5 Odd Ways You Could Be Weakening Your Immune System
Today, it’s more important than ever to maintain and improve immune system function.
Having robust immunity is crucial to living a long and healthy life. However, a number of hidden factors could be sabotaging your immune health and compromising your body’s ability to defend itself.
You can help boost your immune system by watching for and avoiding these surprising immune saboteurs:
Loneliness and Your Immune System
Did you realize that loneliness can impair your immune health?
Social isolation has been recognized as a risk factor for various illness and increased risk of death for decades.
A 2014 study of 404 adults published in the journal Psychological Science exposed participants to a common cold virus. The group that had more hugs and social support showed decreased susceptibility to illness and less severe illness signs.
An animal study published in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that the added anxiety linked to loneliness can lead to more suppression of the immune system and more oxidative stress damage caused by cell-damaging free radicals.
Research performed at Ohio State University linked loneliness to several dysfunctional immune responses. Study subjects who were lonelier demonstrated increased signs of herpes virus reactivation and produced more pro-inflammatory chemicals when responding to acute stress that did those who were more socially connected. This study suggested that loneliness acts as a chronic stressor triggering a poorly controlled immune response.
Unfortunately, as a national survey by AARP pointed out, 35% of adults 45 and up are lonely. Seniors often lose connections with relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. So if you’re feeling isolated, it’s important to bring more social activity into your life. Volunteer, join a group with common interests, or seek new friendships. Your immune system health will take a positive step forward.
Grief and Immune System Health
According to medical experts, a sudden or tragic event such as losing a loved one can weaken your body’s immune response.
According to a 2012 review published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, bereavement is associated with immune imbalance, including reduced immune T cell production. It can also raise the level of chemicals and hormones increasing your risk for more severe and frequent viral infections, such as the flu. In fact, certain vaccines such as the flu shot may be less beneficial for those coping with intense loss.
While not specifically immune-related, sudden emotional stress such as divorce or death of a loved one can also trigger “broken heart syndrome,” a condition that weakens the heart muscle. Plus, a Harvard study found that risk of a heart attack is 21 times greater within the first 24 hours after a person learns of the death of a significant person.
Anyone experiencing grief needs to make sure to practice good self-care, focusing on simple things such as eating well and getting outside. At times, a grief specialist such as a counselor or psychologist is necessary to help cope with emotional and physical manifestations of grief.
Inadequate Sleep and its Effects on Immunity
The Mayo Clinic warns that a lack of sleep can damage your immune system health. While sleeping, your body has the chance to heal and rebuild, preparing your body and immunity for the next day.
Those who don’t get quality sleep (or enough sleep) are more vulnerable to getting sick when exposed to a virus, including the common cold virus. Plus, a lack of sleep impacts your ability to recover when you do get sick.
A 2009 Carnegie Mellon University study of 164 adults found that those who slept less than 6 hours per night were 4 times more likely to come down with a cold compared to those who got more than 7 hours of sleep. Researchers concluded that sleep is a strong predictor for susceptibility to the common cold virus.
During sleep, your immune system releases special chemical substances called cytokines. Some cytokines help to promote sleep. Other cytokines are necessary to protect against infection or inflammation, and lack of sleep can suppress their production. Plus, the production of infection-fighting antibodies is reduced when you fail to get enough sleep.
Long-term lack of sleep also raises the risk of many diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and obesity. Sleep deficiency can even cause accelerated aging and a shorter lifespan.
So how much sleep is necessary for a healthy immune system? Most experts agree that adults require seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night.
However, sleeping too much can result in a poor quality of sleep, and may be counterproductive to good health and immune function.
Here are a few tips from sleep experts:
- Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. Keep the room cool, dark, and quiet. If necessary, use black-out curtains.
- Put away electronic devices such as your tablet, laptop, or smart phone once you get into bed. It’s a good practice to keep the TV out of your bedroom as well.
- Stick to a regular sleeping schedule. Try to go to bed and get up about the same time every day, including weekends.
- Remember to limit your caffeine intake, particularly after lunchtime.
- If you or your bed partner have persistent sleep difficulties (or snore), discuss it with your doctor. You could need further evaluation or a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea, a dangerous disorder.
Sugar Intake and Immune Dysfunction
OK, most of us are guilty of eating too much sugar. Of course, it contributes to weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other health issues.
