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Strengthen the immune system – the most important tips

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 256 views

How can I strengthen my immune system ? Many people ask themselves this question during the cold season and especially with regard to the current corona pandemic. In fact, there’s a lot you can do yourself. Here you can read answers to all important questions on the subject: How can I keep my immune system fit? What can you do against a weak immune system? Why are vaccinations important?

Tips for strengthening the immune system

A healthy immune system is actually able to do its job without outside help – to protect the body from pollutants, pathogens and disease-causing cell changes (such as cancer). However, you can do your part in various ways to ensure that your immune system remains effective.

Avoid nicotine and alcohol

Nicotine and alcohol are poison for the body. They promote cancer and impair the function of cells and organs. In addition, they have a negative impact on the immune system. Therefore, avoid tobacco products and avoid alcohol.

avoid stress

Severe stress weakens the immune system. The body then releases too much of the stress hormone cortisol or large amounts of certain immune messengers circulate in the blood . Among other things, this promotes cardiovascular diseases and increases susceptibility to infections . This applies to physical stress as well as to psychological ones.

In order to strengthen your immune system, you should avoid any kind of stress if possible , for example by building small breaks into your packed appointment calendar, delegating work, in between repeatedly feeling how you are doing – in other words: by treating yourself mindfully!

This also includes, for example, allowing fear , sadness, anger and other negative feelings . If you suppress them convulsively, it can also trigger stress.

Targeted relaxation is also advisable. Relaxation techniques such as autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation or yoga are proven to be suitable for this . For example, it has been shown that long-term practice of yoga, tai chi and qigong, as well as meditation, has a positive effect on the immune system.

Stress can also be counteracted with various breathing techniques . For example, try this: Alternate breathing in for four seconds and then out for six seconds, for a total of five to 10 minutes. Do this breathing exercise twice a day!

Our thoughts can both promote and reduce stress. The latter can be achieved, for example, by means of imagination : you can create images in your head and put yourself in situations in which you felt comfortable – for example a walk on the beach or a feel-good bath. The feelings that you felt then in the relaxed situation can be evoked again by imagining.

laughter and singing

Positive people who are often happy, satisfied or relaxed are just as likely to contract cold or flu viruses as other people. But they probably show fewer symptoms or even contract the infection less often. In addition, researchers were able to find evidence that cheerful laughter – but not shameful or fearful laughter – strengthens the immune system. In studies, it increased, among other things, the activity of certain immune cells: the natural killer cells (NK), a group of white blood cells ( lymphocytes ).

Laughter therapies such as laughter yoga or laughter meditation provide support for a good mood.

Singing together also seems to be suitable for strengthening the immune system . British researchers found this effect at least in cancer patients who were members of a choir. Singing together not only lifted the mood and lowered the stress level of the test subjects. It also increased the activity of cytokines – messenger substances that, among other things, help to make the body’s defenses fit against pathogens and tumor cells. In contrast, immune messengers that promote inflammation decreased during singing.

Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep can also boost your immune system. The body’s defenses recover most effectively at night. It has been proven that regular sleep of six to nine hours protects against colds. On the other hand, too much sleep (more than nine hours) is not good for your health and can even promote depression. The information applies to adults and not to children, who still have a higher need for sleep.

If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you should pay particular attention to good sleep hygiene. For example, introduce fixed evening rituals (e.g. listening to soft music, drinking a cup of tea) and avoid the stimulating blue light on the TV screen, PC, tablet or mobile phone before going to bed.

Exercise regularly and moderately

You can also strengthen the immune system with regular physical activity , preferably in nature (see below). It is most effective if you are moderately active every day. On the other hand, it has a negative effect if you train only rarely but intensively. For example, overexertion increases the risk of a viral upper respiratory tract infection in the short term.

On the other hand, if you regularly go jogging, walking or cycling outside, you can build up your immune system and keep it fit. For example, regularly active people are less likely to catch a cold or have less pronounced symptoms if they do get sick.

Soak up the sun and nature

Fresh air and a natural environment also strengthen the immune system. In Japanese studies, for example, a stay in the forest for several days was able to increase the number of immune cells in the participants and lower blood pressure and the level of stress hormones. This so-called “forest bathing” is a recognized form of therapy in Japan.

We also need regular fresh air in our office or in our home. A good level of oxygen saturation in the air supports the immune system. So: ventilate regularly!

In addition, we need sunlight . For one thing, laboratory studies have shown that the blue and ultraviolet parts of sunlight increase the activity of certain immune cells, the T-cells.

