Given the current state of affairs, and with flu season just around the corner, individuals both young and old, fit and unfit, are taking a vested interest in their health, and more specifically their immune system.
And, while you will never be able to avoid illness and infection 100% (and you wouldn’t want to either), there are several things you can do to make sure your immune system is prepped and prepared for battle against all manner of microscopic ne’er-do-wells.
Today, we’re giving you 5 tips to optimize immune function.
Let’s get started!
5 Tips to Optimize Immune Function
#1 Limit Alcohol Consumption
This time of year, the days are hot and long, and nothing sounds better than kicking your feet up and sipping on cool, refreshing adult beverage, be it cocktail or craft beer.
As enjoyable as those libations may be, over consuming them can torpedo your immune system.
You see, alcohol affects the structure and integrity of the GI tract, by altering the quantity and composition of your gut bacteria.
These organisms play a key role in the function of the immune system.
Alcohol disrupts communication between the gut microbiome and the intestinal immune system.
Furthermore, drinking alcohol consumption also damages epithelial cells, T cells, and neutrophils in the GI system. T cells and neutrophils are important components of the immune system, FYI.
Excessive alcohol consumption also disrupts gut barrier function and encourages leakage of microbes into the circulation.
Chronic alcohol consumption isn’t the only thing to be concerned with. Having too many drinks within a day can also impair immune function as research indicates that acute binge drinking adversely affects the immune system.
Other research indicates that moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with either no risk or a decreased risk for upper respiratory infections.[2,3]
Current recommendations according to the 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans note that “moderate drinking” is one drink per day for women and one to two standard drinks for men.
The takeaway here is that the occasional drink may not impair your immune function, but chronic and/or acute heavy drinking can. So, if you’re looking to optimize immune function, you would be wise to limit your intake of alcohol.
#2 Drink Enough Fluids
Water is essential to life, there’s no two ways about it.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that being dehydrated can significantly impair optimal function of the immune system.
In addition to immune function, physical performance, cognitive function, recovery, and memory can also be impaired by dehydration.
That’s why it’s vitally important to stay sufficiently hydrated each day.
Consuming enough water is important for hydration, but it’s not everything. You also need electrolytes as they help maintain fluid balance and hydration both within the cell and outside of it.
To support hydration needs of hard training individuals, we’ve included a comprehensive electrolyte matrix in our post workout supplement Amino's or Pure Rebuild. Intense exercise depletes the body’s water and electrolyte stores and can lead to a dehydrated state if not replenished. Pure Rebuild contains the vital nutrients your body needs to repair, recover, and rehydrate following training all the while supporting immune function.
#3 Get Enough Sleep
Simply put, you need to get enough sleep each and every night if you want to optimize immune function.
The sad fact is that most individuals (young and old), don’t get enough each night.
Studies show chronic sleep deprivation is associated with an increase in inflammatory markers as well as immunodeficiency.
Furthermore, the immune system’s response to vaccination is also depressed during periods of sleep deprivation, and people are also more susceptible to infection from the common cold when deprived of sleep.
One of the reasons that sleep deprivation impairs immune function is that it places the body in a state of chronic stress, which is known to increase cortisol levels, promote inflammation, encourage fat gain, and compromise immune function and health.
In the words of the researchers:
“In summary, chronic sleep deprivation can be seen as an unspecific state of chronic stress, which per se impacts immune functions and general health.”
In other words, if you want to optimize immune function, then you must get enough sleep every night of the week.
Good sleep begins with good sleep hygiene:
- Keep a consistent bedtime
- Make your room cool (~66-68℉)
- Wear loose, light, comfortable clothes
- Avoid blue light (phones, TV, laptops, tablets, LEDs) 2 hours before bed
- Limit caffeine intake 5-6 hours before bed
- Limit alcohol intake 2-3 hours before bed (refer to point #1)
- Avoid stress before bed (emails, texts, social media, etc.)
You can also try some calming techniques to help you unwind at night, including:
- Light yoga
- Listening to relaxing music
- Having a cup of herbal tea, such as chamomile
Nighttime recovery and sleep aids contain non-habit forming, non-drowsy ingredients that help unload the burdens of the day from the CNS, helping you to relax and have a great night’s sleep.
While we’re on the subject of sleep hygiene, that brings us to the next tip to optimize immune function...
#4 Practice Good Hygiene
Your parents always told you to wash your hands, and for good reason -- keeping your hands clean helps prevent the spread of germs and getting infection.
You use your hands -- shaking hands, picking things up, scratching an itch, rubbing your eye, etc.
If your hands are filthy, it stands to reason that you are spreading those germs to everything you come into contact with.
Regular hand washing can also help prevent respiratory infections and may also help prevent skin and eye infections.
When washing your hands, make sure to:
- wet your hands with clean, running water
- Apply soap
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds
- Rinse your hands thoroughly under clean, running water
- Dry them
Other parts of good hygiene include:
- Not touching your face
- Covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing
- Avoiding sick people
- Not going out in public (or limiting public outings) when you are sick
Basically, don’t be disgusting and you’ll keep your immune system chugging along as well as not getting others sick too.
#5 Support Gut Health
We touched on this tip at the beginning of our list when discussing alcohol’s impact on the immune system.
Without getting too far into the weeds, the gut impacts everything in your body from your mood to your performance to your immune function.
Keeping a happy, healthy gut is paramount to the body’s ability to effectively resist infection and fight it off when it does encounter a pathogen.
The best way to support gut health is to be proactive, including such things as:
- Consuming a diet containing prebiotic- and probiotic-rich foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, etc.)
- Limiting consumption of refined sugars, processed food, and alcohol
- Maintaining high levels of physical activity
- Reducing stress levels, which lowers cortisol
It’s not possible to go through life without ever getting sick. You have an immune system for a reason, and it’s there to help you combat pathogens to become stronger, more resilient.
Use the tips outlined above to optimize your immune function so that you can help keep illness and infection at bay, and should you get sick, your immune function will be better equipped to fight the infection so you can recover quicker.
- Sarkar D, Jung MK, Wang HJ. Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):153-155.
- Engs RC & Aldo-Benson M (1995) The association of alcohol consumption with self-reported illness in university students. Psychol Rep 76, 727–736
- Cohen S, Tyrrell DA, Russell MA, Jarvis MJ & Smith AP (1993) Smoking, alcohol consumption, and susceptibility to the common cold. Am J Public Health 83, 1277–1283.
- Americans, F. O. R. (2020). DIETARY GUIDELINES.
- Moeller KT, Butler MW, Denardo DF. The effect of hydration state and energy balance on innate immunity of a desert reptile. Front Zool. 2013;10(1):23. Published 2013 May 4. doi:10.1186/1742-9994-10-23
- Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012;463(1):121–137. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
- Show me the science - Why wash your hands? (2020, April 23). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/why-handwashing.html
- Wu HJ, Wu E. The role of gut microbiota in immune homeostasis and autoimmunity. Gut Microbes. 2012;3(1):4-14. doi:10.4161/gmic.19320