5 “Bad” Things You Should Do for Better Immune Health

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Grandma warned, “Wet hair in winter equals a cold.” Everyone and their parents have an opinion on what’s good and bad for our immune system. But we can all agree that taking care of our immunity is critical to survival and well-being. “Immune health refers to how well your body can defend itself against germs, viruses, and other harmful invaders,” says Pam Hartnett, M.P.H., RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and cancer recovery coach.

While no single strategy is apt to keep you in perfect health, there are many ways to naturally fuel your immune system and keep sickness away. “When your immune system is in good shape, it’s like having a well-trained, balanced army ready to protect you,” says Pam Hartnett.

Certain habits can threaten a well-functioning immune system and throw it off-kilter. Yet, many lifestyle factors can support it. 

While going into cold temps with post-shower hair may not exactly cause sniffles, there are five things people may believe are actually bad for health. Turns out, they are more immune-supportive than you may think.

1. Eating Lots of Fruit

All too often, fruits get the side-eye for their sugar content. While nature’s candy is a source of naturally occurring sugars, many overlook their fiber, antioxidants and essential vitamins and minerals like vitamins C, A, E and zinc.

Take fruit fiber, for example, which is a friend to immune health. “Fiber supports a healthy gut microbiome and 80% of your immune system is housed in your gut,” says  Courtney Coe M.S., RDN, LDN, CSCS, CLT at WellTheory. After eating raspberries or other fibrous fruits like apples, their fiber gets broken down, or fermented, by gut bacteria in the colon, producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs may promote less inflammation and more gut bacteria growth and diversity. And that’s good news for your gut. Changes in gut bacteria or a less diverse bacterial environment are associated with a higher risk of diseases.

Further, inflammation and oxidative stress both influence your immune response. Oxidative stress happens when there’s an imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals in your body, which can lead to inflammation. Free radicals are molecules that can cause cell damage.  Whether it’s mangoes, papayas or avocados, fruits are natural sources of antioxidants. “Antioxidants, such as flavonoids, polyphenols, and carotenoids, help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, which can negatively impact immunity,” says Coe. 

Thanks to their wealth of nutrients, research shows fruits (and veggies) have protective benefits against chronic diseases, which can wreak havoc on immunity and well-being.

If you have diabetes, talk with your dietitian or medical provider about how to safely fit fruit into your eating plan to keep your blood sugars balanced and your immune system in check.

2. Taking Fewer Supplements

At the first sign of a sore throat, you might be scrambling for the colloidal silver or vitamin C powder packet. Supplements may be seen as a silver lining for immune support, but the truth is some supplements aren’t helpful for immunity. “Some people rely too much on instant ‘immune boosts’, put too much faith in supplements, and neglect to maintain an overall healthy and sustainable lifestyle,” says Raj Dasgupta, M.D., FACP, FCCP, FAASM, chief medical advisor for Sleep Advisor. And for overall immune health? A supplement stock of so-called immune enhancers may not be necessary. “In reality, mega doses of supplements like vitamin C, echinacea or zinc are a waste of money, and there’s no conclusive evidence they prevent colds and flu. For most adults, a healthy and balanced eating pattern should not require additional supplementation,” Sarah Hormachea, M.S., RD, BC-ADM CDCES, a registered dietitian at Nourish. Eating a well-balanced eating pattern with immune-supportive foods is the ticket to long-term immune health, while supplements can be, well, a supplement to your healthy diet if needed.

3. Exposing to Sun and Cold Temperatures

Although it’s well-known that excess UV radiation from sunlight is linked to various forms of cancer, staying in the shade can steal our chances of greater immunity. “Spending time outside, even in the cold, helps promote vitamin D production,” says Coe. Vitamin D deficiency is a public health concern across the globe, and a growing reliance upon devices often keeps us indoors. Vitamin D helps equip your immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria. 

“Combine the fresh air and physical activity, and you’ve got stress reduction too. Plus, you’re exposed to beneficial microbes in nature that support your gut and immune health,” says Coe. One study suggests that for safe sun time, limit it to 5 to 30 minutes each day during very sunny seasons.

Cold temperatures get flack for causing illness, but taking a dip in chilly water or cold water plunging may benefit immunity. “While being cold doesn’t directly ‘boost’ your immune system, exposure to cold temperatures, such as cold showers, cold plunges, or outdoor activities in cold weather, can enhance immune function by increasing the production of certain immune cells, like T cells, and lower inflammation,” says Alayna Hutchinson M.S., LDN, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Pendulum, a microbiome biotech company. 

4. Incorporating Animal Proteins

Plant-based diets have become pretty popular. Still, there’s confusion and skepticism over the health of animal-based proteins such as eggs, meat and fish. “Many believe that red meat and eggs are harmful to their health; like anything, too much of a good thing may not be a good thing, but when it comes to your immune system, animal proteins are not only okay but extremely valuable,” says Coe. Animal proteins contain essential amino acids that your body uses to make particular proteins your immune system needs. “Further, lacking important nutrients, like zinc and vitamin A, can up your risk for infections. Luckily, animal proteins provide many vital nutrients to your immune health, like zinc, b vitamins, iron, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.

It’s A-OK to include both plant and animal proteins in your diet—it doesn’t have to be just one or the other. In fact, protein intake overall must be sufficient for your body to make antibodies against infections. “Generally, protein-rich foods help keep your blood sugar balanced, which supports hormones, your gut, stress response, and therefore your immune system,” says Coe.

5. Going to Social Gatherings 

Getting together with the people you love carries a risk of picking up a virus; however, being alone also comes with a cost. Loneliness may cause more stress and engage in poor health behaviors like smoking or lack of good nutrition. Further, loneliness is associated with immune suppression and an impaired immune response.

One study found that more social engagement and living with someone were linked with a lower white blood cell count, which your body produces more of when you’re sick to help fight that foreign invader. Moreover, social isolation may promote inflammation.

The Bottom Line

Immune health goes beyond steering clear of sickness. Embracing habits that support it long-term is important. Some habits may appear to infringe on immune care; however, fruit intake, cautious supplement use, sun exposure, eating protein and staying social may be immune-protective. “Sleep, stress, nutrition, and even your gut microbiome play a huge role in immune health. Supporting all of these is the path to a strong immune system since they support your body’s ability to fight off infection and other external exposures,” says Coe. 

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