On the other hand, the body needs the UV-B portion of sunlight to produce vitamin D. The body not only needs this hormone for strong bones, but also for an intact immune system. Recent observational studies indicate a possible connection between vitamin D deficiency and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. However, this correlation needs to be explored in more detail.

Whether it’s for the sake of your bones or your immune system – don’t take vitamin D supplements on your own! An overdose can harm your health. Instead, have your doctor determine your vitamin D status. If he discovers a deficiency , this can often be compensated for with foods rich in vitamin D and spending more time outdoors. If not, the doctor will recommend a suitable vitamin D supplement for you.

Sun is only healthy in moderation – too much of it increases the risk of skin cancer and weakens the immune system!

Contrast showers, sauna and Kneipp therapy

You can strengthen your defenses by “hardening” yourself – with contrast showers, sauna sessions or Kneipp therapy. In all cases, the alternation between cold and hot ensures that the blood vessels alternately narrow and widen. This promotes blood circulation throughout the body. In this way, immune cells may reach an infection site more quickly. The number of immune cells (white blood cells) is also likely to increase. Used regularly, a cold-hot application strengthens the body’s defences.

If you have a cold , urinary tract infection and above all fever, you should avoid contrast showers, sauna and Kneipp therapy! These methods are only useful for prevention and not for treating a cold!

Instructions for alternating showers

First shower (luke) warm, then shower with cool/cold water: start on the right foot and shower on the outside up to the hip, on the inside of the thigh back to the foot, then do the same on the left leg. Then shower the arms from the back of the right hand over the outside of the arm to the shoulder and armpit and back over the inside of the arm to the palm of the hand. You can then take a warm shower again before repeating the cold shower. Finally, dry off quickly and dress sufficiently warm.

In summer, however, you should avoid taking a cold shower, otherwise you will sweat even more due to a feedback effect. It is better to do the Kneipp knee affusion on hot days after a lukewarm shower.

Instructions for the Kneipp knee affusion

Run a soft, cold jet of water from the right little toe up over the calf to a hand’s width above the knee, stay there for about five seconds, then let the jet of water travel down the inside of the lower leg to the foot. Do the same on the left leg. Then repeat the whole thing. Finally, rinse first the right sole and then the left sole, then put on socks, move around or lie in bed for half an hour.

Please note: only do this if your feet are warm! Do not use if you are cold, have a urinary tract infection or lumbago or are currently menstruating.

Dress sufficiently warm

If we cool down, the immune system is weakened – pathogens such as bacteria or viruses can then settle more easily. Above all, the head, feet and abdomen should stay warm, for example to prevent colds or bladder infections . That’s why you should put on a hat on cold days, put on an undershirt and sometimes wear thick socks when your feet are cold.

Drink enough

Provide your body with sufficient liquid every day, preferably in the form of water, still mineral water or herbal tea. One of the purposes of this is to keep the mucous membranes in the airways moist. If these dry out, the removal of viruses and bacteria works less well – this increases the susceptibility to infection.

Change the type of herbal tea you drink often. As healthy as lemon balm, nettle, peppermint & co. are – no medicinal herb should be taken as a tea over a long period of time, especially not in large quantities.

Eat a balanced diet

You can also strengthen your immune system with the right diet. A balanced, high-fiber diet with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain products, fish and vegetable fats is recommended . This is how you absorb sufficient amounts of nutrients that have an effect on the immune system. Because if these are missing, the body is more susceptible to infections, and an illness may even be more severe.

The following list shows which nutrients are particularly important for a strong immune system and which foods are good sources for them:

  • Protein building blocks ( amino acids ): eggs, meat, fish, dairy products, nuts, legumes (such as beans, lentils, soybeans)
  • Copper : Fish, nuts, whole grains, legumes, cocoa, offal
  • Folic Acid : Yeast, wheat germ, lentils, liver , dark green leafy vegetables, egg yolk, parsley, garden cress, sunflower seeds
  • Iron : red meat, offal such as liver, legumes
  • Zinc : Corn, meat, offal, oysters and other seafood, fish, hard cheeses, eggs, legumes, whole grains
  • Selenium : Fish, meat, lentils, nuts, asparagus, mushrooms, collards, eggs and seafood
  • Vitamin A : liver, sea fish, eggs, milk and dairy products
  • Beta carotene (precursor to vitamin A): carrots, spinach, broccoli, peppers, cherries, grapefruit, sweet potato
  • Vitamin B6: meat, salmon, herring, milk and milk products, potatoes, avocado, nuts
  • Vitamin B12 : meat, fish, eggs, milk and milk products
  • Vitamin C : acerola, rose hips, sea buckthorn, black currants, citrus fruits, cabbage, fresh vegetables, parsley, wild garlic
  • Vitamin E: vegetable oils, nuts, sweet potatoes
  • Vitamin D: fatty sea fish, edible mushrooms, eggs
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: fatty sea fish, algae, vegetable oils
  • phytochemicals: eg phenolic acids, flavonoids in fruits and lipoic acid in spinach and broccoli

Normally, a balanced diet is sufficient to provide sufficient amounts of all nutrients. Dietary supplements are only advisable in certain cases and after consultation with a doctor (e.g. vitamin B12 supplements for vegans). Because in excess, some nutrients can cause side effects.

