A Healthy Lifestyle Promotes a Healthy Immune System

A Healthy Lifestyle Promotes a Healthy Immune System

What is so important about your immune system? Your immune system is your body's natural defense against illness and infection. The immune system is not only important in resisting infectious diseases but also in helping to protect your body from chronic illnesses such as cancer.


The body is constantly exposed to bacteria, viruses and other destructive organisms that promote infection and disease. A strong and well-functioning immune system recognizes these foreign substances and helps to destroy them, thus preventing the development of infection and disease. Many factors can depress the immune system such as aging, poor health and poor nutritional intake. A healthy lifestyle including good nutrition, proper hydration and moderate exercise supports a strong and healthy immune system.

Good nutrition can help boost your immune system and make it stronger. The body needs a constant supply of essential nutrients to build and maintain natural defenses and a strong immune system. What is good nutrition? Good nutrition means eating most of your calories from whole-grain products, vegetables, fruits, reduced-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean meat, fish, poultry, legumes and unsaturated fats. Good nutrition also means eating fewer calories from saturated fats and sweets. Experts agree that following the Food Guide Pyramid offers a reliable and easy-to-follow plan to guide you through developing a healthy diet. A healthy diet ensures the intake of essential vitamins and minerals that contribute to the strength of the immune system. A poor diet that is low in protein and nutrients, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, can weaken the immune system. A specific group of vitamins, called antioxidants, contribute largely to maintaining optimal immune function. Antioxidants help counteract the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are formed in the body, when cells burn oxygen and from environmental factors, such as cigarette smoke, burns and ultraviolet light. These free radicals can damage body cells and tissues that can lead to the onset of health problems such as cancer, heart disease and arthritis. Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A (especially beta-carotene and other carotenoids) and selenium help protect healthy cells from the damage that free radicals can cause. These vitamins work alone and in teams to protect the body.

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, plays a vital role in a strong immune system by attacking free radicals in body fluids. Even marginal intakes of vitamin C can have positive effects on a person's resistance to disease and infection. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and is not stored in the body, so it is sensible to consume vitamin C rich foods daily. Vitamin C is found in plant foods such as citrus fruits, berries, melon, peppers, dark green leafy vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes. Most adults need about 60 milligrams of vitamin C daily. People that smoke need twice as much vitamin C daily as do non-smokers.

Vitamin E has been shown to help boost immune function also. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and specifically helps to protect body cells from oxidation, which can lead to cell damage. Vitamin E works closely with vitamin C and selenium to offer protection from some chronic health problems. Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils, salad dressings, margarines, wheat germ, whole-grain products, seeds, nuts and peanut butter. Most adults need about eight to 10 milligrams per day. Vitamin E also protects vitamin A, beta-carotene and vitamin C in foods from damage.

Beta-carotene is a carotenoid that forms vitamin A in the body. Carotenoids are actually plant pigments that give red, orange and deep yellow color to some fruits and vegetables. Beta Carotene offers protection from some diseases and the degenerative aspects of aging. Good sources of beta-carotene include carrots, cantaloupe, mangos, red and yellow peppers and sweet potatoes. For foods high in beta-carotene and other carotenoids choose fruits and vegetables that are red, orange, deep yellow and some dark-green leafy vegetables. Most adults need about 5,000 IU (International Units) of vitamin A daily. Vitamin A is known as the "anti-infective vitamin" because it helps to enhance the activity of the immune system. Large intakes of vitamin A can be harmful if taken over a long period of time. Beta-carotene is not toxic in any amounts.

Selenium is an antioxidant that works in partnership with vitamin E to protect cells from damage. Selenium actually enhances the antioxidant capabilities of vitamin E. The recommended daily amount is 55 to 70 micrograms. The best sources of selenium are seafood, liver, kidney as well as other meats. Grain products and seeds also contain selenium but the amount varies depending on the selenium content of the soil they are grown in. Taking very high levels of selenium from dietary supplements can be harmful.

Other nutrients such as vitamin B6, vitamin D, folacin, iron and zinc also help protect the body by supporting antioxidant efforts. Zinc increases the levels of some antibodies and immune cells. Good sources of zinc include oysters, dark meat turkey, liver, lima beans, pork and wheat germ. The recommended intake for zinc is 12 to 15 milligrams daily.

Besides nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, there are other compounds in foods called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are substances that plants produce to help protect themselves against viruses or bacteria. Some of these phytochemicals include carotenoids, flavonoids and isoflavones (found in soy products). Recent research shows that phytochemicals may help protect against some illnesses such as cancers, heart disease and other chronic health conditions. A study that appeared in the April 7 issue of the Journal of Clinical Nutrition targeted one specific carotenoid called lycopene. Lycopene is found in tomatoes and may protect immune cells from damage. More research still needs to completed before they are sure of the exact role of phytochemicals in promoting good health. The best way to make sure you get antioxidants, essential nutrients and phytochemicals in your daily diet is to build a healthful eating plan, following the Food Guide Pyramid, that includes well-balanced meals and snacks and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Proper hydration is an important factor in boosting the immune system and plays a vital role in promoting good health. The recommended amount of water to drink each day is 64 ounces or eight eight-ounce glasses. Every cell and every system in the body uses water to function normally. Water is involved in the transport of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and many other nutrients. It is involved in the transport of antibodies, proteins that are produced in the blood to help fight infection and illness. Water is an essential nutrient required for life and should not be forgotten as an aid in helping to boost immune function.

Exercise and physical activity, at the right level, can boost immune function. Regular moderate exercise is important to maintaining good health and can decrease the risk of infectious illnesses. Exercise also may prevent age-related declines in immune function. Exercise promotes relaxation and helps to decrease chronic stress, which can also affect the immune system.

The key to boosting your immune system and keeping it strong is a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle will promote a healthy immune system. It is important to exercise daily, eat a well-balanced diet, stop smoking, minimize the use of alcohol, get enough rest, keep your weight at a healthy level and maintain an active lifestyle. With a well-balanced diet it may not be necessary to take dietary supplements. If you take a daily vitamin and mineral supplement it should not contain much more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance for vitamins and minerals. A registered dietitian can help you to evaluate your eating habits and determine whether a supplement is necessary. It takes all of the above factors working together to keep your body strong and resistant against illnesses and infections. These factors do not guarantee you will never get disease, infection or illness, but a healthy lifestyle does support the fact that your risks will be decreased.

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