The market for immune support products has grown significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic. And while there is certainly a role for vitamins & supplements to play, it's important to remember that nothing can replace the benefits of healthy lifestyle choices for long-term immune health.
In this guide, we break down the four pillars of a healthy immune system plus tips to help you work them into your daily routine (if you aren't already).
If you can establish good habits in these areas, you will build the foundation for a strong immune system.
The Four Pillars of a Healthy Immune System
- Stress Management
Sleep is critical to healthy immune function. Studies show people who don't get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus.
According to Sleep Habits and Susceptibility Study, "Individuals who report getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night are almost 3x more likely to become infected by the rhinovirus (common cold) relative to those who sleep more than 8 hours".
Yes, you read that right, "3x more likely" to get sick!
How much sleep do you need?
Adults should strive to get somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Where you fall within that range depends on your personal sleep needs. (Here is a sleep chart from the CDC that gives recommended hours of sleep by age range)
Tip: To determine your specific sleep needs, keep a daily journal logging how long you sleep each night. Then record how you felt on that amount of sleep. Did you feel tired, energized, etc.? Do this for 1 - 2 weeks to find your sweet spot.
It's not just time spent asleep that matters. The quality of your sleep is just as important.
When we sleep, we cycle through 3 different types of sleep: light sleep, deep sleep & REM sleep. All 3 types are important, but it is deep sleep that is critical for immune health.
According to the sleep foundation, somewhere between 13% and 23% of your total sleep should be in deep sleep.
How to Track Deep Sleep
Wearable devices such as a Fitbit, Oura Ring, & Whoop can help you track your sleep. Each of these devices will tell you how long you slept & breakdown the time spent in each sleep cycle.
TIP: Not getting enough deep sleep? The following strategies are thought to help encourage deep sleep: Establishing a consistent sleep routine, Eye mask to block out light, Sleep in a cool room, Listen to white or pink noise
To recap, the quantity & quality of your sleep are both critical to healthy immune function. You should aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night with 13% to 23% of that sleep spent in a deep sleep cycle.
Good nutrition is a cornerstone for your overall health, as well as your immune health.
There are many foods known for their immune benefits like citrus fruits, bell peppers & garlic. It's a good idea to include these foods in your diet, especially when you are feeling rundown or on the verge of getting sick. (EatingWell offers several recipe ideas for immune-boosting meals, such as soups, salads, smoothies, and more.)
But in general, you don't need to go overboard & prioritize these foods above other healthy options.
A balanced diet that focuses on nutrient-dense whole foods is all you need. This means fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible, as well as lean proteins like fish & poultry, and healthy fats likes nuts & seeds.
TIP: Plan ahead! Set aside time each week to plan out your meals for the upcoming days. Meal planning is a great way to ensure you're getting the nutrition your body needs each day without having to think too much about it when hunger strikes!
And don't forget to hydrate! Water is critical to immune health because it helps flush toxins from the body and keep cells healthy.
Mild dehydration can cause our body to produce stress hormones, which can lead to inflammation and increased susceptibility to infections. Proper hydration, on the other hand, can help reduce inflammation in the body.
Drinking adequate amounts of water and keeping the body hydrated can help support the immune system to fight off infections and diseases effectively.
The recommended daily water intake for adults is approximately 8-10 glasses or 2-3 liters per day.
TIP: Invest in a reusable water bottle and carry it with you throughout the day. Set reminders on your phone or watch to drink water every hour or two. You can also add fresh fruit, herbs, or spices to your water for added flavor and nutrients.
Exercise helps to strengthen the immune system by improving circulation, reducing inflammation, and reducing stress.
Sweating it up will not only pump up those feel-good endorphins, but it can also boost your immune system to defend against unwanted invaders.
As it turns out, when we exercise, we help improve the circulation of immune cells throughout our body. So, keep that heart pumping! Make physical activity a regular part of your routine. This can help your body better protect itself against various diseases.
Goal: Aim for 30 minutes per day of exercise.
TIP: Struggling to start exercise routine? Don't worry about intensity. Just get your body moving. The key is consistency. Moderate-intensity activities like walking and yoga are great options! Find an activity you love and make it part of your daily routine! It's much easier to stick with an exercise routine if it feels more like fun than work.
Many don't realize how bad stress can be for your immune system.
When stress-related hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released in our bodies, it causes inflammation, which can weaken the immune system's ability to fight off illnesses.
That's why it is essential to find ways to manage and reduce your stress levels. Fortunately, the good habits from the other 3 pillars will have a positive impact on your stress. If you have those covered, you are likely in good shape.
However, some people struggle more with stress than others. If thats you, here are some proven strategies to help you manage your stress:
Breathing Techniques for Immune Health
That's right! Something as simple as breathing can help you manage your stress.
By focusing on one source of sensation - your breath - you can bring attention away from stressful thoughts or anxious feelings and cultivate relaxation in both body and mind.
Sound too good to be true? Give it a try!
Below are two well researched techniques. Click the link for a guided tutorial. We recommend trying both and seeing which one suits you better.
Andrew Huberman's Cycle Breathing Technique
Meditation for Immune Health
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years as an effective way to calm your mind. There must be something to it if its been around for that long!
The practice of meditation involves focusing on the present moment with non-judgmental awareness, allowing stressful thoughts and feelings to come and go without attaching to them.
By learning how to not react or identify with these thoughts, we can gain greater insight into our own emotions and let them pass without feeling overwhelmed.
It's recommended to create a regular meditation routine so the body learns how to respond instinctively when feeling overwhelmed. Through daily practice, you can link your conscious habits with healthier automatic reactions, thus setting up a more sustainable long-term response to stress.
TIP: Don't know where to begin with meditation? There are many great apps that offer guided meditation with free content that will help you get started.
If you can establish good habits around the four pillars of immune health - sleep, nutrition, exercise and stress management - you have set the foundation for a healthy, strong immune system!