Fitness Corner: How to balance your immune system
By Shawn McClendon
This past year was truly unprecedented. We all witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) event as we watched the highly transmissible COVID-19 sweep across the entire globe, bringing uncertainty, fear and suffering to millions. All of us have either known someone to contract it or we ourselves have experienced it.
The pandemic also has led to much discussion about how people can boost their immune systems against viral invaders. As a health and fitness entrepreneur, I have found myself doing an increased amount of research on the topic.
One interesting insight I’ve learned is that the immune system requires balance. We are accustomed to thinking about making our immune systems stronger, when in fact balancing our immune systems is equally important.
When we experience a viral infection, our bodies strategically address the threat with the many highly specialized cells that comprise our immune systems. These include monocytes (alert the rest of the immune system to threats), natural killer cells (detect and destroy virus containing cells and tumor cells), B cells (produce antibodies) and many more. Think of your immune system as a multifaceted force similar to the military with its many functions: infantry, reconnaissance, surveillance and more.
These specialized cells activate in our immune systems when the threat presents itself, with the goal of eradicating the virus and preventing future infection. In the initial stages of infection, the immune system releases substances referred to as cytokines, which help recruit other immune cells. This is known as inflammation, and is responsible for a lot of the “under the weather” symptoms that we feel when we get an infection.
Sometimes, this response can be a bit too strong, and the inflammation meant to help our bodies can become harmful and lead to destruction of bodily tissues, such as the heart and lungs. Excessive inflammation can actually be more dangerous than the virus itself. Having an unbalanced immune system means that your immune system is more prone to such excessive immune responses.
That said, your lifestyle can play a huge part in making sure that your immune system responds appropriately to microbial threats without causing harm your body. Here is how you can do your part:
Eat an overall healthy diet: Make sure your diet is largely comprised of real, unprocessed foods including vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, grains and meats. Because plant foods are particularly anti-inflammatory, they are great at helping balance the immune system and should comprise the bulk of your diet.
Include anti-inflammatory superfoods: Do your research on the various foods and substances in nature that are particularly powerful for immune system balance. Garlic, onions, ginger, turmeric and green tea are a few of these superfoods to include in your diet on a regular basis.
Exercise, but don’t do too much: You definitely want to keep your body moving, as this helps to reduce inflammation and improve the immune response. However, it’s important to know that there is such a thing as too much exercise, and that excessive exercise can actually increase inflammation and make you more susceptible to viral illness. In other words, don’t try to “kill it” in the gym every day. Try to get in a consistent dose of 30 minutes to one hour of moderate exercise most days of the week.
Sleep, rest and chill: Get your sleep at night and try not to “burn the midnight oil” all of the time. Sleep is important for immune system balance. Also, don’t stay busy all of the time. Learn to take time to relax regularly.
Get outside: One of the hands-down most important substances that we can take in to balance our immune systems is Vitamin D, and our most available (and free) source of it is sunlight. Get outside and let the sun shine on your bare skin, keeping sun safety in mind. It’s important to note that the darker your skin color, the more sun exposure you require for adequate Vitamin D production.
These are but a few actions that you can take to make sure your immune system is balanced and ready to respond appropriately to viral threats. Hopefully, this helps you to be motivated to take steps to improve your immune health – and overall health for that matter. As I like to remind people, though, make sure you do your part. You won’t get healthy by simply reading about it!
Shawn McClendon is an ACE-certified personal trainer and owner of Back to Basics Health and Wholeness LLC, an organization dedicated to empowering people to take control of their health and avoid lifestyle disease. He hosts the health and wellness blog YourHealthAtTheCrossroads.com and has authored several health/fitness books.