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The link between immunity and lifestyle

The coronavirus disease is a hot topic these days. Considering that health systems around the world haven't found an effective vaccine or treatment for this disease. If exposed, the only thing left is relying on our own immunity.

The immune system is our defense tool against all unwanted infectious diseases (caused by various microorganisms) and in general. It should keep the organism in a so-called balance state. Immunity is important in the fight against viral infections and other diseases for which we have not yet found appropriate treatment. Also, immunity is quite significant for the so-called quality of life: how often we will be sick, how we will feel, what consequences we will have after the illness, etc.

The question is: can we, with our actions or lifestyle, 'help' proper function of the immune system?

What can we do about it?

Science still has not fully confirmed that we can influence the improvement of the immune system in any way through lifestyle. Immunity is a complex system, not a single entity. Because of this, it is very difficult to prove its direct impact on lifestyle.

However, there is evidence that encourages scientists to make research towards that. Therefore, practicing a healthy lifestyle is a good way to improve your overall health, and also good basic support for your immune system.

Healthy ways to boost immunity

The first line of defense is to choose a healthy lifestyle. Following the good advice on living a healthy life, proper nutrition, physical activity, and stress management, we can help maintain a strong and healthy immune system. Every part of the body, including the immune system, works better when it is protected from external attacks and is stimulated by healthy living habits, such as:

- non-smoking
- a healthy, balanced diet
- regular physical activity
- maintaining a normal body weight
- low alcohol consumption
- good, quality sleep
- avoiding infections by washing hands
- proper thermal treatment of the food
- minimizing stress

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Immunity and the age

As we age, the capacity of the immune system decreases, leading to a greater susceptibility to infection and cancer development. As life expectancy increases, age-related diseases become more common.

The conclusion of several studies is that, compared to younger people, older people are more likely to get infections of different types, but also an increased chance of dying from them. Such infections are, for example, influenza, various respiratory diseases, bacterial pneumonia, and so on. These are the leading causes of death for people over the age of 65. Common subject these days is the growing danger of the coronavirus. The elderly are at particular risk. 

There is still no fully relevant information about why is this happening, but one reasonable explanation is that atrophy which occurs to the thymus over the years, results in reduced synthesis of so-called T immune cells.

Diet and immunity

Several studies have suggested a link between immunity and the diet of older adults. Forms of malnutrition are surprisingly common in these individuals. Usually, this is expressed as a lack of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Seniors eat less diverse foods and less food in general. Sometimes taking supplements (micronutrients through pills) could help, but depending on the individual and the frequency of use, some supplements can be harmful.

Like all cells, the immune system needs the right nutrients to function properly. Scientists confirm that people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable and more susceptible to infections. Although the direct impact of diet on immunity has not been fully confirmed, there is evidence that a deficiency of some micronutrients can lead to problems. These micronutrients could be zinc, copper, iron, selenium, folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin C, B6, and E. Supplements can be helpful, but they can also cause a number of problems if overdone.

It is therefore important to include fresh and whole grains rich in essential micronutrients in the diet. Physical activity is also helpful.

How do low temperatures affect immunity?

Ever since we were children, our parents were constantly worried if we are well-dressed. People often associate cold weather with an increased risk of illness or infection. Research suggests that some winter sportsmen have had increased infections of the upper respiratory tract, unlike those with no winter sport activity. But there is no evidence that this fact is due to cold weather or a combination of other factors.

However, science says that moderate exposure to cold does not affect immunity, and it does not increase the risk of infections. Should we dress warm? Of course, if we feel more comfortable like that, but we still don't have to worry about immunity due to exposure to cold.

The impact of stress on the immune system

Modern medicine is increasingly interested in the effects of stress on the human body and on the immune system in particular. 

More unpleasant health conditions such as abdominal pain, allergies, and even heart disease are associated with the effect of emotional stress. Despite the complexity, scientists are actively trying to determine the relationship between stress and the immune system.

Stress is even harder to define - for example, what is a stressful situation for some is not for others. When people are exposed to stressful situations, it is difficult to define the amount of stress they are coping with. The only way scientists can "measure" stress is the number of heartbeats per minute, but it can also be a result of other factors. However, scientists are more interested in the impact of immunity to chronic stress (stress caused by bad relationships with family, partner, friends, co-workers, or the challenges we are constantly facing in the environment).

It is particularly difficult to conduct such research due to many factors, but scientists are still trying to come up with results and make progress in those attempts. The results will be visible in the coming years.

From a scientific point of view, it can be said that chronic stress affects our mental health, which significantly affects the quality of life. However, some physically noticeable consequences such as allergies, abdominal pain, and headaches have been reported. That is why we need to pay close attention to our mental health. Regular physical activity can help.

How does physical activity affect immunity?

Regular exercise is one of the basics of what a healthy lifestyle means. It has been shown that improves cardiovascular health, decreases blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects us from various illnesses.
But does it help to boost immunity?

As well as a healthy diet, exercise can support the general health of the body, and thus the immune system. It can also help in a more direct way by increasing circulation, allowing immune cells and other immune substances to move more easily through the body and thus make their job easier. Therefore, it can be concluded that regular physical activity should be practiced.

What is the future research on the impact of lifestyle on the immune system function?

A recent approach could help researchers to determine the impact of lifestyle on immune function. It is about gene testing, which is performed by human genome sequencing. There are some works on this topic, and more will be done in the near future.


Disclaimer: The purpose of this text is to stimulate critical health thinking. Medical information does not amount to advice and if advice is needed an appropriate professional help should be asked. No warranties or representations are given in respect of the medical information, and the website operator should not be held liable if a user suffers any injury or loss after relying upon the medical information.

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