Natural helpers: garlic, ginger & Co.

Nature has a number of natural helpers that can strengthen the immune system. These include garlic, ginger, honey and echinacea (coneflowers).

>> Garlic : The ingredient allicin in particular acts against bacteria (antimicrobial effect). Garlic can also strengthen the immune system in the fight against viruses. Studies show that people who take a garlic preparation for three months are less likely to catch a cold (colds are caused by viruses).

Consuming garlic can leave unpleasant traces in breath and body odor. This also applies to garlic preparations. Taking them is not recommended in certain cases, for example when using anticoagulant medication (e.g. ASA, clopidogrel , warfarin), one to two weeks before an operation and in the case of acute gastro-intestinal inflammation. Diabetics should discuss the permitted dose of garlic with their doctor – the medicinal plant has a blood pressure-lowering effect.

Children under 10 months should not be given garlic! Garlic can be dangerous in large quantities, especially for children, pregnant and breastfeeding women!

>> Ginger : The ingredients of the hot tuber work against germs and inflammation, among other things. For example, hot ginger tea is a popular home remedy during the cold season. It warms from the inside because the pungent ingredients it contains stimulate blood circulation. And this can support the immune system.

>> Honey : Like garlic, honey has an antimicrobial effect. It works well for sore throats and, in the form of medicinal honey, is now a recognized standard in wound treatment.

Other bee products such as propolis (a substance made from tree resin), pollen or royal jelly (the feed juice for queen bees) also have an antibacterial effect. However, pollen and propolis are also strong allergens and can cause allergic reactions.

Honey from the beekeeper is not medicinal honey and is therefore not suitable for wound treatment! It can contain spores of bacteria that get into the body through the wound and can cause side effects up to and including severe paralysis. Because of such spores, honey should not be given to children under the age of one (e.g. in tea).

>> Echinacea : The medicinal plant is one of the immune modulators, so it can change immune reactions. Echinacea extracts can reduce the severity of cold symptoms and the duration of a cold. They are also useful in preventing colds and other upper respiratory infections.

However, there has not yet been sufficient research into what dosage is required and how the plant must be processed. It is also unclear whether long-term use is sensible and safe. If you want to take echinacea as a preventative during the winter months, you should definitely discuss this with your doctor first!

protect microbiome

Numerous different bacteria naturally settle in and on our body. Such a normal flora is called a microbiome . The largest is the microbiome of the intestine (also called intestinal microbiome or intestinal flora . Other important microbiomes are, for example, the skin flora and the vaginal flora. They all play an important role in the immune system.

intestinal flora

It consists of billions of bacteria that, among other things, support digestion and produce vitamins that our body can use. In addition, the intestinal flora is extremely important for our immune system: the “good” intestinal bacteria prevent pathogenic germs from also settling and spreading in the intestinal mucosa. In addition, the intestinal flora trains the part of the immune system located in the intestine .

The whole thing only works if the intestinal flora is in balance. Unfavorable are therefore, for example, an unbalanced diet, alcohol and medication such as antibiotics and cortisone. Such factors can bring the composition of the intestinal flora out of balance (dysbiosis). Researchers suspect that this could promote the development of allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases.

The intestinal flora benefits from a varied diet – and thus also the immune system. Fruit and vegetables in particular contain a lot of fiber and important nutrients that are crucial for a healthy intestinal flora. If you also spend a lot of time outdoors and come into contact with plants, soil and animals, you promote the diversity of your microbiome and thus your immune system. It is also advisable to abstain from alcohol .

skin flora

Many useful bacteria also live on the skin . They form a barrier against pathogenic germs. You can support this protective wall with the right skin care. This includes cleaning the skin only gently, either with water or with the mildest possible, pH-neutral cleaning agents.

vaginal flora

The microorganisms that naturally settle in the vagina (especially lactic acid bacteria) create a slightly acidic vaginal environment that protects against infections. Excessive intimate hygiene can throw the vaginal flora out of balance and thus promote a bacterial vaginal infection , vaginal thrush or urinary tract infections.

