants, which help fight off infection, Dr. Pittman recommends. Also include whole grains and lean proteins, such as chicken, turkey or fish, for a well-rounded diet.

  6. Limit sugar: It’s also important to not overdo it on the unhealthy foods, especially sugar. Too much sugar makes it harder for the immune system to do its job of fighting off infection and repairing the body, Dr. Pittman says. That’s one reason why people with diabetes have a problem with infection and are at higher risk of complications from viruses such as the flu or COVID, she adds.

    Related Article: St. Joseph’s/Candler dietitian offers tips to reduce sugar in your diet

  7. Exercise: Getting plenty of exercise is also recommended because it improves circulation and blood flow to keep things working properly. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week.  Exercise also helps reduce stress because it releases endorphins that generally make you happier and more relaxed.

  8. Decrease stress: Speaking of stress, it too can have an impact on your immune system. While it’s hard to avoid all stress – especially these days – it’s important to have some activities that help you relax, Dr. Pittman says. Consider listening to music, doing a favorite hobby, exercising, prayer or meditation.

  9. Get plenty of sleep: Getting enough sleep also is important to the immune system because it gives your body a chance to recover and repair itself. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body can’t catch up, Dr. Pittman says. Adults should aim for seven or eight hours of good sleep a night, while teenagers need closer to 10 and toddlers and young children need around 12 hours. Good sleep means taking care of conditions, such as sleep apnea, that might keep you awake and turning off the TV and putting down the phone.

    Related Article: Is technology disrupting your sleep?

  10. Stop smoking: Nicotine of any kind, but particularly cigarette smoking, causes a lot of damage to the body, Dr. Pittman says. This forces the immune system to expend a lot of energy trying to repair that damage. Smoking also makes you more prone to infection, practically lung and sinus infections, because the immune system has such a large burden to deal with, Dr. Pittman says. 

    Infographic: Eight reasons to stop smoking now

  11. Limit alcohol intake: Too much alcohol also can have a strain on the immune system. The daily recommended limit for women is one drink or less per day and two drinks or less per day for men.

  12. Be aware of your current medications: There are certain medications that can suppress the immune system. That doesn’t mean to not take them. Never stop taking a medication without consulting with your doctor. What you can do is be aware if your medications are affecting your immune system. If so, take steps – like all the ones above – to limit possible exposure to infections and viruses. 

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