Can Nutrition And Lifestyle Behaviors Increase Immunity?


Remember the old saying “you are what you eat?” Can we control and prevent diseases with our diet?

In the United States, adults with COVID-19 with underlying lifestyle-related chronic diseases, including obesity, were more likely to be hospitalized and die from the disease.

A lot of research has been done on this subject: the immune system is essential for our health and well-being. An optimally functioning immune system is the body’s defense against pathogens.

There are many risk factors for an impaired immune system such as chronic stress, sedentary lifestyle, alcohol consumption, obesity, suboptimal nutrition, tobacco use and sleep deprivation. These risk factors decrease immune function, increase inflammation and increase risk of infectious disease.

There are six lifestyle behaviors to enhance immunity: adopt a healthy eating style, decrease stress, increase physical activity, avoid alcohol, sleep enough and treat tobacco use. I will talk about a few of these in the following paragraphs and leave you with some questions to ponder.

There are many dietary immune suppressors. Inflammation is directly linked to the immune system and is the root cause of many conditions. Processed sugar is an immune system suppressor and increases inflammation. High-fat meats and processed foods are also pro-inflammatory. There are several ways to adopt a healthy eating plan. Start by adding essential nutrients for the immune system, to include protein, vitamins, folic acid, iron, selenium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber. Protein is the building block of immune cells, while vitamin D and vitamin C can reduce inflammation. Greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, turmeric, ginger and garlic are all good sources of these nutrients. Talk to your dietitian or nutritionist about how to include some of these power foods in your diet.

Who among us has stress? If you answered yes to this question, you are not alone. Chronic stress leads to an increase in cortisol, which is pro-inflammatory. Increased cortisol increases your appetite, which may lead to increased sugar and fat intake, decreased exercise, insomnia and alcohol use. Some ways to combat stress are to practice gratitude, form healthy relationships, take time for exercise and meditation, adopt healthy eating habits and get enough sleep. Foods that may reduce stress are those high in magnesium, like avocados, bananas, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, spinach, and my favorite, dark chocolate.

How much physical activity are you participating in per week? Physical inactivity impairs immune function and leads to inflammation and increases risk of mortality, viral and bacterial infection, cognitive decline, frailty and decreased vaccine response. Sedentary behavior is associated with an increase in cardiovascular disease; cardiovascular mortality; Type 2 diabetes; and colon, endometrial or lung cancer.

The ways to combat inactivity are simply to get up and move. Studies have shown that exercise increases antibody production. Benefits from exercise are obtained with at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity.

Grab a friend, start a walking group. Participate in a physical activity if you are able. Join a gym if you are not already a member. Consult with a personal trainer. Dance. Swim, bike ride, learn to play pickleball with a friend. Pickleball can be a fun way to spend time with friends and get exercise too, and there are many places to learn and play at any age.

Alcohol misuse impairs immunity and significantly weakens our defenses. Alcohol reduces the body’s natural defenses, which in turn can increase inflammation. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol should be avoided.

How many hours of sleep are you getting per night? Poor sleep habits decrease the immune system’s ability to detect infectious agents and can promote low-grade inflammation. Studies show less than five to six hours of sleep per night can negatively impact immune function. Ways to combat sleeping problems are to establish a relaxing bedtime routine, and keep your bedroom dark, quiet and relaxing. Shut off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet. Avoid large meals and alcohol before bedtime.

Still smoking? Help is available to quit. Smoking influences immunity negatively. Nicotine is pro-inflammatory and immunosuppressive.

We can create health and happiness by how we live our lives. What do these six areas look like in your life? Are there any areas that could use some improvement? The time is now. If you need help in any of these areas, contact your health care provider or a professional who specializes in any area you may be struggling with. We are not an island. Reach out to friends, family, professionals, and help yourself create joy.


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