Proper intimate hygiene includes, among other things, not cleaning the genital area with soap or shower gel and avoiding vaginal douches and intimate sprays. In addition, you should always wipe yourself from front to back after a bowel movement and not the other way around, otherwise you “transport” bacteria from the intestine to the vaginal entrance.

If you often suffer from vaginal infections, you can also, in consultation with your gynaecologist, introduce vaginal suppositories with certain lactic acid bacteria or vitamin C tampons as a preventive measure. They help to create a balanced vaginal environment and can thus strengthen the local defences. Let your gynecologist advise you on this!

Cuddling

People need to be close to other people. Touching, stroking, hugging and cuddling strengthens the immune system. Researchers have already been able to show that people who experience a lot of affection catch cold less often or develop less severe cold symptoms.

How can a weak immune system be strengthened?

How do I strengthen my immune system if it is already weak? This question is particularly relevant for the elderly, pregnant women and people with certain diseases (such as cancer or HIV). Your weakened immune system is more susceptible to infections.

All of the above recommendations are also advisable in such cases. Below you will find further tips on how to build up the immune system in certain situations.

Home remedies can at best complement conventional medical treatment, but cannot replace it. Talk to your doctor about how you can best support the therapy yourself.

Strengthen the immune system after taking antibiotics

Antibiotics are drugs that are effective against bacterial pathogens. However, they can also damage “good” bacteria in our intestinal flora. This can have a long-term negative effect on the intestinal flora and immune system. Doctors therefore recommend taking a so-called probiotic (plural: probiotics) in addition to antibiotic therapy to strengthen the immune system . These are microorganisms capable of reproduction, which – if consumed in sufficient quantities – support a healthy intestinal flora and thus promote our health.

Probiotics are not only available as preparations from the pharmacy. You can also eat probiotic foods. These include lactic acid fermented products such as sauerkraut or sauerkraut juice, kefir, buttermilk, yoghurt and quark.

In connection with a healthy intestinal flora, not only probiotics are often mentioned, but also prebiotics : prebiotics are water-soluble fibers that promote the growth or the activity of probiotics. You can of course take them separately as a finished preparation. It is easier to eat a prebiotic diet: the fiber you want can be found in milk, yoghurt, cereal flakes, wholemeal bread, fruit, nuts, vegetables (e.g. chicory, asparagus), garlic and onions. On the other hand, you should avoid products made from white flour and sweets.

Strengthening of the immune system in allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases

The immune system reacts excessively or inappropriately to allergies, autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammatory diseases. This is often due to genetic disorders, but an imbalanced microbiome also most likely plays an important role.

If, for example, the intestinal microbiome (intestinal flora) is optimized, this could also balance the immune system – according to the current research approach. Accordingly, affected patients are often recommended to take probiotics , accompanied by a prebiotic diet (as described above). You should implement an appropriate change in diet together with your doctor!

Fasting can also have a positive effect on health and the immune system – for example therapeutic fasting, a form of fasting of which there are different variants. If done correctly, temporarily going without food can reduce elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, uric acid and blood fat levels, among other things . Therapeutic fasting is used, for example, for various metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, diseases of the digestive system, chronic pain syndromes and chronic inflammatory diseases.

The latter are often among the autoimmune diseases – diseases in which the immune system turns against its own body and thereby sets chronic inflammatory processes in motion. This happens, for example, with rheumatoid arthritis , type 1 diabetes , ulcerative colitis and lupus erythematosus . Fasting is said to improve the immune functions of those affected, so that the inflammatory activities decrease. However, the effect of fasting has not yet been scientifically proven.

Anyone suffering from severe cardiovascular diseases, depression or chronic diseases should only fast under medical supervision. Do not fast at all during pregnancy and breastfeeding!

Immune system boosting in cancer

The drugs used in cancer chemotherapy suppress cell division. This means that tumor cells can no longer multiply – but neither can the cells of the immune system. This weakens the immune system, which increases susceptibility to infections. If you are one of those affected: For your own protection, follow the hygiene regulations of your doctor and avoid contact with sick people and large crowds.

In addition, you can strengthen your weakened immune system according to the same principles as healthy people, for example with a balanced, varied diet . It should include plenty of fruits and vegetables, dairy, eggs, lean meat, and fish. On the other hand, you should consume red meat, sugar and salt sparingly.

