Put simply, it’s your immune system’s job to defend your body against illness and disease. The complex system is made up of cells in your skin, blood, bone marrow, tissues, and organs that — when working the way they should — protect your body against potentially harmful pathogens (like bacteria and viruses).
Think of the immune system as an orchestra. For the best performance, you want every instrument and every musician in the orchestra to perform at its best. You don’t necessarily want one musician performing on double speed or one instrument suddenly producing sound at twice the volume it usually does. You want every component of that orchestra to perform exactly according to plan.
- Eat a Healthy Diet
The nutrients you get from food — in particular, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices — are essential to keeping your immune system functioning properly, according to Yufang Lin, MD, an integrative medicine doctor at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “Many plant-based foods also have antiviral and antimicrobial properties, which help us fight off infection,” Dr. Lin says.
- Keep Stress Under Control
According to a review published in the October 2015 issue of Curren Opinion in Psychology, long-term stress leads to chronically elevated levels of as the steroid hormone cortisol. The body relies on hormones like cortisol during short-term bouts of stress (when your body goes into “fight-or-flight” response); cortisol has a beneficial effect of actually preventing the immune system from responding before the stressful event is over (so your body can react to the immediate stressor). But when cortisol levels are constantly high, it essentially blocks the immune system from kicking into gear and doing its job to protect the body against potential threats from germs like viruses and bacteria.
- Get Plenty of Good Quality Sleep
Your body heals and regenerates while you seep, making adequate sleep critical for a healthy immune response, Lin says. More specifically, sleep is a time when your body produces and distributes key immune cells like cytokines (a type of protein that can either fight or promote inflammation), T cells (a type of white blood cell that regulates immune response), and interleukin 12 (a pro-inflammatory cytokine), according to a review published in Pflugers Archiv European Journal of Pysiology.
- Exercise Regularly (Outdoors, When Possible)
Regular exercise lowers your risk of developing chronic diseases (like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease), as well as viral and bacterial infections, according to a review.
Exercise also increases the release of endorphins (a group of hormones that reduce pain and create feelings of pleasure) making it a great way to manage stress. “Since stress negatively impacts our immune system, this is another way exercise can improve immune response,” Lin says.