Our bodies function best when we do all we can to take care of ourselves. The heart, brain and even the hormonal system all rely on healthy habits like a wholesome diet and exercise to stay in top shape, and our immune system is no exception.
The immune system is responsible for a number of functions. It is your first defense against those things that look to weaken your body. It can ward off infection, neutralize or kill pathogens that can cause illness and even prevent various types of cancers. But, just like the rest of your body, it will not function well when undernourished or neglected.
Unfortunately, also like the rest of your bodily systems, the immune system is susceptible to the aging process as it undergoes a gradual deterioration called immune senescence. The good news is that it is possible to keep your immune system healthy at any age. Lifestyle changes are factors that are within your control and can be adjusted to help ward off the aging process, allowing you to enjoy a healthy immune system well into your golden years.
9 Ways to Keep Your Immune System Healthy at Any Age
Smoking can weaken your entire body, including your immune system. Most people are aware that smoking creates inflammation of the mouth, throat and lung tissue and it is a source of cancer-causing carcinogens. But smoking can also suppress your body’s ability to fight other infections because immune defenses are being directed at fighting the effects of the smoke.
And to make the situation worse, smoking can affect your DNA. Scientists measure the health of your immune function based on the length of certain molecules called telomeres, which are located on the DNA strands. Bad habits, including smoking, shorten the telomeres and thus use up the “immunologic clock” sooner than the body’s natural lifespan. (1) The only way to combat this is to drop the habit.
Abdominal fat triggers internal inflammation, which increases your risk of diabetes and heart disease. It is no secret that as we age, fat builds up around the mid-section as hormonal changes take place, but fat can also accumulate around the liver and even in bone marrow, further increasing the risk of inflammation.
Additional fat around the organs increases the risk of certain cancers as well as other diseases. Losing weight lessens this effect, thus taking the burden off of a stressed immune system. But it seems there are more benefits to weight loss than curbing inflammation.
Obesity is linked to dysfunction of natural killer cells, decreased production of white blood cells and overall altered or decreased immune function. (2) Scientists point out that those who are overweight generally have a sluggish immune system, so losing weight may aid in a better immune response.
Exercise is known to have many health benefits, especially to ward off the signs of aging. But it can also enhance immunity. As you exercise, you bring in more oxygen, which is more easily transported throughout your body as circulation increases. This may help flush out pathogens including bacteria and virus as the extra oxygen supports your body’s ability to fight them at the same time. And as your body temperature rises during exercise, the ability to fight infection may also rise. Generally, 20 to 30 minutes of exercise four or five times each week is beneficial for most people.
Many experts agree that nutrition is the basis for all good health, and a diet based around whole and natural foods is the best way to support your system. Consuming plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables provides your body with a variety of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that can support the immune system, so it works better.
At the same time, a diet that is based around fruits and vegetables with complements of lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats is known to slow the aging process. And to take advantage of the nutritional benefits of a healthy diet, cut out foods that can harm or suppress your immune system. This includes processed foods that contain too much unhealthy fat, sugar and sodium as well as junk foods and soda.
Herbs and Nutritional Supplementation
In today’s busy lifestyle, it may be difficult to always eat healthy. In addition, aging and stress suppress immunity and when combined, you have a recipe for a declining immune system. Luckily, scientists today are learning more about the effects that plants have on human health.
Numerous studies have found that some plants may lead to better immune response and a more active defense system. (3) Certain herbs and plants that are found to have a positive impact on immunity include echinacea, garlic, elderberry and black cumin. Using nutritional supplementation of nutrients like vitamin C along with herbs like elderberry may be a powerful combination to support a healthy immune system at any age.
Improve Thymic Function
The thymus is a lymphatic organ that is part of your immune system. It plays a role in training certain cells to destroy pathogens and fight infections. Oddly, it is at its peak when we are young and begins to decline shortly after puberty. Around the age of 60, the thymus begins the process of involution as the immune system begins to deteriorate with the natural aging process.
Some experts believe the best way to protect the thymus is to avoid foods that suppress immunity. This includes unhealthy fats, sugars, genetically modified foods, alcohol and highly processed foods. Taking immune supporting herbs like elderberry and garlic are beneficial additions for extra support, and when used with a whole food diet can help all systems remain in top shape.
Taking care of your body before you get sick is easier than recovering from being sick. But if it’s too late, practices like using nutritional supplements may help shorten the time you are sick. It’s not too late to be proactive with healthy lifestyle choices, so you will enjoy an active and healthy immune system, no matter what age you are.
1 Team, F. H. (2019, February 27). How to Keep Your Body’s Defenses Strong After Age 65. Retrieved February 7, 2020, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/5-tips-make-immune-system-stronger-age/
2 Milner JJ, Beck MA. The impact of obesity on the immune response to infection. Proc Nutr Soc. 2012;71(2):298–306. doi:10.1017/S0029665112000158
3 Sultan MT, Butt MS, Qayyum MM, Suleria HA. Immunity: plants as effective mediators. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(10):1298–1308. doi:10.1080/10408398.2011.633249