Due to the tumor disease itself or due to cancer treatment, you may be undersupplied with vitamins and micronutrients. Then it makes sense to replenish the body’s vitamin and nutrient stores. A healthy diet is sometimes not enough. Then it may be that the doctor prescribes suitable preparations from the pharmacy.

In addition to the right diet, sufficient exercise is also important for your health and your weakened immune system – even if you are exhausted from cancer therapy. We recommend, for example, walks in nature and moderate sport – the latter under supervision if possible so that you do not risk overloading. With regular relaxation exercises, you can also strengthen your immune system and increase your well-being.

Various so-called immunotherapies are now available for cancer treatment. However, their goal is not to generally strengthen the immune system. Rather, the special drugs that are administered are intended to target the body’s defenses against the tumor cells.

Strengthen the immune system in case of susceptibility to infection

What strengthens the immune system if you catch colds unusually often or are generally susceptible to infections? If this is the case for you, you should heed the above tips for a healthy lifestyle (balanced diet, lots of exercise in the fresh air, enough sleep, regular relaxation, etc.).

However, this may not be enough to strengthen your immune system. In this case, get checked out by your doctor. You may be deficient in nutrients important for the immune system (e.g. zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D). In consultation with the doctor, it could then make sense to take the missing substances in the form of tablets in order to quickly strengthen your immune system.

Boost your immune system with vaccinations

Vaccines are available against some pathogenic viruses and bacteria (e.g. influenza vaccination , measles vaccination , pneumococcal vaccination). They can be used to train the immune system: weakened pathogens ( live vaccine ) or killed or inactivated pathogens or only parts of them ( dead vaccine ) are administered to the body, usually as an injection. The immune system recognizes the foreign substances and produces suitable antibodies against them. In addition, it “remembers” the characteristic properties of a pathogen.

If it later comes into contact with the “real” pathogens, the body can immediately ramp up production of the appropriate antibodies and thus quickly fight the invaders. That way, you don’t get sick in the first place, or at least the disease progresses in a milder form.

Vaccination is not just about protecting an individual. If as many people as possible are vaccinated against a pathogen, it is less likely to spread through the population. This collective vaccination protection (herd immunity) then also protects those people who cannot be vaccinated themselves (such as the chronically ill, pregnant women or newborns).

Vaccination for immunodeficiency

Many people are more susceptible to infections because they have a weak immune system – for example due to a congenital or acquired disease, an organ transplant or immunosuppressive therapy (e.g. chemotherapy for cancer). And when they do become infected, they often become more seriously ill than those with a healthy immune system.

As far as possible, people with immunodeficiency should therefore have extensive vaccination protection. However, not all vaccinations are possible with a weakened immune system. Some vaccinations should only be given to those affected at certain times (e.g. flu vaccination in cancer patients before the start of chemotherapy).

If you have an immune deficiency, you should discuss with your doctor when which vaccinations are possible and advisable for you.

Prevent infection with good hygiene

We can relieve our immune system by reducing the risk of infection with appropriate hygiene. A healthy sense of proportion is important – both too little and excessive hygiene is not good for the immune system.

wash your hands

Very often we get infected with pathogens through our hands. For example, anyone who shakes the hand of a flu patient who has just sneezed into their hands and then grabs their mouth or nose is likely to be infected themselves. Pathogens of gastrointestinal infections, for example, also spread via contact infection ( smear infection ).

Washing your hands properly is therefore an effective protection for your own health. And if you are infected yourself, these hygiene measures can protect others from your own germs.

You should always wash your hands in the following situations:

  • after coming home
  • after going to the toilet
  • after changing diapers or when you have helped your child clean up after using the toilet
  • before and after preparing food and more often in between
  • after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • after contact with waste, animals or animal feed
  • after using public transport
  • after attending an event with several people
  • before and after contact with the sick
  • before contact with infants and young children
  • before handling medicines or cosmetics
  • before and after the treatment of wounds

Further hygiene measures

In addition to washing hands, the following hygiene measures prevent infectious diseases:

  • If possible, keep your distance from people with an acute infection. If you are infected yourself, you should keep your distance from healthy people so as not to pass on the germs.
  • Cough and sneeze into the crook of your arm or into a handkerchief. Turn away from others.
  • Cover wounds with plasters or bandages.
  • Clean your home regularly, especially the kitchen and bathroom. Ventilate regularly.
  • Wash dishes and laundry sufficiently hot.
  • Wash vegetables and fruit before eating or preparing them. Do not eat raw animal products. Store perishable food properly (e.g. in the refrigerator).

If you heed these hygiene tips and also strengthen your immune system in the manner mentioned above, you can avoid many illnesses.

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