Can You Improve Your Immune System?

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Dietary supplements
Dietary supplements, such as these for sale in the Yokota Air Base gym, are popular with servicemembers, but a recent study found that many users don't fully understand the safety and effectiveness of what they're taking. Wyatt Olson/Stars and Stripes

Affecting your immune system in a positive way requires a variety of general health and wellness activities. Products that claim to "boost" the immune system most likely won't work because staying disease-free is a balancing process of moderate fitness, healthful nutrition, sleep and stress reduction.

The immune system is more complex than supplementing our cells with Vitamin C. You have to do more. Can products, activities and foods help "support" a healthy immune system? Absolutely, but they can't do it alone.

The choices that can maintain a healthy immune system that allows you to fight off germs and viruses are not much different than the activities that produce a thumbs up from your doctor at an annual health physical.

A healthy immune system requires full attention on the following fronts:

Reduced Stress

Stress is our No. 1 killer, meaning our inability to metabolize and mitigate the stress response. We will never have a world without stress. Whether real or imagined, stress is here to stay.

How we deal with it is the critical part. This is not just emotional stress, but also physical stress in the form of over-training. In fact, if you are worried about staying healthy, reducing the workload in your workouts is actually the smart thing to do.

Check out the Tactical Fitness Report video Perfect Time for a De-loading Phase (video) in order to avoid over-training, over-stressing or under-recovery so your immune system can keep functioning optimally.

Related articles on stress: Stress -- The Perfect Storm, Five Tips to De-Stress

Moderate Exercise

Not all fitness is the same. In fact, fitness is relative and dependent on the individual. The beginner, intermediate and advanced spectrum of fitness levels will determine what is moderate or over-training. One person's entire workout could be another person's warm-up volume.

Regardless of your fitness level, if you are pushing hard and feeling delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for days after a workout, you are taxing your system and starting to create weaknesses in your immune response. This does not mean that you should stop training if you are advanced, and it also does not mean start training hard if you do not get exercise.

The idea is to find an activity that you consider a moderate level of movement and do it -- then actively pursue recovery by getting rest from that activity. For instance, it may be as simple as adding a walk for 10 minutes after every meal, or it could be running for 30 minutes instead of an hour like you normally do.

The definition of moderate exercise depends on you. The goal is to not overdo any activity to the point that it compromises your immune response. Whether you call it over-training, lack of recovery or over-stress -- all will weaken the immune system as referenced in the study on exercise and the immune response.

Nutrition

The best option is whole foods such as fruits, vegetables and lean protein sources as often as you can. These food groups are loaded with antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins and minerals that help support the immune system.

Can you add supplements to your food intake? Sure. Will it boost the immune system? Let's just say our goal is to support the immune system and make it work optimally by eating a well-balanced diet.

Sleep, Naps and Relaxing

Make sure you are getting plenty of sleep. Our bodies need sleep to recover as sleep is our No. 1 recovery tool from the everyday stresses of life. It also supports the immune system.

Miss sleep, and you weaken the immune system. Find time to do the things you enjoy, but also stretch your body and breathe deeply to relax yourself regularly in order to reduce stress, anxiety, aches and pains that tend to trigger inflammation.

Extra Credit

Sure, there are things we can do to help the immune system. The best one is to avoid getting viruses and germs into our bodies in the first place. One of the pieces of advice I give to young recruits heading off for basic training is "don't get sick."

If you can avoid getting sick when you're living in close quarters, away from home, under stressful conditions with dozens of people who just traveled from all over the country, you are way ahead of the curve. That means doing everything that is being discussed today to avoid COVID-19: Wash your hands frequently, do not touch your face or put your fingers in your mouth and eyes.

Think of the immune system as a seesaw. On one end is all the germs, diseases and viruses we are exposed to everyday. On the other end are all the ways listed above to help improve your immune system so it remains in optimal fighting mode. It is a full team effort to avoid getting sick. Missing any one could put the system out of balance.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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