Strengthen your immune system: here’s how

Winter is the peak season for flu and colds. A healthy lifestyle can help you strengthen your immune system and avoid getting ill. Here are the most important tips.

09.11.2020

Lara Brunner

A brief explanation of the immune system

The immune system is a highly complex and sensitive network. It consists of various organs, cell types and proteins that protect the body from pathogens including bacteria, viruses and fungi. A distinction is made between non-specific, innate immunity and specific, acquired immunity, which are closely linked.

Non-specific (innate) immunity

Non-specific immunity protects the body from all types of pathogens. Immune cells such as phagocytes and killer cells play a major role – they fight harmful substances and pathogens that, for instance, enter the body via the skin or digestive system.

Specific (acquired) immunity

The specific immune system takes over when the non-specific immune system is unable to kill pathogens. It produces antibodies that it specifically uses to fight certain pathogens. The specific immune system is also capable of remembering recurring pathogens, meaning it knows exactly how to kill them. And it never stops learning; this enables the body to fight bacteria and viruses that change over time.

Tips for a stronger immune system

The stronger your immune system is, the lower your risk of catching a cold, flu or virus. Numerous factors affect the immune system, and we as individuals also play a major role. A healthy lifestyle is vital for keeping the body’s defences strong. This includes mindfulness, good nutrition and exercise, among other things. 

Do you have questions about your health?

We can provide you with answers to all of your health-related questions quickly and easily, whether you’d like advice on nutrition and exercise, on coping with a diagnosis or on a recommended course of treatment. 

Reduce stress

Constant stressors at work or in your personal life can cause persistent stress. Set clear priorities and learn to say “no” sometimes. Take longer periods of rest on a regular basis. Relaxation exercises such as meditation, yoga and autogenic training can also help your immune system respond better. 

Mindfulness: from autogenic training to meditation and yoga

Good to know: COMPLETA covers 75% of the costs of recognised courses that promote health, up to a maximum of CHF 200 per calendar year.

Details about payment of costs with COMPLETA

Eat a balanced diet

Make sure you eat a balanced diet. Eat three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit a day. Regularly include grains, legumes, meat, fish, milk and dairy products in your diet, and where possible, use fresh ingredients.

Make sure you drink between 1.5 and 2 litres of water a day. If you don’t like drinking water, unsweetened tea and watered-down juice are good alternatives. 

A balanced diet: information and tips

Vitamins and minerals: which ones are important for the immune system?

Vitamins and minerals help the immune system function normally. Eating a balanced diet helps ensure that you’re getting enough essential nutrients. 

  • Vitamin A: milk, dairy products, yellow fruit and vegetables
  • Vitamin D: fish, avocado, mushrooms
  • Vitamin C: potatoes, vegetables, fruit
  • Vitamin B complex (B6/B9/B12): animal-based foods, vegetables, wholemeal products
  • Iron: meat, grains, nuts
  • Copper: shellfish, legumes, whole grains, nuts
  • Selenium: fish, meat, legumes, nuts
  • Zinc: meat, eggs, milk, dairy products, wholemeal products

Good to know: there is often a lack of clear evidence to suggest that there are benefits associated with taking supplements to strengthen the immune system.

Exercise regularly

Try introducing more exercise into your daily routine – ideally in the fresh air. Sunlight and oxygen additionally stimulate your immune system. Take the stairs rather than the lift, and walk short distances. Find a sport you like and incorporate at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise into your weekly routine. Swimming, cycling and jogging are all great options. 

Good to know: the number of immune cells decreases immediately after an exercise session, which makes you particularly susceptible to infection during this time.

Exercise: a basic physiological need

Get enough sleep

How well the body’s defences function depends strongly on how long and how well we sleep. The sleep hormone melatonin helps the body regenerate. While we’re asleep, the number of natural immune cells increases.

How important melatonin is for our sleep Tips for improved sleep

What weakens the immune system?

If the immune system is weakened, it’s less effective at protecting the body from viruses and bacteria. There are various reasons for this:

  • Stress: in stressful situations, the body releases more stress hormones and produces more immune cells. Afterwards, it has to recover – if this doesn’t happen, the level of stress hormones increases disproportionately. Additionally, the number and activity of the immune cells decreases, which weakens the immune system.
  • Lack of exercise: moderate exercise helps the body produce and activate more immune cells. A lack of exercise means this effect ceases.
  • Overexertion: if the body doesn’t have enough time to recover, the risk of infection increases. The body constantly releases stress hormones, which suppresses the immune system.
  • Lack of sleep: not getting enough sleep weakens your immune system. The body releases more stress hormones, which then suppress the immune system.
  • Dehydration: if the mucous membranes don’t have a liquid film protecting them, pathogens can penetrate the body more easily. That’s why it’s important to drink enough, especially when the air is dry.
  • Deficiencies: certain vitamins and minerals support the immune system. If the body is deficient in them, it no longer has this support.
  • Alcohol and nicotine: alcohol deactivates certain parts of the immune system for at least 24 hours, and nicotine reduces the number of immune cells and antibodies in the blood.

Note: this is not an exhaustive list.

Can wet hair make you sick?

No, going outside in the cold with wet hair or light clothing doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get sick. It is more difficult for the body to defend itself from pathogens when it is wet and cold, but this is only an issue if there are already viruses or bacteria circulating in your body. If your immune system is strong enough, it will effectively fight pathogens even when your hair is wet.

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