But what about immunity?
A rise in blood sugar from eating a high dose of sugar can affect the major components of your innate immunity, which helps defend you from infectious pathogens. Research shows a decreased activity of white blood cell defenders known as neutrophils.
Researchers have known for many decades that, among diabetics, there was a relationship between blood sugar levels and infections. Even back in the 1940’s, scientists discovered that the white blood cells of diabetics were sluggish.
In 2006, researchers confirmed in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism that neutrophil activity is impaired with less-than-adequate blood sugar control. And this impairment of immune activity is not limited to diabetes sufferers. In general, as blood glucose rises, immune function goes down.
Earlier research from Loma Linda University found that this impairment could be caused by not only table sugar (sucrose), but with fructose (fruit sugar), honey, and orange juice. The biggest effect on immune cell activity occurred within 2 hours of ingestion, but the effects can last for at least 5 hours.
The bad news is that our sugar intake continues to rise. By the year 2000, Americans’ sugar consumption had grown to 152 pounds per year, up from 110 pounds in the 1950’s.
Science and common sense confirm that we should be pro-active about minimizing our sugar intake for a healthy immune system and overall well-being. Sugar lurks everywhere, even in breads, condiments, and salad dressings. Make sure to check labels when you shop!
Oral Hygiene, Gum Disease, and Immune Health
It may sound surprising, but maintaining good oral health and hygiene can help improve immune system function.
As a gateway into the body, your mouth provides a point of entry for microorganisms to enter both your respiratory system and bloodstream.
Unfortunately, nearly half of American adults over 30 suffer from some level of gum disease.
Early gum disease or gingivitis is caused by bacteria that feed and grow on the food debris building up between the teeth and around the gum edges.
Periodontitis, or severe gum disease, leads to inflammation that not only attacks the gums but can also affect the bone holding the teeth in place.
Inflammation caused by the bacteria signals your immune system to spring into action. When gum disease and subsequent inflammation becomes significant, the immune system cannot keep up with its job of defending us from bacterial invasion.
Here are some things you can do to make healthy lifestyle choices when it comes to your oral health and immunity:
- Have your teeth cleaned and checked out professionally at regular intervals
- Brush regularly — at least twice a day. Replace your toothbrush about every 3 months
- Floss daily to remove the bacteria between your teeth that can’t be reached by your toothbrush
Immune function is complex. As you’ve seen in this article, many factors — including some not so well known — impact your ability to maintain a healthy immune system. While you can’t prevent some immunity-influencing situations, such as loss of a loved one, there are some simple dietary and lifestyle changes you can make to improve immune system function.
Note: This article does not constitute medical advice. Consult with a health professional before taking any action.
Sources for This Article Include:
Cohen, Janicki-Deverts et al. Psychological Science. December 2014. Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness.
Krugel and Fisher. Psychoimmunology. Feb 2014. The impact of social isolation on immunological parameters in rats
Ohio State University. https://news.osu.edu/loneliness-like-chronic-stress-taxes-the-immune-system/#:~:text=Photo%20by%20Jo%20McCulty%2C%20courtesy%20of%20Ohio%20State%20University.&text=COLUMBUS%2C%20Ohio%20%E2%80%93%20New%20research%20links,potential%20to%20harm%20overall%20health.
Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+. AARP. 2010.
Buckley T, Sunari D, Marshall A, Bartrop R, McKinley S, Tofler G. Physiological correlates of bereavement and the impact of bereavement interventions. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2012;14(2):129-139.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Stress” cardiomyopathy: A different kind of heart attack. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/stress-cardiomyopathy-a-different-kind-of-heart-attack-201509038239
Mayo Clinic. Lack of Sleep: Can it Make You Sick?
Carnegie Mellon University. New Research Confirms Lack of Sleep Connected to Getting Sick. August 2015. https://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2015/august/sleep-and-sickness.html
Turina M, Fry DE, Polk HC Jr. Acute hyperglycemia and the innate immune system: clinical, cellular, and molecular aspects. Crit Care Med. 2005 Jul;33(7):1624–33.
Lin JC, Siu LK, Fung CP, Tsou HH, Wang JJ, Chen CT, Wang SC, Chang FY. Impaired phagocytosis of capsular serotypes K1 or K2 Klebsiella pneumoniae in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients with poor glycemic control. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Aug;91(8):3084–7.