More and more workers are heading back to their offices, and cold and flu season is upon us – which can be a real shock to the immune system. While many companies have adapted to a hybrid model of work, most employers say they’d rather have everyone back in the office full-time. And with that comes exposure to COVID-19, seasonal flu, RSV, the common cold, and other maladies.
What does it mean to strengthen your immune system, and does this fully protect you from every illness?
How do the immune system and immunity work?
The immune system is just that – several parts of the body working together. The immune system protects our bodies from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins. There are two parts of the immune system: the innate immune system that we’re born with, and the adaptive immune system that we develop over a lifetime.
The innate immune system is the body’s rapid-response system. It’s made up of skin and the mucous membranes that line the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and genitourinary tracts, working to create a physical barrier against things like germs, parasites, and foreign cells. The innate immune system is inherited and is active from the moment of birth.
The acquired immune system makes antibodies to protect the body against specific threats. These antibodies are developed by cells called B lymphocytes and are created only after the body’s been exposed to the invader. After this first exposure, the body will recognize the invader and protect against it. Immunizations like the yearly flu shot, tetanus, hepatitis, MMR, polio, and other vaccines jump-start the immune system to recognize and fight these intruders.
However, it’s important to note that functioning effectively requires balance and attempting to throw off this balance could result in unintended consequences. Suzanne Cassel, MD, an immunologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says it’s a common misconception that having a “strong” immune system is best for your body. “You actually don't want your immune system to be stronger, you want it to be balanced,” Dr. Cassel says. “Too much of an immune response is just as bad as too little response.” Meaning: An overactive immune system will react to anything and everything, even when not a threat, which is often what occurs with autoimmune conditions.
Six Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System
So how do you keep your immune system in balance? Let’s explore ways in which you can prevent illness, especially as you head back into an environment where exposure is greater.
1. Stock up on probiotic-rich foods.
A huge portion of our immune system is found within our gastrointestinal tract, so prioritizing probiotics in our daily routines can help improve immunity. Probiotics can balance and improve immune responses by interacting with specific receptors and modulating certain pathways and cells of the immune system. A study from 2020 found that probiotics use is associated with a lower rate and shorter duration of mild respiratory tract infections.
Probiotics come in supplement form, but lots of different foods – including tempeh, kimchi, pickles, kombucha, and sauerkraut – contain natural probiotics.
2. Focus on a balanced eating plan.
Eating well is different for everyone and depends on factors such as dietary restrictions, allergies, availability of ingredients, and available food-prep time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does, however, emphasize the need for a diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains in order to enhance natural immunity. So whether you get lunch near the office or pack your own, keep this balance in mind!
3. Practice good personal hygiene.
You can’t control how other people act, so you should make sure your personal hygiene’s up to snuff. Good hygiene and handwashing help prevent the spread of germs. Make it a habit to wash your hands upon arriving at the office, especially if you use public transportation. Clean any drinking glasses, utensils, and cutlery to reduce the spread and growth of bacteria, and try to avoid touching your face throughout the day.
4. Reduce stress levels.
A triggered stress response can reduce the body’s number of lymphocytes (immune cells), which are needed to fight viruses. Stress can cause the immune system to produce an inflammatory response, which can be temporarily beneficial for fighting germs. But long-term, repeated stress can contribute to the development of chronic illnesses. Stress also produces the stress hormone cortisol, which can negatively impact the body’s anti-inflammatory response.
One of the simplest ways to reduce stress, especially in the middle of a stressful moment, is to focus on your breath. Try box breathing: Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, and repeat for a few cycles. This can be done at your desk or when taking a walk around the block!
5. Get enough sleep.
Sleep and immunity are closely tied. Adequate sleep is essential for optimal health, but it’s often one of the first things to fall to the wayside when we’re busy. During periods of higher germ exposure (like spending more time in the office), getting adequate sleep can be an important way to support the immune system.
In fact, a large study found that women who sleep less than five hours a night have a significantly higher chance (70%!) of developing pneumonia compared with women who sleep for eight hours. Other research shows that people who sleep less than six hours a night may also have an increased susceptibility to colds.
On days you know you’ll need to be in the office, try to climb into bed 30 minutes earlier than usual. It could make all the difference!
6. Choose supplements wisely.
Supplements can offer a boost in vitamins and nutrients you may be lacking (this is not uncommon during cold and flu season), but always be sure to speak with your healthcare provider about whether adding supplements to your routine is beneficial for you and your unique needs.
- Vitamin C offers protection against immune system deficiencies – especially helpful in preventing colds and flu. Vitamin C can also be found in citrus fruits (which are in season during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere) as well as in leafy greens.
- Vitamin D helps the body absorb and metabolize essential minerals, promotes proper cell development, and regulates the immune system, all of which are crucial for disease prevention and basic life functions. Vitamin D can also be found in cruciferous vegetables and is made naturally in the body by getting sunlight.
- Zinc acts as an antioxidant, fighting free radical damage, helping repair tissue, balancing hormones, and supporting healthy immunity and digestion. Zinc can also be found in nuts, beans, and whole grains.
The Bottom Line
There are several dietary and lifestyle changes you can make to strengthen your immune system throughout the year. Even if you’re not heading back to the office, ensuring a strong, healthy immune system is one of the best things you can do for your overall health and well-being.