With flu season and winter just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about your immune health. While many people seek ways to boost their immune system, it’s more important to balance it.
What’s the difference? “When you boost your immune system, you may make it respond too aggressively to infection, which can push you towards autoimmunity and increase your risk for cytokine storms or autoimmune diseases,” says functional medicine physician Bianca Chiara, MD, with Atlantic Health System’s Chambers Center for Well-Being.
In contrast, when the body’s immune system is balanced, it’s optimized to enhance your protection from all kinds of acute infections, including influenza. “A balanced immune system can turn on when it’s needed and calm down when it becomes overactive,” Dr. Chaira says.
Focusing on these six areas can help you bring balance to your immune system:
“Consistent, high-quality sleep is one of the most important things our immune system needs to function at its best capacity,” Dr. Chiara says. Ideally, you should aim for between seven to nine hours of sleep a night, according to National Sleep Foundation guidelines.
A few ways to achieve the seven-to-nine hour mark: Keep consistent bedtimes. Resist the temptation to keep different sleep hours on weekdays vs. weekends. If you have to adjust your bedtimes on certain days, aim to go to bed sooner instead of waking up later. “Most of the brain’s beneficial detox processes with hormone production happen when you first fall into a deep sleep,” Dr. Chiara says.
“You can’t outrun, out-supplement or out-exercise a bad diet,” Dr. Chaira says. She recommends her patients follow what she calls a plant-forward diet that emphasizes plant-based foods but allows for meats as well. Add colorful fruits and vegetables filled with nutrients, micronutrients and polyphenols to your diet. Embrace whole foods and foods containing high amounts of fiber. Cut back on sugar or avoid it completely.
A plant-forward diet may help you improve your microbiome—the lining within your gut. “Between 70% – 80% of our immune system lines our gut,” Dr. Chiara says. “If your microbiome isn’t healthy, your immune system won’t be balanced.”
Exercise too much and you could be more prone to acute infections. But stay sedentary and you may weaken your immune system. What’s the proper balance? “Aim for 20 to 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise,” Dr. Chiara says.
If stress starts interfering with your sleep, energy or mood—or if it starts to cause you physical symptoms like stomach pain—you’ll need to find ways to control it better. “It’s not realistic to make all of our stressors go away,” Dr. Chaira says. “But lifestyle modifications and stress management techniques can help change the way we cope with and perceive our stress.” Yoga, meditation or cognitive behavioral therapy are among the most effective stress-management methods.
Vitamins C and D, along with zinc, are widely regarded as immune supporting supplements. “Some of my patients will use elderberry or echinacea to fight off a cold or virus, but those should be used over the short-term only,” Dr. Chiara says. Probiotics may also be helpful to help improve your gut health. Always talk with a medical provider about which supplements would be best for you.
- Environmental toxins
From the personal care and household cleaning products we use to the outdoor air itself, environmental toxins can be found all around us. “These toxins can have very negative effects on the immune system,” Dr. Chiara says. Nonprofit resources like the Environmental Working Group offer free information to help people reduce the level of toxins they’re exposed to inside and outside their homes on a daily basis.
How Functional Medicine Can Help Support Immune Health
Functional medicine providers offer a holistic approach to health that seeks to identify and treat the root causes of disease. They can order specialized tests that assess the overall health of your microbiome, help you optimize your supplement levels, and recommend other steps you can take to maintain a well-balanced immune system.
Interested in learning whether a functional medicine assessment could benefit you? Request a 15-minute meet-and-greet phone session.