During winter months, it is often hard to defend yourself against seasonal health problems. Colds, sore throats and flu are the most common and unwelcome guests. Yet there are various ways to strengthen the immune system and thus prevent illness. This article explains the importance of a strong immune system and suggests five measures that can help.
It has now been three years since Covid-19 began disrupting our lives. However, we have learnt something: our bodies are constantly under attack from all kinds of viruses, bacteria and parasites.
This is where the immune system comes into play, a defence mechanism of the body capable of recognising and eliminating pathogens that try to harm us. It is made up of a vast network of cells, organs and tissues that continuously distinguishes its own cells from foreign ones, in order to destroy dangerous invaders later.
Several factors weaken the immune system: negative calorie balance, sub-optimal nutritional levels, sedentariness, high psycho-physical stress, overtraining, lack of sleep, advancing age… But for almost everything there is a way to influence its functioning positively.
Strengthening the immune system therefore means supporting it in performing its essential protective actions. Let’s have a look at the different possibilities.
1. Physical activity
Let’s start with the method that is closest to our hearts at 2PEAK: physical activity! The first weapon to fight infection and disease is movement. Sedentary people are often more sickly and prey to viruses.
It has been proven by numerous scientists that exercise reduces the body’s inflammatory state, increases the number of white blood cells and strengthens them. In addition, it increases blood flow and helps the various systems expel bacteria from the airways. In short, the entire immune system is enhanced by exercise. Not only are we better protected against colds or sore throats, but the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, lung disease and depression is also reduced.
When we talk about physical activity, we do not necessarily mean competitive sport. You can also benefit from a simple walk, which is an excellent aerobic activity for our cardiovascular system. Or even a bike ride, or 20 minutes on the exercise bike, or taking the stairs instead of the lift. Basically, there are no excuses, any exercise is fine! The important thing is that it has to be constant and not sporadic, otherwise there will be no measurable benefits. If you are a beginner, start cautiously and increase the volume step by step: you should always train according to your athletic level to avoid the opposite effect, i.e. weakening your immune system.
That’s right, too much training can weaken our organism and make us more susceptible to pathogens. But why this phenomenon?
TOO MUCH PHYSICAL STRESS AND THE ‘OPEN WINDOW’ PHENOMENON
For high-level athletes, healthy immune functionality is essential, as it is closely related to sports performance. Infectious diseases are one of the main causes of stopping training, resulting in a forced adaptation of the training plan and the breakdown of hard-earned rhythm and fitness.
The stress of intense and prolonged physical activity, as in the case of endurance athletes, can lead to a weakening of the organism. At the end of strenuous training, one enters what is known as the ‘open window‘ phase, in which a state of immunodepression (the state of a patient who is found to have reduced immune defences for various causes) occurs. During this regenerative phase, viruses are more likely to affect the athlete’s body. If you do not allow your body enough recovery time, the ‘window’ will be widened and so the risk of falling ill will also increase.
However, excessive training is a phenomenon that mainly affects competitive athletes. Yet, amateur athletes should also be careful, because they are less used to physical exertion and therefore often do not know the recovery time required by their body as precisely.
At the same time, this does not mean that every intense physical activity leads to immunodepression, as immune efficiency is in any case optimised over time by constant movement. As always in life, the right balance must be found. It is not intense sport that weakens the system, but improper training, lacking the necessary recovery, proper nutrition and food supplementation.
A further method of developing the immune system is to follow a healthy, balanced diet. We should be able to obtain all the necessary nutrients through food, so that our body can perform its primary functions with ease.
Fun fact: about 80% of our immune system resides in the gut. Hence the importance of proper nutrition
A few tips:
- Choose quality, seasonal foods (we recommend cabbage, broccoli, pumpkin, mushrooms, turnips, radicchio).
- Add dried fruit, garlic and spices to your diet.
- Make sure there is enough vitamin C in your diet (found in oranges, kiwis and grapefruits for example).
- Take in enough protein (glycoproteins are a central part of the immune system). Also remember to vary your protein sources.
- Do not forget vitamin D, E, magnesium, zinc and iron.
- During intense physical exercise, remember to adequately replenish lost carbohydrates.
- Make sure you drink plenty during the day, about 2 litres: water also plays a central role in supporting the immune system, as hydration increases the body’s ability to excrete toxins and bacteria.
- Limit alcohol consumption, as the body is committed to detoxification and can no longer defend itself effectively against external pathogens. Smoking also upsets the balance of the immune system.
A balanced diet should be enough to obtain the micronutrients necessary for a well-functioning immune system. However, it may sometimes be worth taking supplements to support the system. It is always best to consult your doctor first. The supplement should not replace the diet, but be the ‘icing on the cake’ if all other parameters have been met.
It is well known that quality sleep has positive effects on life expectancy, athletic performance, morale and of course the immune system. Sleeping little or badly makes the antibodies more vulnerable and fatigued. In fact, during sleep, our organism re-processes ingested proteins to produce ‘glycoproteins’, which help to defeat pathogenic factors. As a result, people who do not get the recommended number of sleep hours (8), or who experience poor quality sleep, have a higher risk of developing diseases and infections.
It is often not easy to make work, family, sport and regular sleep coexist. But try to find the right balance, and don’t disdain afternoon naps if you get the chance, they can help fight infections!
We conclude this article with a further element that influences the stability of the immune system: stress.
A prolonged state of stress negatively influences our organism. In individuals suffering from anxiety, the production of hormones that weaken the functions of the immune system (such as cortisol) increases. This results in an enhanced vulnerability to viruses.
We cannot provide general rules to combat this feeling, as it is subjective to each individual. However, we can recommend some techniques to relieve tension:
- Breathing exercises.
- Physical activity → Sweating → Release of endorphins (hormones that “make you happy”).
- Yoga and meditation.
- Going outdoors: fresh air and nature always benefit our bodies and exposure to sunlight increases vitamin D levels. If you are always locked in a room, breathing the same air all day can raise your risk of illness.