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Several lifestyle factors influence the health and resilience of both innate and adaptive immune function. This series addresses them in three parts: Nutrition and SupplementationExercise and Movement, and Lifestyle.

Each of these categories is important for immune health, but it’s difficult to argue any single category is more or less critical than the others. They’re all intertwined in such a complex way that even modern science struggles to tease out what’s actually happening with acute and long-term immune function when certain interventions are implemented.

The process of achieving better immune health is simple. It may not be easy, but it is simple. We hope this guide helps.

Immune health isn’t just influenced by nutrition, supplements, and exercise patterns. Evidence suggests how and where we spend our time away from exercise and eating has significant impacts on immune and overall health. Good hygiene, restorative sleep, time outside, and healthy stress management are all critically important to a strong immune system.

Master Good Hygiene

Infectious diseases often spread through contact with other people or contaminated surfaces, so it’s easy to understand why one of the easiest ways to maintain healthy and immune resilience is to wash your hands regularly.

The CDC reports that good hand-washing practices significantly reduces the spread of infectious disease, and recommends washing with soap and water several times throughout the day, basically anytime you touch anything.

Here are the five steps to handwashing the right way:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Oral hygiene is also important for healthy immune function. The American Dental Association recommends brushing your teeth thoroughly twice a day and cleaning between teeth with floss once a day. Mouth rinses may also be recommended to help maintain healthy mucus membranes.

Get Outside Every Day

When we’re exposed to sunlight, we have a better chance of producing adequate vitamin D, but research shows it also helps activate and transport T cells to locations where they’re needed, which appears to enable adaptive immune response.

It just feels good to get outside and experience fresh air and nature, doesn’t it? Scientists studying our biochemical responses to exposure to nature (walks in nature, viewing nature scenes, going to a park, etc.) observe that the health benefits of these experiences may be driven mainly by enhancements in our immune health through multiple, complex mechanisms.

Nature doesn’t just have one or two active ingredients. It’s more like a multivitamin that provides us with all sorts of nutrients we need. That’s how nature can protect us from all these different kinds of diseases–cardiovascular, respiratory, mental health, musculoskeletal, etc. — simultaneously. Ming Kuo, Ph.D

Don’t Sacrifice Sleep or Downtime

We spend roughly a third of our lifespan in the mysterious state we call sleep. It’s a fascinating phenomenon humans have sought to understand for centuries. Entire books, courses, fields of research, and careers have been dedicated to understanding the importance of sleep.

Sleep is the ultimate reset for our entire body. It’s essential to restore homeostasis, regulate the immune system, repair damaged tissue, clear out damaged cells, imprint memories, restore neurotransmitter balance, and prepare our brain and body for the next day of physical and cognitive challenges.

According to experts, adults need at least seven hours of restful sleep every night.

Regarding the immune system specifically, short-term and chronic sleep restriction can both negatively impact systemic and local immune response.

“Normal” sleep is known to help restore healthier adaptive immune response to viral infections by allowing better distribution of immune cells throughout the body and enhancing the expression of antiviral cytokines. (Irwin, 2019)

To optimize sleep hygiene, the following strategies are recommended:

  • Be consistent with your bedtime and wakeup time, to the best of your ability
  • Be active or exercise, and get outside during daylight hours
  • Avoid caffeine after early-afternoon (stop caffeine consumption by 2pm)
  • Eat your last meal of the day at least a few hours before bedtime
  • Minimize or avoid alcohol as it disrupts sleep quality
  • Be sure your sleep environment is cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable
  • Avoid or minimize exposure to electronic screens after sundown, or at least wear blue-light blocking glasses to minimize blue light stimulation
  • Consider natural sleep-supportive supplements to help with sleep onset and sleep depth, such as evening time magnesium or melatonin (or potentially other botanical ingredients shown to help with sleep)

If you can’t or don’t get adequate sleep, it’s not the end of the world.

Just control what you can and emphasize nutrient-dense dietary choices, get ample protein, take quality supplements, and consider adjusting your exercise intensities or duration to better support your resilience.

According to one study, some of the negative effects of sleep restriction were mitigated by supplementing the participants with higher protein (1.5 g/kg/day vs. 0.8 g/kg/day), plus additional amino acids (arginine and glutamine), zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D3 and omega-3 fatty acids.

As with anything, some people thrive on more or less sleep, and there are other methods of relaxation that have immune-supporting evidence too, like using a dry sauna and or getting a massage.

One of the main mechanisms sauna and massage may support immune function is through the positive effects they have on managing stress hormones and related inflammatory response, which brings up another critical controllable health pattern you should pay attention to if you want to optimize immune function.

Actively Manage Stress

Without some stress, we would die. And not all stress is bad stress. Our bodies are designed to encounter and adapt to incredible amounts of physical and psychological stress.

However, stress can become destructive or disruptive if we don’t manage it well. If we don’t manage stress in healthy ways, there isn’t a single metabolic or organ system that isn’t affected by chronic stress.

For example, research has shown psychological stress is associated in a dose-response manner with an increased susceptibility to the common cold and weakens the immune system over time if not properly managed.

In addition to exercise, sauna, and massage, healthy stress management techniques to implement for healthier immune function include:

  • Relaxation and breathing exercises like meditation or positive thinking
  • Behavior modification coaching
  • Social and community support
  • Laughter

However you choose to manage the stress you encounter in a healthy way, your immune system will benefit, there’s no doubt.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Paul Kriegler, RD, CPT

Paul Kriegler, RD, LD, CPT, CISSN, is the director of nutritional product development at Life Time. He’s also a USA track and field coach.

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