You are not defenseless. If you follow the mass media, you may be under the impression that the only way to avoid getting sick is to hide under your bed and pray. While limiting your exposure is a smart first step to keep yourself safe from any contagion, don’t forget that your body knows how to protect itself. The better you care for your immune system, the greater your chances of weathering any germ storm that blows through. The solution to avoiding illness, then, isn’t purely to stow away until it’s safe to come out, but to take an active role in supporting the system that prevents it.

First we’ll look at how your immune system functions, and then we’ll show you the steps to take to keep it online, and running without defects.

How The Immune System Works

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Your body is constantly on the lookout for anything that tries to enter it and shouldn’t. Be it an allergen, bacteria, a virus, or a wood splinter you got from sanding your deck, when your body senses an invader, the immune system is going to kick in to try to get rid of it ASAP.

The first series of defense mechanisms it uses to do that are no doubt familiar to you, and you already think of them as warning signs that you may be getting sick. You start sneezing and coughing. Your eyes water and your nose runs. You find yourself needing to use the toilet more often. Your finger swells up around the site of the splinter, a sign that white blood cells are rushing to the area in an effort to kill any germs that may have come with the particle.

If those initial mechanisms don’t stop the threat, the invading substance can start to get a foothold in your body—and that’s when it can make your life miserable. Viruses bind with healthy cells, using them as hosts to replicate themselves and multiply. Bacteria divide inside the body and take up space that crowds out healthy cells, disrupting their normal functions and potentially killing tissue.

The body is mounting its counter-attack. It mobilizes white blood cells—specifically, phagocytes—that engulf the offending bacteria or virus and destroy it. Some of these blood cells develop antibodies, cells that remember the DNA of the invaders so that the body can recognize them and stop them sooner if they should ever come back. This is why it’s difficult to come down with the same virus again if you’ve already had it (e.g., chicken pox). Your body sees the enemy coming from a mile away this time, so it won’t get ambushed like it did before.

Your immune system is an army that will win many wars over your lifetime. But like any army, it is most effective if it has adequate resources, and doesn’t have to fight wars on multiple fronts. Therefore, keeping it fit and well-supplied should always be a priority.

Ways To Help Keep Your Immune System Strong

#1 Reduce The Workload On Your System

This boils down to simply avoiding stress of any kind, and that includes the type you get from hard workouts as much as it does the grief caused by your boss, your kids, or the flat tire you got driving to work this morning. Of course, exercise is generally helpful in keeping you healthy (more on this in point #3), but if you feel that you’ve been exposed to someone who’s sick, or you’re starting to notice the first symptoms of an illness, lighten up on your workouts or stay home and rest. Hard training promotes an immune response, and if the system is already working to battle back viruses and bacteria, you’re only dividing your forces.

#2 Stay Clean

This is an extension of tip #1, but it warrants its own category. Avoid people who are sick and touching things that might be contaminated, and practice good hygiene to reduce the chance of microbes clinging to your skin (and eventually getting through it).

This is where hand-washing comes in. According to experts, it says it’s still one of the top ways to avoid coming down with something. And as simple as hand-washing is, you’re probably not doing it the way the government wants you to. Here are the correct steps:

1. Wet your hands with clean running water. It doesn’t matter if it’s warm or cold.

2. Apply soap. Contrary to popular belief, antibacterial soaps are no better than the conventional kind, so any soap will do.

3. Turn off the tap (to save water).

4. Rub your hands together to lather the soap on them. Don’t neglect the back of your hands or the space between your fingers, and be sure to soap under your nails. Work for at least 20 seconds (about the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice).

5. Turn the tap back on and rinse your hands. Yes, you’ll have to touch the faucet handle again to do it, but the CDC says there’s little reason to worry about contamination from that.

6. Dry your hands with a clean towel (paper or cloth), or air dry them.

Hand sanitizers are another option, but the expert says they’re only your best chance if you can’t get to a sink. There isn’t much research pitting hand washing against hand sanitizing, but a 2019 study found that simple washing removed the flu virus from hands better than using an alcohol-based gel did. However, the subjects using the sanitizer merely placed it on their skin—they didn’t rub it in, as most sanitizer brands instruct you to do.

#3 Stimulate Immune Health

What you eat and supplement can make a big difference in your immune responses. For optimal immune health, fruits, vegetables, grains, and mushrooms should be staples in your diet, and the more different colors you can include on your plate, the better. Colorful produce is rich in phytonutrients—plant compounds that have antioxidants (such as Vitamins A, C, and E) or antioxidant-like properties, both of which fight free radicals.

In particular, pay attention to citrus fruits, which are loaded with Vitamin C. One of the best researched and most potent antioxidants, Vitamin C helps maintain cellular integrity—that is, aiding the cell membranes in keeping foreign bodies out. The vitamin is also an important component of blood vessels, ligaments, and bone, helps the body synthesize carnitine (an energy-producing amino acid), and supports the production of neurotransmitters (the body’s chemical messengers).

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