It’s that time of year when your immune system is forced to fight extra hard to keep you healthy. Rhinoviruses (the cause of the common cold) peak in spring and fall and influenza is common in winter, so you’re more likely to get sick during the cold weather months.
If you do, it’s important to boost your immune system to help you recover quickly.
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What is the immune system?
Before you can boost your immune system, you should know what it is you’re trying to strengthen. So what is it, exactly? The immune system is your body’s defense—it keeps germs out and helps to destroy any that make it in.
It is made up of a complex network of cells and organs that protect the body from infection, including lymph nodes and vessels, the spleen, bone marrow, adenoids and tonsils, blood vessels, Peyer’s patches and the thymus.
Here are the roles of a few of these major players that fight infection and disease. Lymph nodes, small organs located throughout the body, are responsible for storing immune cells.
The spleen, located next to the stomach, holds white blood cells. And bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside some bones like the hip and thigh bones, produces blood cells.
How to boost your immune system
- Start with a supplement.
Zinc, selenium and vitamin D are known for boosting the immune system. In fact, studies show that zinc can reduce the duration of the common cold if taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.
For any supplement, be sure to follow the directions on the bottle and take in moderation.
- Eat the right foods.
Your immune system needs plenty of nutrients and vitamins, in particular selenium; vitamins A, B2, B6, C, D and E; and zinc. A well-rounded diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables should cover your bases.
- Cut back on hand sanitizer.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but some hand sanitizers with lower concentrations of alcohol (below 60 percent) may cause germs to become resistant. Regular soap and water is more effective in removing germs, bacteria in particular.
- Drink more fluids.
Water is essential for flushing toxins from vital organs and it helps build muscles by carrying more oxygen to cells.
How to strengthen your immune system
There are everyday lifestyle choices that you can make to keep your immune system strong.
- Avoiding smoking
- Maintaining a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Keeping yourself at a healthy weight
- Drinking alcohol in moderation
- Reducing stress
- Getting the recommended amount of sleep each night, typically seven to nine hours for adults and more for children and teenagers
Immune system disorders
When the immune system fails, it is called an immune system disorder. These tend to fall into three categories:
This occurs when one or more parts of the immune system don’t function properly. Causes can include age, obesity and alcoholism, as well as heredity.
- Autoimmune disorders
Under normal conditions, the immune system only responds to microorganisms, like viruses and bacteria. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system makes a mistake and attacks the very cells that it is meant to protect.
Some of these autoimmune disorders include celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Graves’ disease, chronic Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.
This is an exaggerated response by the immune system to what is usually a harmless substance. Hypersensitivity can be benign, such as an allergy to pollen or mold, or it can cause a life-threatening anaphylactic response to something as common as peanuts or bee stings.
Signs of a weak immune system
If you think that you may be suffering from a weak immune system, here are some things to look for:
- Cold hands, which may be a symptom of inflamed blood vessels that cause the fingers, toes, ears and nose to feel cool all the time
- Diarrhea that lasts as long as four weeks
- Dry eyes
- Extreme fatigue that sleep does very little to alleviate
- Mild fever
- Consistent headaches
- Lingering rash
- Persistent aching joints
- Patchy hair loss
- Repeated infections
Evaluation usually begins with a blood test and is used to diagnose immune deficiencies; additional tests can help to diagnose hypersensitivity and autoimmune disorders. The results will determine your treatment.
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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.