Diet, exercise, sleep all help immune system
Q: I always seem to get sick when I start a job. Makes sense -- new people, new germs. I started a job in February, then we all had to work from home. I worry that being isolated for weeks puts me back at square one. What can I do to boost my immunity in preparation for going back to the office?
A: We're always happy to have this particular discussion, because the strategies and habits involved in addressing immune health also tend to lead to improved health overall. The immune system plays an important role in protecting us from all sorts of potential pathogens, and you're not alone in wondering how to give it an edge.
First, let's clarify the goal. We hear a lot about "boosting" the immune system, but that's actually misleading. You don't want an amped-up immune system. That would mean that it's hyper-alert and reacts -- and overreacts -- to every perceived threat. Rather, the goal is an immune system that's healthy and balanced and responds in proportion to the job at hand.
One of the most important steps you can take to keep your immune system happy and healthy involve lifestyle. That is, get an adequate amount of high-quality sleep, take part in daily exercise, don't smoke, limit alcohol use and eat a healthful diet. When you're chronically tired, depressed or anxious, overweight, eat poorly, smoke, drink too much and don't get enough exercise, you're creating internal stressors that can interfere with optimal immune system response.
Diet plays an important role in immune system health. Emerging research continues to link the health and diversity of the gut microbiome with the health and efficacy of the immune system. We urge our patients to get the necessary vitamins and minerals through food, which we believe the body utilizes more efficiently than supplements. Plenty of fresh vegetables, leafy greens and fruit are crucial to getting a range of vitamins and minerals and to keeping the billions of microorganisms that make up our gut microbiomes well-fed. So are nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. Cultured and fermented foods, such as pickles, sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, kefir and miso help with diversity.
We know it's a challenge, but steering clear of added sugar, sugary soft drinks and highly processed foods is also important to both gut and immune health. Recent studies have shown that regular exercise improves gut health. Sleep is also critical to health and well-being. We've had a lot of readers asking for help in this area, and we will revisit the topic in a column in the next few weeks.
We understand that, compared to the vitamins and supplements and products that promise instant immune system magic, this advice sounds pretty dull. But our bodies are intricate and interconnected mechanisms. Everything from circadian rhythms, which are affected by sleep, to the gut microbiome, which is affected by diet and exercise, to mood, which responds to all three, play a role in immune health. Focusing on a whole-body approach, with gradual but consistent changes, goes a long way toward building an immune system that's balanced and ready to work for you.
• Dr. Eve Glazier is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Dr. Elizabeth Ko is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.