The main job of the body’s immune system is to protect you from infection and disease. It does so by attacking whatever it perceives as an invader (antigens), such as bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, and allergens.
The process of protecting and defending your body from invasion consists of four steps. The immune system will:
- Recognize something foreign or invasive in the body.
- Summon the immune cells to the area of the invasive element.
- Attack the invader and drive it from the body.
- Signal the immune cells to stop attacking after the invader is gone.
This series of natural and involuntary steps is called the immune response, and it is the primary objective of the body’s defense system.
OPTIMIZING YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM’S ABILITY TO FUNCTION
The main components of the immune system are white blood cells (leukocytes), antibodies (chemicals secreted by white blood cells), the lymphatic system (a network of vessels that drain excess fluid and waste from the body), and certain organs such as your bone marrow, spleen, tonsils, and appendix.
Contrary to common belief—and to the claims of a wide variety of products on the market that promise to “boost” the immune system—the human body doesn’t really need a lot of help. On its own, the immune system does an admirable job of defending you against disease. Occasionally it fails, allowing a germ to successfully invade your body. That’s when you get sick—with anything from a sore throat to the flu to cancer.
Researchers have long sought ways to strengthen the immune system in the hope of reducing or eliminating disease through lifestyle changes. While there is still no scientifically proven link between lifestyle and improved immune function, there is one generally accepted practice that experts can agree on: to give your immune system a fighting chance, adopt as many good health guidelines as you can.
Every part of your body, including the immune system, can benefit from the following:
- Don’t smoke.
- Eat a diet rich in vitamins and minerals from natural sources.
- Exercise your body for at least 30 minutes at least three times a week.
- Maintain a healthy weight and body mass index (BMI).
- Drink alcohol only in moderation.
- Drink plenty of water and avoid beverages high in caffeine and sugar.
- Get 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
- Try to minimize stress.
- Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently.
- Get an annual vaccine for pneumonia and the flu.
YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM AS YOU AGE
As we get older, our immune systems weaken, making us more susceptible to infections, chronic illness and cancers. People over 65 are also more likely to become sick from infectious diseases and are more likely to die from them. These diseases include respiratory infections, pneumonia, influenza, and of course, COVID-19.
Sometimes as people age, they begin to lose interest in eating, becoming more finicky and having less appetite. Yet skipping meals or eating the same foods every day can cause anyone, at any age, to become vitamin deficient, leading to weight loss, declining vigor, and a weakened immune system.
If you are over 65, in addition to the good health guidelines outlined above, plan an annual checkup to review your diet with your doctor. They can determine whether you might need a dietary supplement, or they may refer you to a nutritionist or dietician for recommendations on keeping your micronutrients, essential vitamins, and trace minerals up to par.
NO MAGIC FORMULA OR PILL
There are many products sold over-the-counter at health food stores or through late-night television commercials. Sold as pills or herbal preparations, the labels promise to “support immune function” or boost the immune system simply by swallowing a daily pill. To date, there is no scientific evidence that any herbal preparation or pill can alter your immunity to the point where you’ll never get sick again. If you believe a certain product or supplement can assist your overall good health or fill in any gaps in your nutritional intake, by all means talk about it with your doctor. But don’t believe everything you read or see on late night television.
“How to Boost Your Immune System.” Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system
“Immune System Overview.” The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Accessed July 2020. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/immune-system-overview
“Quick Facts: Overview of the Immune System.” Merck Manual Consumer Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/quick-facts-immune-disorders/biology-of-the-immune-system/overview-of-the-immune-system#
Delves, Peter J., PhD. “Overview of the Immune System.” Merck Manual Consumer Version. Last full review/revision April 2020. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/immune-disorders/biology-of-the-immune-system/overview-of-the-immune-system